Civil disobedience contesting Cyprus’ partition: citizens acting against crossing points closure

Gregoris Ioannou

Photo: Gregoris Ioannou

As of mid-March 2020, crossing the dividing line between the northern and the southern part of Cyprus has been forbidden. Although the closure was termed temporary and only made possible through the appeal to, and exploitation of, the public health crisis provoked by global pandemic Covid-19, the process through which this was done revealed yet once more the social dynamics of partition politics. This article discusses citizen action contesting the closure of the crossing points in late February and early March, before the general lock-down measures were imposed by the Republic of Cyprus and the Turkish Cypriot administration in the northern part of the island. 

The aim, like my ontological perspective and involvement in this, is dual. On the one hand, to provide an outline of the context and an analysis of the implications of the act of civil disobedience and on the other, to intervene in the on-going public debate in Cyprus about the separation of Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots to which the currently closed crossing points are subsumed. Being at the same time a peace activist and a sociologist, a participant, and a researcher in the social mobilisation, allows me to have direct access to empirical information as well as theoretical tools with which to interpret the event and assess its significance. This also poses a challenge as multiple balances must be kept – between the objective facts and the subjective and inter-subjective meanings, the political and the analytic levels, the reporting, and the explanatory functions. Yet, being able to comprehend the connection between the biographical narrative and the macro-historical plane and situate the former within the latter is a key parameter of what C. Wright Mills defined more than half a century ago as the sociological imagination. This insight can illuminate the nexus of peace activism and public sociology of which this article is an embedded example.

Photo: Gregoris Ioannou

Division, crossings and closure

The inter-ethnic conflict between Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots marked the transition of Cyprus from a British colony to independent statehood and the two main communities’ failure to collaborate in power-sharing in the bi-communal framework of the Republic of Cyprus established in 1959 resulted in violence in the early 1960s and their total separation, completed in 1974 after Greek coup d’etat and the Turkish invasion. Until 2003 when the first checkpoints opened allowing movement across the cease-fire line, contact between Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots was effectively prohibited. The peace and reunification movement that emerged since the late 1980s, practicing rapproachment through bi-communal meetings abroad, at the Ledra Pallace hotel serving as the UN headquarters in the buffer zone, and in the mixed village Pyla situated at the intersection of territory controlled by the Republic, the Turkish army and one of the two British Military Bases, remained relatively small and too weak to influence politics.

It was only in the 2000s that substantial progress was made in the negotiations and with the imminent entry of the Republic of Cyprus into the EU and after mass protests by the Turkish Cypriots against their nationalist leadership it became possible to have the checkpoints opened in 2003. Although the reunification of the island was not achieved, after the majority of Greek Cypriots rejected the UN Plan in 2004 in a referendum, and although subsequent round of negotiations failed the open crossings for 17 years allowed the retreat of prejudice and suspicion and the improvement of the climate and relations between Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots. More importantly the open crossings allowed some space, literally and politically, to the peace movement in both communities to pursue the goal of Cyprus reunification.

President Anastasiades’ move to unilaterally close four of the seven checkpoints under his government’s control (the remaining two of the nine open are under the control by the British Sovereign Bases on their southern part) in late February using Covid-19 as an excuse came as a surprise to everybody for many reasons. It was illegal since it contravened the Green Line Regulation with the EU only informed post-facto, and it was irrational because no other measures were taken at the time in relation to Covid-19 – there were no restrictions and not even any checks in the airports to flights arriving from countries with a high number of infections. Politically it was provocative as it was implemented without consulting the UN or the Turkish Cypriot side, it ignored the Bi-communal Technical Committee on Health and effectively alluded that the threat to public health came from the Turkish Cypriot community in the north.

When challenged by the peace and reunification movement, the Turkish Cypriot leadership but also the UN itself, Anastasiades’ government framed it as a sovereignty issue effectively confirming that the move was really about the politics of Cyprus division. A few weeks later, after Covid-19 did arrive in Cyprus, ironically on the same day south and north separately from UK and German travellers respectively, the sovereignty game, diachronically structuring the “Cyprus problem” and central in the maintenance of Cyprus division was played out even more sadly with respect to the reporting of incidences and deaths. The Republic of Cyprus restricted its reporting only to those occurring in the south, as if the northern territory was a separate country. And with one exception concerning the sharing of medical supplies coming from China, there was no cooperation between the two sides in dealing with Covid-19 whatsoever.

