The last divided capital city in the world is Nicosia, Cyprus. Armed soldiers line each side of a buffer zone, with Greeks living on one side and Turks on the other. The island has been at the center of a decades-long dispute between Greece and Turkey that remains one of Europe’s biggest headaches.
But Cyprus today might be closer to a solution than ever before. When Turkish forces invaded and divided the island in 1974, the two communities were separated: Turks in the north and Greeks in the south.
New, more moderate leadership in both the north and south makes unification and compromise more likely. And people in the north — whose standard of living lags far behind their southern counterparts — may be ready for the economic benefits their neighbors are enjoying.
The south has grown far wealthier than the north since 2004, when Cyprus entered the European Union. (Cyprus in this case refers to all land not part of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, often referred to as the TRNC, the northern third of the country governed by Turkey.) Cyprus adopted the euro, began receiving EU subsidies, and started trading freely within the European market. By contrast, the north has been limited to trade with Turkey, the only country that recognizes it as a legitimate state. Its GDP is around one third of the south’s.
The effects of isolation are seen clearly in north Nicosia, where homes are missing shutters, streets are full of potholes, and many wear tattered clothing. By contrast, walk 10 minutes south and just beyond the buffer zone you’ll see gourmet restaurants, chic clothing stores, and well-to-do European vacationers enjoying their afternoon frappé.
Though the gap in living standards has worsened since 2004, it could be this very disparity which ultimately brings the island together. When he took office in 2005, TRNC President Mehmet Ali Talat said finding a solution to “the Cyprus problem” would be his main initiative. Since then he has started negotiations with the south along with key international players, and has recently addressed the Council of Europe’s PACE General Assembly – the first northern Cypriot President to do so.
If the island achieves unification, both sides have much to gain. In addition to reducing poverty in the north by way of its integration into the EU, many Greek refugees who fled south in 1974 may finally have the opportunity to return home. Furthermore, the world’s last divided capital city may become whole.