Can Europe Make It?: Opinion

Nationalism meets racism in a divided Cyprus

How fences and walls cement authoritarianism on the island

Maria Avraamidou
Maria Avraamidou
2 June 2021, 8.13am
Part of the Green Line in the old town of Lefkosia Nicosia, the last divided capital in the world
Alamy/ Michalis Palis. All rights reserved.

The Republic of Cyprus (RoC), controlling about two thirds of the eastern-Mediterranean island's territory, installed a wired fence across a part of the Green Line earlier this year to keep migrants out. The Green Line, or cease-fire line, divides north and south Cyprus, with the south being controlled by the Greek Cypriots and the Turkish-occupied north being controlled by Turkish Cypriots.

Justifying the fence in an 8 March press release, the RoC ministry said: “We are defending our land against illegal migration and the methods which Turkey is plotting to hurt, once more, the Cyprus Republic.”

Cliché anti-migrant, patriotic rhetoric, a bit a-la Donald Trump, it may be, but still able to inspire a further rise of racism and nationalism and direct social attention away from corruption scandals in which the president, Nicos Anastasiades, is allegedly involved. The fence shifted focus to a nationalistic stance on reunification and cementing the government’s authoritarian turn; a laughable governmental clumsiness in dealing with the matter does not seem to diminish its desired symbolic and material power.

From the onset, objections about the fence were raised from two inter-related perspectives; that the measure reinforced Cyprus’ partition – a long-lasting goal of Turkish nationalism in the island – and that the measure was inhumane for blocking people in need of international protection. Supporters of the fence sided with the government’s arguments: it stopped unwanted others, pushed over by the historical Other, Turkey.

From pushbacks to fences

In June 2020, the Cypriot government announced its so-called integrated migration and asylum policy, characteristically named ‘Humanely and Resolutely’. It was a highly mediated event, which set the ground for what would follow, resonating with earlier migration policies and practices.

The minister responsible for the policy, an MP of the ruling right-wing party, DISY (Democratic Rally), Nicos Nouris, noted that Cypriots, being refugees themselves, were best positioned to recognize the plight of refugees and offer support. He built a positive victim/savior in-group identity to tackle the stigma of racism or xenophobia, before revealing the actual intention of his announced migration policy. His introductory remark went like this:

“Cyprus and the Cypriots in 1974 experienced war and the plight of refugees and have first-hand knowledge of what it means to be a real refugee. It follows that we know very well when to lend a helping hand to our fellow human beings, who are in real danger.”

The inclusive we Nouris uses, is simultaneously exclusionary. It referred to 1974, the year of the Turkish invasion in Cyprus that internally displaced more than 150,000 Greek-Cypriots, but excluded the Turkish-Cypriot community, whose members had experienced violent, internal displacement in earlier years as Greek and Turkish nationalists collided.

The unwillingness of certain Greek-Cypriot elites, but also collectively of the Greek-Cypriot community, to acknowledge the pain of the Other characterizes contemporary Greek-Cypriot nationalism. This sets roadblocks to reconciliation by maintaining sharp divisions between Us, the victims of atrocities, and the Other, the perpetrator. In parallel, Nouris’ references to ‘real’ danger, and ‘real refugees’ like Us, simultaneously excludes from empathy so-called bogus Others. Effectively, the so-called integrated migration policy was about the treatment of unworthy migrants, to bring numbers down.

The minister went on to target specific unwanted migrants: those performing ‘fictitious’ weddings, ‘fictitious students’, asylum seekers and crossers of the Green Line.

As his speech continued, one could list a whole set of familiar discursive strategies used to scapegoat migrants: number games to alert us that migrants are too many for small Cyprus to absorb; constructing them as a threat to security; a demographic threat; associating migration to crime; and particularly targeting those Greek-Cypriots who criticized inhumane conditions at asylum centers during the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent lockdown of March 2020.

Referring to how the “EU refused entrance to 500,000 people in 2018”, Nouris invoked an oppressive and restrictive migration agenda justified upon a pre-existing European paradigm. In Greek-Cypriot politics, the EU can be used to justify almost everything. Anything that comes from the EU is presented as either good (advanced, superior, civilized, well-thought etc) or unavoidable because Cyprus has no alternative than to comply with it. 

