Rewriting History Education Spat Comes at Sensitive Time in Cyprus Talks

Negotiations on the reunification of Cyprus have been going well for six months, but a spat over school books within the Greek-Cypriot community shows the extent to which hostilities can quickly bubble up to the surface.

A bizarre spat over school books has revealed just how deep the divisions are between the two communities on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus. With talks on a possible reunification at a sensitive point, a row over school books has shown that the old enmities on the island persist.

Andreas Dimitiriou, the education minister in the Greek-dominated Republic of Cyprus, has come in for furious criticism because he sent a letter to schools saying that "Greek-Cypriot extremists," also bore some responsibility for the division of the island.

A UN soldier stands on the barriccaded Ledra Street in Nicosia, which has symbolised Cyprus' ethnic partition for decades.

A UN soldier stands on the barriccaded Ledra Street in Nicosia, which has symbolised Cyprus' ethnic partition for decades.

Foto: REUTERS

He argued that it was time to rewrite the history books, which still describe the Turkish Cypriots who live in the northern part of the island as "barbarians," who bear sole responsibility for the partition of the island. This is a marked contrast to the books used in the Turkish Cypriot schools, which were rewritten back in 2004 to rid them of any anti-Greek chauvinism.

Dimitriou has faced a backlash from members of the Greek community for his plans to change the school books, with nationalists, teachers and even an Archbishop defending the old stereotypes of the Turkish enemies.

The attempt at the curriculum reform comes at a sensitive time. Ever since Cypriot President Dimitris Christofias took office last year there have been hopes that the United Nations reunification plan, which Greek Cypriots rejected in 2004, could be revived. Christofias has spent the last six months in negotions with the Turkish Cypriot leader Mehmet Ali Talat, and there has reportedly been a "very positive mood" at each of their many meetings.

However, last Friday the UN Cyprus envoy Alexander Downer said that there was no point in rushing negotiations if the deal could unravel. He said an agreement must be reached that "will hold in place for the duration."

He urged patience because of the complexity of the issues. "When you're dealing with complex issues you're of course dealing with problems that go back decades. It's not surprising it's a painstaking process."

The parties, who were meeting again on Tuesday in the city of Nicosia, have still not agreed on the details of a power-sharing arrangement or what to do about the issue of compensation for the 200,000 Cypriots who were displaced by the conflict. Talat has said that talks need to be concluded by early 2010, when he is expected to stand for reelection.

Cyprus was divided into a breakaway Turkish Cypriot north and an internationally recognized Greek Cypriot south in 1974 when Turkey invaded the island in response to a coup by Athens-backed supporters of a union with Greece.

The resolution of the decades-old dispute is hindered by the fact that Turkey still does not officially recognize the Republic of Cyprus, which is a member of the European Union. This has in turn undermined Ankara's attempt to join the bloc. If Turkey does not agree to allow Cypriot planes and vessels to use it ports by the end of the year then Brussels could break off accession talks for good.

-- smd/SPIEGEL
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