CHE9: Cyprus Seeks to Escape a Bitter Past

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Thu Aug 5 18:24:34 UTC 2004

>>From the Chronicle of Higher Education,
>>From the issue dated June 6, 2003

Cyprus Seeks to Escape a Bitter Past
The island's universities reflect its ethnic division and potential


Nicosia, Cyprus
On the campus of the University of Cyprus, in the city of Nicosia, stand
three busts of Greek Cypriots, one killed in the struggle that won the
island's independence from Britain in 1960, and two slain in the ensuing
conflict between ethnic Greeks and Turks. Near the center of campus sits a
chapel, from whose flagpoles fly the standards of Greece and the Patriarch
of Constantinople. Signs identifying the university's whitewashed,
red-tiled buildings are exclusively in Greek, the native language of
practically all the students.

At Eastern Mediterranean University, near the Cypriot coastal city of
Famagusta, the bland, boxy structures sprawling across the nearly treeless
acres, and the racially diverse students strolling among them, could be at
almost any public university in the United States. The signs are in
English and Turkish, and English is the official language of instruction.
Yet in the atrium of the library hangs a two-story portrait of Kemal
Atatrk, founder of modern Turkey.

Although these institutions are less than an hour's drive apart, until
late April they existed in distinct cultural and academic worlds,
separated by soldiers, barbed wire, and land mines. Before travel
restrictions were lifted, virtually no one from either university had
visited the other. Yet for years, a few professors and students on both
sides worked to bridge the gap -- meeting on neutral ground, communicating
via the Internet, even collaborating on scholarship. Thus they struggled
against the forces that had divided them for three decades.

The division began in 1974, when Greek Cypriots seeking to unite the
island with Greece overthrew the government of the young Republic of
Cyprus. Turkey responded with a military invasion that it justified as
protection of the island's ethnic-Turkish minority. Subsequent population
transfers left the northern third of the island almost purely Turkish, and
the rest almost purely Greek. The Turkish army never left, and since 1983
the sector under its control has called itself the Turkish Republic of
Northern Cyprus, a state recognized only by Ankara. The larger,
ethnic-Greek part is governed by the internationally recognized Republic
of Cyprus. United Nations troops still patrol the buffer zone running
across the island and through Nicosia, the city that both sides call their

In late April, after years of attempts to reunify the country, the regime
in the Turkish sector unexpectedly decided to let Greek and Turkish
Cypriots pass freely across the Green Line, as the buffer zone is called.
Within the first three weeks, more than 380,000 people, almost half of the
island's population, traveled into once-forbidden territory.

Cities and villages across Cyprus have seen tearful reunions of former
neighbors, and remarkably cordial meetings between dispossessed property
owners and those living in their homes. Although reunification is far from
complete, Cypriots of all sorts have begun tearing down the barriers
between them.

As with most other aspects of life here, the structure and character of
Cypriot higher education reflect the island's long history of ethnic
conflict, with years of separatism now giving way to signs of cooperation.

Reinforcing Identity

Before partition, the island's Greek and Turkish leaders blocked the
establishment of a university in Cyprus because they preferred their young
people to study in the "mother countries," where ethnic identities could
be reinforced. Separation of the ethnic groups opened the way for
universities that could be wholly Turkish or Greek.

The University of Cyprus, the only accredited university in the Greek
sector, held its first classes in 1992 and today has 3,500 students in 21
departments. A review by the European University Association a year and a
half ago called it "a vital and still very young university of good
European standard with a high potential for development." The university's
founders intended to use English, Cyprus's lingua franca after 82 years of
British rule, as the language of instruction. But parliament decided that
the publicly financed institution should have two official languages,
Greek and Turkish. A legislative proposal to allow graduate programs in
English is pending.

"The university has as its mandate to promote the cultures of both
communities and to promote understanding between the communities," says
the rector, Stavros A. Zenios. But except in the small Turkish-studies
department, all classes are taught in Greek. No Turkish-Cypriot students
are currently enrolled, and there are only three Turkish-Cypriot faculty
members -- hardly surprising, given that the university has until now been
inaccessible to the population of the north.

