Impressions and Lessons from Cyprus


I spent the last two weeks in North and South Cyprus. It is a beautiful country! I had the opportunity to meet many businesspeople, government officials, journalists, and students. Here's what I learned:

1. A Divided Country. The first thing to say about Cyprus, both because it's the reality and because the locals talk about it constantly, is the political situation. It is a divided country: Turkish Cypriots in the north, Greek Cypriots in the south. A U.N.-controlled "green line" divides the two sides. Like any disputed territory, each side has a different interpretation of history. This I.H.T. op/ed from last week does a good job at briefly describing the two historical narratives.

2. Will There Be Re-Unification? In 2004 citizens of both sides voted on a referendum on the Annan Plan which would have re-unified the country. The north (Turkish) voted yes and the south (Greek) voted no. Why did the Greek Cypriots vote against? Wikipedia offers several reasons. My impression is that there was in general a distrust that the north would fulfill its obligations in the plan and specifically that Turkish troops would ever leave. But the bottom line was economic self-interest: Why absorb a poorer per-capita neighbor? Why would you want your tax dollars to prop up a people who speak a different language and whose history on the island you resent?

Cyprus joined the EU in 2004. This creates even less incentive for the Greek-Cypriots. Had re-unification been a condition of EU membership, the island would have found a way, I think. Cyprus got into the EU as a divided country because Greece threatened to veto the Baltic countries' membership unless Cyprus gained admission. An obvious weakness of the EU is every member country wields veto power over new applicants.

3. Victimhood Narratives. I was impressed with the businesspeople and students I met in North Cyprus. There is so much to say in praise of their resilience. But I worry about one thing: self-pity, no matter how justified, is an unproductive endeavor. And the victimhood narrative seems to run deep in the North Cyprus psyche.

If you see yourself as a victim, by definition there must be a victimizer. For many Turkish-Cypriots, it is the Greek-Cypriots and the international community which recognizes the South. Victims also usually have saviors or protectors. This is Turkey. Thus emerges an easy formula for both excusing and explaining the past (the victimizer) and excusing and blaming failures of the future (the would-be savior). Missing from the equation is a sense of personal responsibility for the present and a spirit of self-determination to create a better future.

4. Leviathan and Santa Claus. ~ 50% of the people in North Cyprus work for the government. The government then, is both Santa Claus and Satan. When good things happen, thank the government. When bad things happen, blame the government. Individuals depend too much on the government. The government in turn depends on Turkey. We need a stronger and more active private sector. We need more entrepreneurs.

5. "We" vs. "I." Victimhood narratives and a bloated state chip away at individuality. If I were facilitating conversations in North Cyprus, I would prohibit anyone, on the topic of politics and national improvement, from starting a sentence with "We." Sweeping diagnoses of society at large fix nothing and distract attention from the one thing an individual can control: his or her own actions and beliefs. In the language of the collective we can forget that a "society" is comprised of individuals, and "society" only changes when each individual first changes himself. "We" proclamations in politics make for stirring rhetoric, but can stymie individual change. The unity sought by collectivist language, absent a foundation of independent individual minds, is rather brittle. Think Gandhi: Be the change you want to see in the world.

6. Should a Congressman Represent America or His District? It is in the U.S. national interest for Cyprus to be a unified country, not because of Cyprus per se (although a more stable country and larger economy benefits all countries, in the non-zero sum game of economic growth), but because a unified Cyprus is helpful for Turkey's admission to the E.U., and the U.S. wants Turkey in the E.U. Turkey is, after all, a majority Muslim country of 74 million with a secular, democratic government that stands at the crossroads of Europe and the Middle East.

Congresspeople don't necessarily hear this story, though. There are about three million Greek-Americans in the U.S. and they comprise a formidable lobby. They oppose unification and regard the Turkish presence in Cyprus as an illegal occupation. This muddies U.S. foreign policy and raises a question about democracy: Should a congressman put the desires and needs of the country ahead of the desires and needs of his particular district? If they conflict, should the national interest trump those of the district whose voters elected you?

7. The Physical and Psychological. It's easier to be a small island, economically speaking, in a globalized world: air travel is easy and cheap, and technology sends bits and bytes over the air regardless of whether it's land or sea below. But I still believe psychological boundaries erect when freedom of movement on your own two feet is limited. The American west worked so well an an idea because it lay physically far away. When the frontier opened, it was possible to get in your car in the east and drive for hours and hours into desert and red clay and canyons and forest. The west lured easterners who wanted to re-invent themselves. The new physical geography sparked new identities and modes of thinking. A small island cannot offer this as easily.