Nouris’ announcement was extensively covered in the following days by print, online, electronic media and discussed in social media. For days and even weeks afterwards, sensationalist headlines in the daily press depicted migrants as a national enemy: one in June read, “Cyprus First Choice among illegals, Asylum seekers are as many as the population of Pafos," a small coastal city.

Over the months that followed, Nouris fed the press with more anti-migrant positions. In a televised statement in November last year, he attributed a fight between migrants at the infamous Pournara camp, an overcrowded, controversial reception center, to their culture, saying: “These [violent incidents] relate unfortunately to the culture of these people and there is no other explanation.”

The unwillingness of certain Greek-Cypriot elites... to acknowledge the pain of the Other characterizes its contemporary nationalism

If biological racism, is more or less expected to be denounced, it is debatable whether cultural racism is understood as racism by many of those active on the migration issue.

This exclusionary, stigmatizing discourse perfectly matches governmental policies, and vice versa. In March 2020, authorities denied docking permission to a boat carrying Syrian citizens, citing the pandemic. The arrivals were then rescued and detained by the Turkish-Cypriots in the north. In September 2020, RoC’s pushback of about 200 migrants to Lebanon, was scrutinized by international human rights organizations who spoke of use of violence and possible violations of the principle of nonrefoulement – not returning people to a place where they face danger – as some people claimed they were sent back despite explicitly requesting asylum. The RoC, in its defense, repeated the argument about a surge of arrivals and Cyprus’ inability to absorb them.

Simultaneously, a relentless targeting of non-government organizations (NGOs) and of activists continued. Speaking in parliament last July, for example, Nouris accused NGOs of being involved in money laundering – an accusation that travelled across all mainstream media, and which he repeated while being interviewed on prime-time news programs.

One NGO, KISA (‘Equality, support, antiracism’), which supports migrants, is currently being threatened with dissolution for failing to comply with the administrative requirements of a newly passed law – for which it requested, and was subsequently denied, an extension to submit.

The long-standing head of KISA, Doros Polycarpou, was the convenient internal enemy for the notorious triangle of state, mainstream and social media. Front-page headlines in the daily press called him “Attila’s lover”, referring to the codename of Turkey’s 1974 invasion. For a Greek-Cypriot, being called a lover of Attila is among the worst accusations. Meanwhile, social media users threatened to kill him for his support to migrants and for his anti-nationalist politics. For many, the Greek-Cypriot national enemy of the moment, equivalent to the threat of military invasion, is migrants and their supporters.

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Twitter Cyprus
Authoritarianism, left unchecked to shape the public discourse, can self-propel and legitimise itself, diverting the blame for a degraded public health system from the state onto society.

Then came the Golden Passports scandal, which arose from a migration-related policy of the government to naturalize rich third-country citizens. Nicos Anastasiades’ administration first provided fertile ground for a naturalization process based upon investment schemes – then its Ministerial Council began to confer citizenship even on notorious personalities who applied for it. In many instances, this was done via legal firms associated with members of the council and the president himself. Al Jazeera reported on the matter as Cyprus papers before releasing a shockingly revealing documentary that showed the conspicuous involvement of the head of the Parliament and an MP of the opposition, left-wing AKEL (‘Progressive Party of Working People’). The government’s attempt to once again blame Turkey, and to turn the revelations into a patriotic moment, failed miserably.

From fences to partition

Tensions around the wired fence, have recently started rising again, due to a five-party informal meeting for a Cyprus Settlement in Geneva, in April 2021, after a stalemate of almost four years. In relation to the informal meeting, two opposing stances were formulated. The broader antithetical questions asked by each one respectively are: ‘Will the government surrender to Turkish aggression disguised in another internationally driven effort to bring the leaders at the negotiating table?’ andWill the government make a U-turn from its nationalistic politics, and take the opportunity that the meeting creates for new negotiations that have the potential to reunite the island?’

With the wired fence and the discourse employed to justify it, the government seemingly chose to remain dressed in its nationalistic costume. Our collective secret is that, when you plan to topple negotiations, you first welcome them (the infamous disclaimer “We want negotiations but…”), then undermine them via seemingly ‘innocent’, patriotic movements like, let’s say, placing a barbed wire to control migration in the name of the patria and the EU.

