NEWS

Empty shops and falling living standards on one side of Cyprus’s divided capital

NICOSIA (AP) – A dozen meters from the Green Line that has divided Nicosia for nearly three decades, Turkish-Cypriot shopkeepers drink coffee, read newspapers and chat with their neighbors – but they don’t sell much, because nobody’s buying. Already laboring under an international embargo, things got worse for the breakaway Turkish-Cypriot state this year when Turkey – its sponsor and paymaster – was hit by a devastating economic crisis. «I’ve never seen these streets so quiet,» said Mustafa Ayermolali, who has sold shoes in Nicosia since 1944. «I haven’t sold a thing today, nor yesterday.» Sunny autumn weather in the Cypriot capital would once have been good news for a row of outdoor restaurants and cafes near Ayermolali’s shop. But their tables are empty, save a couple of merchants watching their equally empty shops from across the street. For Turkish Cypriots, the economic gloom brings an added urgency to today’s scheduled meeting of Greek- and Turkish-Cypriot leaders, resuming the search for ways to reunify an island divided since Turkey invaded in 1974. Since then, the internationally recognized Greek-Cypriot government in the south has presided over an economic boom, with GDP per capita reaching around $14,000. In the north, where only Turkey recognizes the Turkish-Cypriot state, it is only around $4,000. Turkish Cypriots fear the gap could increase further if the Greek Cypriots join the European Union without a political settlement. «There used to be about 200 factories making textiles for export,» said Salih Celiker, head of a Turkish-Cypriot business group. «I think there are four now,» he said, highlighting the constraints of the embargo on the private sector. The state accounts for half the Turkish-Cypriot economy, but salaries have plunged with the Turkish lira. Real incomes «have dropped by around 50 percent,» said Ahmet Aker, the top Turkish-Cypriot economic official. The private sector largely depends on tourism and higher education; five private universities offer teaching in English to students from Turkey and other countries, as well as locals. They bring in $120 million a year, about a sixth of the economy. But tourism is also largely dependent on crisis-hit Turkey, with all international flights routed through Istanbul or Ankara. «Most of our tourists come from Turkey,» said Aker. «Hotels were only around 30-percent full this year.» «I’m still afloat, just about,» said Aziz Erer, who runs a small printing shop in Nicosia. «Thanks to these.» He indicated a pile of leaflets and posters – all protesting the economic crisis. The posters are displayed in the windows of a growing number of shops on the Turkish side of Nicosia, often above signs that say, «For rent.» Denktash’s own Turkish-Cypriot state in the island’s north is recognized only by Turkey, which invaded in 1974 following a short-lived coup by supporters of union with Greece. Turkey maintains 35,000 troops in the north. «We’re worried that if they go in without us, we’ll be even more cut off from the world,» Barcin said. «We have to escape from economic domination by Turkey.»