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Cyprus: Can the Two Communities Co-Exist?

The following extract is taken from a talk given by Yeshim Harris, co-founder of Engi, at the University of Kent on the 31st May 2013

Last year, Engi held a discussion on Cyprus at the UK Parliament with a mixed group of Turkish Cypriot and Greek Cypriot participants. They offered a diverse range of different interests and perspectives. However, they all agreed that there was a major problem with the peace process as it stands. They were united in calling for more transparency in the peace process.   

Only 9% of Greek Cypriots and 16% of Turkish Cypriots believe that policymakers hear their voice. If the population do not have a stake in or sense of ownership of the process, is an agreement possible?    

Participants in these discussions called for a new system which embraced public consultation and which engaged civil society.

In response, Engi have developed a project on the island which aims to create opportunities for senior political and civil leaders of the two communities to discuss their role in the peace process.    

By bringing together divided political and civil society groups from both communities, can we stimulate discussion on making the peace process more participatory?  

Problems and Challenges     

It will certainly not be easy: most projects with an emphasis on civil society or grassroots organisations face resistance. The image of 'tree-huggers' or 'candles and sandals' is sometimes difficult to shake off.   

As Jeffrey Donaldson MP, who was instrumental in the negotiations in Northern Ireland, said, “I initially resented the interest/involvement of civil society. I thought, ‘What do they know? I’m elected to do the job. Just keep out of it and we’ll sort it out’”.   

Add the words, ‘dialogue’, ‘bi-communal’, ‘confidence-building’ and ‘peace-building' and most people switch off. Projects using these terms are pigeon-holed; they are seen as promoters of particular ‘solutions’ to the problem.   


Civil society does have an important role, however.  ‘I came to realise, as a politician, that we needed civil society to […] help prepare the ground,’ says Jeffrey on reflection. He now argues that they are essential to help ‘change the mindsets that are such an important part of any conflict or divided society.’   

It is for this reason that we are bringing experts from Northern Ireland, South Africa and the Balkans to the Open Discussion in June. Without offering a template, or conflict profile, these people can bring a personal perspective about the lessons they learned the hard way. This may help to encourage greater belief amongst politicians that civil society can assist in building networks.   

Through these comparative learning approaches, Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots can also discuss the lack of trust between the two communities. As it stands, there is very little focus on, or understanding of, the fears and hopes of the other side. Just as importantly, there may even be little real understanding about their own fears, thoughts and perspectives.     

If people are able to take a hard look at their aims and intentions, they may be able to avoid unrealistic hopes of a ‘happily-ever-after’ situation. Neither community should be pressured to ‘solve’ the ‘problem’, but rather both must find a way of co-existence. They will continue to share the island whatever the future brings, whether or not a settlement is reached.   

To achieve this, both communities need to find a way to co-exist: to understand and respect each other's thoughts, motivations, hopes and the way they see the past.

This does not necessarily mean abandoning your viewpoint: it simply means understanding or respecting the perspective of the other side.

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