Illegal Institutions?

Efforts to promote understanding have not included dealings with Eastern
Mediterranean or the four other universities in the Turkish sector, which
Greek Cypriots consider illegal institutions. Eastern Mediterranean
University, the Greek Cypriot Mr. Zenios points out, is built on land
confiscated from a Greek Cypriot who is now a refugee in the south. The
rector says that his university "encourages interaction, provided that it
isn't done in a way that offers recognition to institutions or the regime"
in the Turkish north.

Neither the Greek university nor the government of the Republic of Cyprus
has ever forbidden Greek-Cypriot academics from dealing with colleagues in
the north, but until late April, political and social pressure against
such contact was formidable.

Maria Hadjipavlou is a lecturer in political science at the Greek
university and a longtime organizer of joint activities with
Turkish-Cypriot academics. When she agreed to attend a conference in
Britain with a scholar from the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus four
years ago, she says, her peers urged her to back out. "The vice rector
called me in a very friendly way and said, 'I would advise you to review
your decision to attend the conference,'" and the Faculty of Letters, a
division of the university, issued a statement disapproving of her action,
she says. Ms. Hadjipavlou went anyway, but says that another professor
from her university withdrew from the conference because of similar

Outsiders to the Greek university have also objected to its faculty
members dealing with the Turkish north. Several years ago, Caesar
Mavratsas, a sociology professor, and his wife, Valerie Mavratsas, an
English instructor at the university, got rare permission from the
northern regime to cross the Green Line, but their departure from the
Greek sector was delayed by a member of parliament who lay under their car
until removed by police. In 1998, an organization called the Group of 10
held a conference, co-sponsored by a labor union, to attack one of Mr.
Mavratsas's books as derogatory of the Greek-Cypriot nationalist movement,
EOKA. Through the news media, the Group of 10 has also attacked the work
of other academic advocates of dialogue.

"They try to terrorize you intellectually," Mr. Mavratsas says. "They call
you a traitor or say you're selling out your country." Harris Fereos, a
Nicosia architect and a founder of the Group of 10, accuses Mr. Mavratsas
and like-minded academics of working for unspecified "American secret
services" to promote what he calls the ideal of a "non-national society --
work, be rich, eat well, forget about everything" -- meaning the
abandonment of ethnic identity.

Mr. Fereos admits that his group has failed in its goal of legally
defining the university as exclusively Greek, yet he takes credit for
strengthening its ethnic orientation: "We stopped the teaching [in]
English, and now they're afraid to do it. There were professors who were
afraid to be Greek, and now they are not afraid."

But some of the atmosphere that Mr. Fereos tried to create seems to be
dissipating. In late April, the Greek-Cypriot government announced that it
would begin teaching Turkish in its secondary schools and offering Greek
classes to Turkish Cypriots in the north, measures that raise the prospect
of a university where both groups might study together. Yet few can doubt
what a mixed student body would adopt as its common tongue.

"I think English would be a good solution as a start because if we try to
change rules both sides will be sensitive," says Maria Trofi, an
undergraduate majoring in sociology. "I don't think Greek or Turkish is
the solution."

While the University of Cyprus unmistakably reflects the ethnic
composition of the surrounding society, Eastern Mediterranean University,
in the Turkish north, with students from 67 countries and instructors from
35, reflects its founders' cosmopolitan and commercial aspirations.

A Promotion Tool

The Turkish region's population of 200,000 now includes close to 20,000
postsecondary students, one of the highest proportions anywhere. Eastern
Mediterranean, founded in 1986, is the oldest and the biggest of five
universities in the Turkish sector. "Turkish Cypriots -- who have been
denied all forms of international aid -- are the first people in the world
to base their economy on higher education," The Guardian newspaper has

The benefits of this industry are more than economic -- they have brought
indirect international recognition to the pariah state. Eastern
Mediterranean "has been a great tool to promote the image and prestige" of
the Turkish region, according to Yurdakul Cafer, a graduate student in
international relations at Eastern Mediterranean.

