Letter from Buergenstock

As Cole Porter reminds us, «Birds do it, bees do it,» and, in fact, even Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots will jointly do it! Well, maybe not fall in love, but at least hold referenda. Many others around the world have held them as well. The Spaniards and the Danes do it occasionally. The United States is doing it more than it used to. The Swiss and the Swedes, of course, do it all the time, including, spectacularly, last September when Sweden rejected the euro. On that occasion, European Commission President Romano Prodi said voters never in fact answer the question in a referendum. «Going by the experience I have of referenda, people never respond to the actual question,» Prodi said at the time in an interview on the public radio station Sveriges. All the same, people deserve referenda, which give them more of a say in making the significant decisions that will govern their lives than they will get from merely electing a president or a parliament every few years. Now, after the failure of negotiations at Buergenstock, Switzerland, it is up to the people of Cyprus to decide their island’s fate in separate referenda on April 24. (And imagine, among the 10 countries invited by the EU to join the Union on May, 2004, only Cyprus was not supposed to hold a referendum on accession!) Yet, in actual practice, the point of referenda is to make democracy more democratic. Isn’t it? So, if both sides say yes – which seems most improbable – a united Cyprus will be able to join the EU a week later on May 1. In the event that either side votes no, only the Greek Cypriots will join. A reading of recent history ought to convince an attentive book-lover that each side has plausible arguments for its yes or no. However, on each side there are always liberal elitists who fear that such a referendum would give vent to primitive, nationalistic urges, against the «other» and in favor of bigotry. It is the case where a man’s own good – either physical or moral – is not sufficient warranty. It is the in-thing to say – after the predictable but largely unpredicted non-failure in Buergenstock – that the northern and the southern parts of Cyprus are doomed to cooperate. They are not. More likely they are doomed to confront each other over the ramparts of two different ideas about life, at least until some new situation arises with a new idea that frightens them both. By and large, the situation bears a remote resemblance to the case of a famous, ruthless, alternately merciful and pitiless Roman general who marched on Rome to purge the Senate of his political enemies and to ensure the downfall of a rival general. He frightened his contemporaries as well. His name was Lucius Cornelius Sulla «Felix» – the fortunate – known here, in Greece, as the man who looted Delphi, Epidaurus, Athens and Piraeus in 85 BC. At the time, Greeks felt as insecure as the Greek Cypriots feel now, pondering, full of suspense, on what they have to face in the future. If one discards the murders and the plundering of the Roman era, the parallels between then and now are somehow close. For according to Plutarch’s «Life of Sulla,» 31 – «…a young senator at one point asked Sulla when they could expect a cessation of the anxiety» with the words: «We are not asking you to pardon those whom you have decided to kill; all we ask is that you should free from suspense those whom you have decided not to kill.» For people who have been involved in bloodletting since the 1950s, parallels are always valid. Now, you might wonder how I ever came to mention the tyrannical and irredeemable figure of Lucius Sulla within the context of the Cyprus negotiations? By mere – operatic – chance. For as the talks in Buergenstock were nearing a conclusion last Wednesday, I left the Greek press room on the hill to drive down to Lucerne and see one of Mozart’s very early operas, titled «Lucio Silla.» It was a last-night performance and the 500-odd seats of the Luzerntheater were sold out. More than 200 years ago, the tyrannical figure of Lucius Sulla drew the attention of a Baroque librettist, Giovanni de Gamerra, and thus the Opera «Lucio Silla» was produced in Milan in 1772 with music by the teenage (16-year-old) Mozart. Ludger Engels, who staged and modernized the action for the Lucerne state theater, demonstrated how to use minimalist means to suggest large events. Vocally, the proceedings were dominated by Matthias Aeberhard (Silla) and Eva Ottivanyi (Giunia). The whole admirable cast seemed to be in their late 20s – that is born after the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974, if that was of any concern to the audience. All, however, under the baton of a youthful Sebastien Rouland, gave a performance that confirms the ability of this somewhat antiquated opera to engross a contemporary audience. Now, as the smiles, frowns and handclasps fade in the memory, the «spirit of Geneva» will start to flicker too. The hard work is still all to be done. Therefore, what I personally remember most vividly of this Cyprus meeting is an excellent performance of a youthful «Lucio Silla,» as well as the moral that people become less apathetic and more responsible by having responsibility given to them, as in the case of referenda.

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