Bridging the Cypriot divide

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On 28 February United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan warned Greek and Turkish Cypriot leaders that if they miss the third and final deadline for accepting his reunification plan, they could doom the island to permanent partition. The plan, submitted last November, provides for the establishment of a federation of two largely autonomous constituent states linked by a weak central authority.

In a last ditch attempt to compel the two sides to take definitive decisions, Annan dropped his demand for prompt acceptance of the plan and insisted, instead, on agreement by 10 March to hold separate, simultaneous referenda on the plan.

“I want them to come to the Hague to tell me that they are going to put the settlement plan to referendum and … let the people decide. If one party or the other says no, there should be no doubt that we are at the end of the road,” he asserted. He made it clear that neither party had the option of putting off an answer beyond this date.

Annan laid down his ultimatum after two meetings with outgoing Cyprus President Glafkos Clerides, new President Tassos Papadopoulos and veteran Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash. During their first encounter, Annan presented them with the third version of the proposal.

The ultimatum places Denktash between a rock and a hard place. Since intensive talks began 13 months ago, he has not budged from his calls for recognition for his breakaway state and a settlement consisting of a confederation of two independent states.

Although these demands have been rejected by the United Nations, the European Union and the Greek Cypriots, Denktash and his backers in Turkey’s politico-military establishment continue to argue that the “status quo is the solution”. By accepting the Annan plan they must not only agree to reunification but also to Cyprus’ entry into the EU before Ankara is given a date for Turkey’s accession talks to begin.

Denktash argues that the plan involves “trickery” and “sleight of hand” and said that the people who drafted it “do not know the problems of Cyprus”. One of his main objections is to the reduction of the area under Turkish Cypriot rule from 37 to 28.2 per cent of the island. This would necessitate uprooting 40,000 Turkish Cypriots and mainland Turkish settlers in order to allow for the return of half of the 180,000 Greek Cypriot refugees to 60 towns and villages in the area occupied by the Turkish army in 1974.

In addition to the pressure being exerted by Annan, Denktash and his supporters in Ankara are being urged to agree by Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party and an overwhelming majority of the 80-90,000 Turkish Cypriots still residing in Cyprus. On 27 February more than 50,000 attended a demonstration at the heart of the Turkish Cypriot sector of Nicosia. They demanded Denktash’s resignation, acceptance of the Annan plan and EU membership. This was the fourth mass Turkish Cypriot rally on this issue.

Annan’s referendum places Denktash and his backers in a dilemma. If they agree, most Turkish Cypriots could be expected to vote yes, while a substantial number of the 110,000 mainland Turkish settlers planted on the island since 1974 could vote no. If Denktash were to rely on the settlers’ negative vote, he would alienate his own people. He could, of course, instruct settlers to vote yes. But this is unlikely. Attempting to wriggle off the hook, Denktash quickly dismissed holding a referendum, claiming that Turkish Cypriots would not understand a “complicated plan of so many pages”. He stated, “This is not a correct approach, it is not democratic either.” He has threatened to call a snap vote on whether or not he should remain leader of his community.

If Denktash rejects both the Annan plan and referendum, the Greek Cypriot majority republic will hold its own referendum on EU membership on 30 March and sign the accession accord on 16 April. The Turkish Cypriot bid will be shelved indefinitely and Turkey’s own candidacy could be jeopardised.

Analysts do not believe that Ankara will risk its reconciliation with Athens by implementing a threat to annex northern Cyprus. Papadopoulos, who has accepted the Annan plan with adjustments as the basis of a settlement, is in a much stronger political position than Denktash. Papadopoulos could, theoretically, reject both plan and referendum. But this would isolate the Greek Cypriots on the international scene. During his inauguration address on 28 February he called for “a united Cyprus within the European family”. While he told his people that a “solution would be a compromise”, he also said it had to be “workable and viable”.

Furthermore, since Turkey’s governing party supports the Annan plan, Papadopoulos may believe it must now impose its will on the generals and old guard politicians who oppose reunification. During his first visit to Athens since his election, Papadopoulos strengthened his hand by convincing Greek Prime Minister Costas Simitis to follow Cyprus’ lead rather than ask Nicosia to follow Athens. If he opts for Annan’s referendum, Papadopoulos can count on a majority of Greek Cypriots to vote “yes” because the question will be framed to cover acceptance of both the plan and EU accession at the same time. A no vote would be a vote against the EU, which 70 per cent of Greek Cypriots want to join. Finally, Papadopoulos knows that Cyprus will attain EU membership in May 2004 whatever happens on the settlement front. Although the EU has expressed a preference for the entry of a united Cyprus, Brussels has accepted that the Greek Cypriot south will join on its own if there is no solution.

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