Eastern Mediterranean now has academic and cultural cooperation agreements
with more than 70 universities worldwide, despite opposition from Greek
Cypriots and their allies.

Richard L. Judd, the president of Central Connecticut State University,
says that the "Greek lobby [took] me on big time" with letters and e-mail
messages protesting his institution's exchange agreement with Eastern
Mediterranean. In 2000, Mr. Judd says, he canceled plans to visit and
lecture at Eastern Mediterranean after receiving an anonymous death threat
calling him a "Turk-lover."

"University education is a human right," Mehmet Garip, an assistant
professor of chemistry at Eastern Mediterranean and then-adviser to the
rector, said in an interview in March. "The Greeks should not be
boycotting, they should not be putting an embargo on education." Mr. Garip
noted then that the University of Cyprus had rebuffed his university's
proposals for dialogue. But in an e-mail message last month, Mr. Garip
reported that "collaboration on both sides is becoming more frequent and I
am sure the less nationalistic/fanatic elements in the academia will
develop closer links."

For Turkish-Cypriot academics, collaborating with Greek Cypriots has meant
getting "blacklisted" by the northern regime, according to mit Inati, a
painter and former teacher of aesthetics at Near East University, in
Nicosia, who left the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus last year and is
now a counselor at the Republic of Cyprus's embassy in London.

"There is no academic freedom and there is no freedom of expression in the
north," Mr. Inati said in March, claiming that he lost his teaching job as
punishment for articles in which he criticized the Turkish region's
authorities. The vice president of Near East, Senol Bektas, replied that
Mr. Inati had not been fired but granted a "leave of absence" for the
duration of his political activities: "The president wished him to take
his time, full time, to lead the campaign, and once he is done with the
campaign, he is welcome to return."

Source of Tension

Cyprus's relationship to Turkey is a source of tension not only among
Eastern Mediterranean's faculty and administration, but also within the
student body. Approximately 60 percent of the university's more than
14,000 students hail from Turkey, and are said to support overwhelmingly
the northern regime's policy of separatism.

Native Turkish-Cypriot students, on the other hand, were prominent in
pro-reunification demonstrations last winter. Young Turkish Cypriots, with
dim career prospects in the underdeveloped north, are eager for the region
to rejoin the republic, which is scheduled to enter the European Union in
a year.

For those seeking to reconcile Cyprus's Turkish and Greek academic
populations, the weeks since the Green Line opened have given cause for
hope. Administrators at the University of Cyprus are considering courses
in English and Turkish to accommodate Turkish-Cypriot students. The
Greek-Cypriot government, while insisting that universities in the Turkish
north remain "illegal," is preparing to recognize the qualifications of
those institutions' graduates seeking jobs in the south.

The Greek-Cypriot government has also declared that it "will not object"
to Turkish-Cypriot academics and other professionals participating in
events outside Cyprus, as long as they do not claim to represent the
"secessionist entity." For its part, the Turkish-Cypriot regime has
announced 50 scholarships for Greek Cypriots who wish to study at northern

The Enemy's Appearance

Anecdotal evidence is at least as encouraging. Xenia Constantinou, a
recent University of Cyprus graduate and coordinator of the group Youth
Promoting Peace, reports via e-mail on a visit by Greek Cypriots to
Eastern Mediterranean: "They were surprised by the buildings and the
amount of faculties and students at it. The students didn't try yet to
reach each other as students, but they accepted them as youngsters sitting
by each other at the same cafeterias, seeing and examining each other and
identifying deep inside them that the 'enemy' looks exactly like us,
dresses likes us, likes frappe like us."

A more experienced observer sums up the situation cautiously. "The
unification of the academic life of Cyprus may take place in the distant
future," Daniel Hadjittofi, executive director of the Cyprus Fulbright
Commission, says in an e-mail message, "but the opening of the Green Line
did move this process a very small step forward."

Copyright  2003 by The Chronicle of Higher Education

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