Photo: Gregoris Ioannou

Pushing the barricades

On a practical level the closure of the four crossings neutralized some of the remaining ones which were used in conjunction with the closed ones while it increased the traffic on others. The closure of the Ledra street checkpoint, the busy pedestrian crossing point in the heart of old Nicosia, however, was of immense symbolic significance and the biggest blow to the peace and reunification movement. Ledra street was opened in 2008 after coordinated and simultaneous pressure from peace activists north and south and has since become the reference point for the reunification movement. Ledra street checkpoint became thus naturally the main site where the contestation of the closure was played out in 2020. When Anastasiades government announced the closure on 28th February spontaneous reactions begun which coalesced into a demonstration the following day, Saturday, when several hundred activists pushed down the barricade erected by the police and stormed into the buffer zone. There, Greek Cypriots met dozens of Turkish Cypriots who joined them from the north and effectively the checkpoint was re-opened for a few hours. This unprecedented act of civil disobedience illustrated both the significance of crossings for many Cypriots as well as their readiness to act to keep the checkpoints open.

Following the citizens’ action of 29th February Anastasiades’ government used the nationalist media, the far right and the police to defame, vilify and frighten the peace movement and prevent a repeat of citizens forcing open the checkpoint again. The media isolated a ten second scuffle of a protester pushing a soldier, in any case illegally present in the demilitarized buffer zone and doing police work, using it to frame the protesters as violent. Beyond the attempt to delegitimize the peace movement, the promotion of a “law and order” frame aimed at bullying the peace activists. The police harassed individuals threatening to charge them for “illegal assembly” and “rioting” and the far-right staged protests in the next days, demanding the closure of all checkpoints. The peace movement was not cowed however and despite several reservations the core peace activists were able to gather a bigger crowd on the following Saturday 7th March. An also bigger crowd of Turkish Cypriots entered the buffer zone and pushed from the north making the Republic of Cyprus’ police lose its temper and use spray against them.

Returning to the bigger picture

Beyond allying with the Greek Cypriot far-right wing and quasi-fascist ELAM, which boasted that closing the checkpoints was its own suggestion, by unilaterally closing the four crossing points Anastasiades also intervened in Turkish Cypriot politics. In addition to frustrating the Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akıncı’s efforts to promote collaboration in the context of the Bicommunal Technical Committee for Health, the creation of a climate of tension in bi-communal relations was expected to benefit the nationalist Ersin Tatar who heads the government in the north and who is contesting Akıncı for the community’s leadership in the upcoming presidential elections. In fact, Tatar did pick up the Greek Cypriot challenge and responded by unilaterally closing three different additional crossings and finally all of them.

The populist exploitation of Covid-19 for nationalist purposes initially by Anastasiades’ government and subsequently also by Tatar’s government in the north, and their game of competition about the image of sovereignty which has continued also in the context of the current gradual re-opening, is bound to have deeper repercussions in the future. The three-month closure brought about again the absolute separation of the two communities reminiscent of the pre-2003 situation. More importantly it contributed further to the imaginary of Cyprus’ partition as the ‘normal’, as the default position in the current critical times whereby the two parts of the island operate as if they are different countries antagonising even with respect to public health. However, the civil disobedience of the peace activists against the closure has also left its historical imprint.   

It will be difficult to keep the checkpoints closed for too long. The pressure from the EU and the UN, is expected to grow as the UN Secretary Generally is due to submit his Report to the Security Council in July. Already the frequent protests from Turkish Cypriots who work in the south and the dissatisfaction of a significant segment of the public in both communities has forced some developments. In late May the two sides, after having already relaxed most of the restrictions imposed in March, had their first exchange of epidemiological data but in June the two sides entered a new competition about when and how and for whom some of the checkpoints were to re-open resulting in two unilateral moves again opening up some crossings but not the two main pedestrian ones in Nicosia. However, the making of a privately conducted and paid Covid-19 test a prerequisite for crossing (only once for the north but every three days for the south) in practice restricts crossing even via the few checkpoints that have reopened. Even if all nine crossings re-open again without restrictions in the coming months, the closure and semi-closure regimes have set precedents. If the authorities did it once, they can do it again, if there is say a second wave of Covid-19 or something else that can be termed as “emergency” in the future. At the end of the day it remains up to the citizens themselves to ensure that their contestation of closed checkpoints, ethnic separation and the division of their country is a factor to be reckoned with.  

Gregoris Ioannou is a political sociologist and a Research Fellow at the University of Glasgow. His research focuses on labour relations, class conflicts, social movements and contentious politics, and the South European crisis. His recent publications have dealt with trade unions, populism and left radicalism, the division of Cyprus and the labour market in the crisis. His book “The normalization of Cyprus’ partition among Greek Cypriots: political economy and political culture in a divided society” is forthcoming in September by Palgrave Macmillan while earlier versions were published in Greek (2019) and Turkish (2020).

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