Cyprus, a bridge between the Mideast and Europe; Empires gone, Cyprus charts its own economic course
Assyrian, Egyptian, Persian, Greek, Roman, Venetian, Ottoman, British -- practically every empire that has sailed to or from the Middle East has used Cyprus as its forward operations center.Skip to next paragraph
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In strategic location, wrote the geographer Strabo shortly after Cyprus was acquired by the Roman Empire, "Cyprus is second to none of the other islands."
The empires are gone now, part of the colorful cultural and archaeological heritage of Cyprus. Today the 20-year-old island republic has charted its own independent course as an offshore business operations center at the maritime crossroads of three continents (Europe, Asia, and Africa) and a score of developing nations.
And geography is still Cyprus's leading asset.
From Larnaca International Airport, at the southeast of the island, it is a one-hour hop to Cairo or Amman, 40 minutes to Tel Aviv or Damascus, half an hour to Beirut, and just over 90 minutes to Athens in one direction and a bit longer to the Persian Gulf in the other.
Surrounded as it is by the sun-warmed eastern Mediterranean, Cyprus has been able to develop its own stable Western culture in relative peace -- safe from the frequent spillover conflicts of the Middle East and North Africa.
Not that Cyprus is altogether free from political problems. The island has had a modern history of trouble between Greek and Turkish inhabitants. Since 1974, it has been divided de facto into a Turkish north and a Greek south. The United Nations patrols a no man's land that separates communities and slices through the capital of Nicosia. Passage between sides is possible for foreigners, but the two halves have little daily contact otherwise. Border incidents are rare.
Intercommunal negotiations continue in an effort to find some way of reuniting Cyprus. Leaders of both communities seem in more cooperative a spirit than at any time in the recent past, but no one is counting on reunification in the near future.
Meanwhile, a status quo exists in which the Greek south, the Republic of Cyprus, has modernized rapidly. Economic progress in the Turkish north, which refers to itself as the Turkish Federated State of Kibris but is not recognized as a sovereign nation, is going much less well. The north is tied to the poor economy of the Turkish mainland, internationally embargoed, and unsure of its status.
In the south, however, Cyprus is already becoming a preferred Middle East business base for American, European, and even Arab companies -- and for many concerns headquartered in Beirut before that country's civil war made daily commerce difficult. Since 1974, 300 new offshore operations have set up shop in Cyprus; there are a total now of 700. Government financial planners are attempting tempting to further expand offshore business through favorable tax policies and other legislative measures. Other priorities are developing transit trade and international banking and insurance, and modernizing agriculture.
Many economists describe the post-1974 recovery of the republic as an "economic miracle" -- a term that while descriptive of the progress is not favored by government planners. The latter point out that lingering economic problems remain, chief among them the bottling up of almost 40 percent of the island's land and a great deal of its wealth in the Turkish north.
"If by an 'economic miracle' is meant that economic collapse was averted and that Cypriots have made the most of an extremely difficult situation," says Finance Minister Afxentis Afxentiou, "then the description is accurate. But if it is meant that the economic problems created by the invasion have been solved and that conditions now exist for self-sustained growth, this is far from the truth."