The Greek-Cypriot side has been fiercely objecting to any association of the Green Line to a proper ‘border’, at the symbolic and the material level. This objection comes from both a nationalist position, and a reconciliatory position, as for both, at least in principle, division is an anathema. A popular anti-occupation slogan, ‘Our borders are in Kyrenia’, underlines that the Green Line is not a border, reminding us that despite the de-facto division brought about mainly by Turkey’s actions, Cyprus’s sovereignty extends towards Kerynia, a small coastal city in the north, facing the Turkish coastline.

Now, a subsequent question to ask would be: ‘how can Greek-Cypriot nationalism resonate with a fence across the Green Line that gives the impression of an actual border?’ When asked about it, before the actual placing of the wire, Nouris said something along the lines of ‘It will look like a border but it will not be one.’ When challenged anew after its placement, he compared it to Evros, the Greek, Bulgarian and Turkey land border, which is heavily surveilled to curb crossings from Turkey to the two EU member-states.

All in all, the fence is not really about Them, it is about Us

These comments elicited significant criticism by the opposition and social media participants from various perspectives. In the government’s defence, the former minister and vice-president of the ruling party, Haris Georgiades, tweeted: “The fence in certain places is for our safety. It is not the one who keeps our homeland divided…” Georgiades once again characterized more migrants as a threat to our safety that justifies fences while, putting the blame for the continuation of division, solely on Turkey. Therefore, we remain innocent of racism and of nationalism.

Of course, Georgiades is the same person who had earlier authored an article entitled ‘New Realism’, in which he suggested that negotiations cannot lead to an acceptable form of a federation for Greek-Cypriots, while also rejecting the feasibility of the status-quo. Although, he tried to show a continuum between his new realism with the early supporters of a federated solution, in a later interview he clarified that he is looking for a give-and-take, in which Turkish-Cypriots would give territory over for some form of political recognition. Effectively, as accused by his opponents, he was setting on the table a form of a two-state solution, which ironically, as the head of the Orthodox church clarified a bit earlier, had already been proposed by President Anastasiades to key internal and external actors. Note that a two-state solution is the long-term aim of Turkish nationalism on the island.

From partition to authoritarianism

The exercise of violence in controlling civil disobedience, as shown in the recent violent policing of a peaceful, anti-corruption demonstration (a-la France’s Emmanuel Macron and Greece’s Kyriakos Mitsotakis), attests to the fact that Greek-Cypriot nationalism is increasingly turning into an authoritarianism that is advancing the logics of racism and nationalism at the expense of reunification and democracy.

This association between nationalism and authoritarianism goes back to the darkest pages of Cypriot history: the targeting of communists and even right-wing non-Enosis (the political union of Cyprus and Greece) supporters; the inter-communal violence of the 1960s; and the 1974 coup when a fraction of ultra-nationalists, as they are sometimes called, cooperated with the Greek Junta to oust a controversial, yet elected, president. All in all, as one Twitter commentator noted, the fence is not really about Them, it is about Us.

About a decade ago, when completing interviews about people’s stances on the failed 2004 reunification referendum, Greek-Cypriot participants who could be either supporters or opponents of the effort all urged me to record the same ‘truth’ – that some Greek-Cypriots don’t want a solution and their certainty that some politicians prefer division.

Their conclusion endorses a broader critique by academics, scholars, sociologists and activists of the past 15 years against a large part of the Greek-Cypriot establishment: that it prefers the status-quo. For this fraction of Greek-Cypriot nationalists who install and defend anti-migrant fences across the Green Line, normalize pushbacks and scapegoat migrants and their supporters, perhaps Cyprus’s borders are no longer in Kyrenia.

Controlling south Cyprus and the RoC, in a way that allows us to make fortunes using notorious but European approaches such as commodifying citizenship, appears to be the goal of a contemporary Greek-Cypriot nationalism with a convenient smack of cultural racism in it. Nevertheless, their project is questioned ‘from below’, as stubborn Cypriots from both communities continue to mobilize for reunification and for migrant rights, and have cut the wire in protest, while an overwhelming majority of Greek-Cypriots reject a two-state solution.

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