South lures Turkish Cypriots

NICOSIA – Ahmet Muezzin commutes daily across the eerie quiet of a UN dead zone to a different world. Until a few months ago he could only peer across the «Green Line» that splits the internationally recognized south of Cyprus from the poorer, isolated north. Now the 49-year-old construction worker is one of thousands of Turkish Cypriots who have taken up better pay and jobs in the Greek-Cypriot south as it coasts toward EU membership next May. «Working conditions there are better, and I can provide a better source of income for my family,» Muezzin said. «Working in the north I can earn 30 million lira ($21) a day. There I earn the equivalent of 80 million.» The Turkish-Cypriot authorities opened the border in April for any Cypriot to make day visits, shortly after talks on a UN plan to reunite the Mediterranean island collapsed in acrimony. Since then tens of thousands from both communities have flocked to see the other side, cut off from them since Turkey invaded in 1974 after a Greek-Cypriot coup backed by Athens. In those three decades, the Greek-Cypriot south has become a thriving tourist destination that has booked its place in the expanded, 25-nation European Union. The breakaway Turkish-Cypriot mini-state, recognized and supported only by Ankara and isolated by international sanctions, has lagged far behind in economic terms. The gulf turned this month’s parliamentary polls in the north into a referendum on the UN plan. It ended in a dead heat between a government which fears reunification would harm Turkish-Cypriot interests, and an opposition that campaigned for a swift deal allowing the north to share the benefits of the EU. Floundering economy Gross domestic product (GDP) in the Greek-Cypriot south, which covers roughly two-thirds of the island, was around $14 billion last year. In the north, gross national product (GNP) – a similar measure of total output – was just $941 million. «Our economy is not only floundering, it has collapsed,» said Mehmet Ali Talat, leader of the pro-EU Republican Turkish Party (CTP), which emerged from the election as the biggest party by an inconclusive whisker. «We have never had a competitive economy. We have never had a normally working economic structure.» International trade and other sanctions have squeezed the north hard, despite an economic lifeline from its patron Turkey. Barriers to direct transport, telecommunications and other links to the north from the outside world mean that everything has to pass through Turkey, adding an extra layer of cost. «You need to put the word ’embargo’ in inverted commas. Everything is available here, but at higher cost and less variety,» said prominent local businessman Fikri Toros. South Nicosia feels like a busy, modern European city. Across the Green Line, the pace is more like a small provincial town, the look slightly down-at-heel and old-fashioned. In the south, the pedestrianized Ledra Street is lined with gift shops, pavement cafes and Western brand names. Its counterpart in the north is a drab stretch of banks and obscure shops, one selling nothing but electric switches and men’s underwear. Lure of the EU Both sides have their fans. But when it comes to economic breaks, the south’s comparative wealth exerts a powerful pull that can only be intensified by EU entry. Several thousand Turkish Cypriots now cross the border daily for jobs in the south, although exact numbers are unclear as many work informally and avoid social security payments. Independent researcher Mete Hatay said some 30,000 Turkish Cypriots had so far exercised their right to apply for identity papers from the southern Republic of Cyprus, which in international eyes represents the whole island. And from next May, a Republic of Cyprus passport opens the door to easy movement throughout the rest of the EU. Some say the flow of workers is good for the north, bringing a vital infusion of cash into the Turkish-Cypriot economy. Others fear that the lure of a better life elsewhere could even change the demographic shape of the north, which has already seen huge migration to former colonial power Britain and a major influx of new settlers from mainland Turkey. «If there is no (reunification) settlement, after May the erosion of the Turkish-Cypriot community will be even faster,» said opposition politician and businessman Ali Erel. «It will not happen the day after May 1, but it will happen.»