8. Good Food, Good Weather, Good People. There's so much pleasantness on the island. A stroll down Lidra street in Nicosia feels like the Pearl Street Mall in Boulder, except more hip. The October weather I experienced was extraordinary. It's too hot in the summer, but fall and winter delight. The local food is delicious, if Mediterranean / middle eastern cuisine is your thing. For spicy girliemen like myself, the mildness of the cuisine meant I faced none of the "will this food burn my mouth?" anxiety that I faced in China in August. Don't forget baklava for dessert. Cypriot people are hospitable, friendly, interested.

9. Tourist Suggestions. 50% of tourists to Cyprus are Brits. It's a hot spot in Europe. I've never been to Turkey or Greece, but I've heard more enchanting stories about Turkey than Greece; so, if you wanted to stick to a single currency and language, a terrific itinerary would be a two week trip to Turkey and Northern Cyprus. In Cyprus, spend most of your time lounging around the harbor in Kyrenia and sitting on the stunning beaches. Devote a day or two to Nicosia, the last divided capital in the world, and soak up the history and observe the U.N. peacekeepers. Eat kebabs, drink Turkish yogurt, and if ancient history is your thing, marvel at relics of a 9,000 year old place.

10. Students Thinking Differently. I had the opportunity to address over 1,000 people on the island, and I have been touched by some of the emails and relationships I have struck up. It is inspiring to see people there thinking big things.

(The views above are mine, expressed as a private citizen, and do not necessarily represent those of the U.S. government.)


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9 comments on “Impressions and Lessons from Cyprus
  • Hey Ben! Glad you were able to experience Cyprus to the degree you did. It really seems to be a complicated situation and not one that will be resolved anytime soon if you are to talk with the some of the parties associated with the debacle.

    However, I wouldn’t bunch in the country of Greece with Cyprus; half of the Cypriots are a little unnerved that they joined the EU and that they are considered Greeks by the Greek 😉 You should definitely visit Greece when you have the chance, and of course, if you are ever headed there, let me know.

    I have been to Turkey three times as well and it is a great culture to experience, as it’s a confluence of West and East. Regarding it’s acceptance into the EU is another matter altogether and I personally don’t think it will happen by the stated date of 2012. The divides are just too deep, and France and Greece will block it.

    Having the outsider perspective is so valuable in cases like these, which make these reports always a joy to read.

    Hope you are well.


  • On point 6 (congressmen representing america vs. their constituents).

    The system as it is setup today does not encourage putting national interest ahead of local. Incentives encourage you to connect to your local base (those responsible for your election); you’d be foolish not to. This was, if I remember rightly, a conscious choice to protect the less dense areas within the union. The balance required to keep these states in the union is probably more important than the benefits gained by increasing big picture thinking from our legislators.

    Although, thought experiment, what if we had a national election for, say, 5% of our representatives — these folks could act as advocates for the big picture, and perhaps encourage more locally-minded legislators to entertain new thoughts. Probably a few fatal flaws in there somewhere (not the least of which is organizing a national election for 5 senate seats and 27 representative seats w/out encroaching upon voter fatigue), but it’s a fun idea.

  • As an American married to a Greek Cypriot who lived in Nicosia for several years, I found your impressions fascinating.

    A couple of points on 2: there was certainly a degree of self-interest motivating the no vote, but I think there was also a sense that the plan was simply undemocratic and unwieldy. Would you want the final judicial authority in your country to be a panel of foreign judges? Will a government function if a 20 percent minority essentially has a veto?

    I think there was a real sense (and I was there at the time of the vote) that the plan would create more instability and a more insecure future. In the privacy of their own homes, some younger Cypriots will tell you that they’d rather see a clean partition than a solution that’s likely to unravel and cause even more drama, but, of course, no Greek Cypriot politician could suggest that without being skewered.

  • You nailed something on point 4 that I’d been thinking about even here in the US about personal responsibility, and saying “I should…” rather than “The government should…”. Clearly, there are things that require groups of people. But if you think it should be done, find a way to be part of the group doing it. Be part of the 99% perspiration from time to time.

  • You should try to get to Turkey. Everyone speaks highly of the southern coast of Anatolia and the Biblical ruins there. For me, the week I spent in Istanbul in 2008 was electrifying.

    (Signed in via Facebook, but it doesn’t seem to get my name right — this is William Whyte)

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