Breaking barriers: Cyprus street-opening would shatter old symbol of division
AP Photo NIC107, NIC106, NIC105
By MENELAOS HADJICOSTIS
Associated Press Writer
NICOSIA, Cyprus (AP) — The boutiques and shoppers on Ledra Street seem entirely in place in the capital of a country that has joined the peaceful, prosperous European Union.
Yet this popular thoroughfare comes to a jarring stop at an 8-foot-tall barrier of aluminum and plastic under armed guard. It’s a stark reminder that Nicosia remains Europe’s last divided capital in its last partitioned country.
On Friday, the island’s rival leaders are expected to agree to open the barrier to pedestrians — a deeply symbolic move that would give a lift to efforts to end the Mediterranean island’s nearly 34 years of division.
The barrier looks a lot less forbidding than the concrete wall torn down a year ago. But it rudely interrupts a vibrant north-south street in the capital’s medieval core, shutting out a decaying no man’s land of weed-strewn streets and crumbling buildings between the Greek Cypriot south and the Turkish Cypriot north.
The U.N.-controlled buffer zone has been in limbo since 1974 when Turkey invaded in response to a failed coup by supporters of uniting the island with Greece.
After the 1989 opening of the Brandenburg Gate, symbol of Berlin’s Cold War division, Nicosia became Europe’s last divided city, and the Ledra Street barricade was the most poignant symbol of the divide. The nearby Ledra Palace, the city’s classiest hotel, became a U.N. outpost, and for nearly 30 years traffic between the two halves of the island was nonexistent.
Expectations are high that the presidents of the two sides, both leftists and ideological kinsmen, will jointly announce a Ledra opening Friday to serve as a springboard for fresh talks on reunification after years of deadlock.
On Wednesday, Greek Cypriot President Dimitris Christofias said Greek Cypriots were "ready to proceed with the opening at Ledra Street."
Christofias was elected last month on a pledge to reunify the island. His Turkish Cypriot counterpart, Mehmet Ali Talat, said a deal on reunification could be reached by year’s end.
Talks have been dormant since 2004, when Greek Cypriots rejected a U.N. blueprint for reunification while Turkish Cypriots approved it in separate referendums. The internationally-recognized Greek Cypriot side was admitted to the EU, but the self-declared Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus was left out.
Still, the drive to reopen Ledra Street has moved ahead. There are plans to shore up derelict buildings on either side of the street. A key sticking point, the presence of Turkish army patrols, appears to have been overcome, with aides to Christofias and Talat suggesting last week that the troops would pull back out of sight of the crossing.
Another breach in the buffer zone would be nothing new — five crossings have opened since 2003 when Turkish Cypriots eased restrictions, and hundreds of thousands have crossed from both sides to visit old friends and homes they lost when their island, less than half the size of Massachusetts, was divided.
But a Ledra Street crossing would be special. "It could serve as an icebreaker. I think we are able work things out with the Turkish Cypriots," said Chrysanthos Trokkoudes, 69, who runs a health food store near the barrier.
Ledra Street became a symbol of separation in January 1964 when British peacekeepers laid barbed wire across it to enforce a cease-fire agreement. Ten years later the Turkish invasion cemented the division.
"A symbol of division may now turn out to become a symbol of reunification," said Mustafa Akinci, a former mayor of the Turkish Cypriot side.
It would also inject life and commerce into the old town nestled within 15th-century Venetian walls, especially on the internationally isolated Turkish Cypriot side.
"We hope this helps to bring more people here. Pedestrian traffic will definitely pick up," said clothing store manager Ioanna Achilleos.
"We want to look ahead with hope; we all want a solution that we can all live with."
But after a slew of failed initiatives, Cypriots are jaded. Phanos Pavlides, 84, wants more than just a removal of the barriers on Ledra Street, where his gift shop has been mainstay since 1939.
"I really hope they’re sincere about a solution this time, and it won’t be just another crossing opening," he said.