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Cyprus: Turkish, Greek Cypriots Vote On Reunification Plan Amid General Pessimism

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan yesterday made a last-minute call to the people of Cyprus, urging them to endorse his reunification plan before the island joins the European Union in 10 days. His blueprint will be put to a vote of national confidence this weekend on both parts of the island. However, it looks likely that the proposed arrangement will be rejected.

Prague, 22 April 2004 (RFE/RL) - Cyprus's Greek and Turkish communities will vote on 24 April on a UN blueprint that seeks to end the Mediterranean island's 30-year division before it joins the European Union.

A "no" vote in either part of the country would be tantamount to leaving the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) outside the EU's jurisdiction when the island enters the 15-member bloc on 1 May.

The Greek administration of southern Cyprus, which the international community considers the island's sole legitimate body, applied for EU membership on behalf of both territorial entities in 1990.

The decision to put the plan drafted by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to separate referendums was made after leaders of both northern and southern Cyprus failed to agree on a reunification deal last month in Switzerland.

Annan's much-revised blueprint envisages the creation of a loose confederation ruled by a central government, territorial arrangements, and the right of Greek Cypriots who fled the island's north after Turkey's 1974 military landing to return to the area.

EU member Greece has given lukewarm approval to the plan. In Ankara, opposition to the UN blueprint remains strong among the military and the conservative bureaucracy, which see the presence of a large number of troops in northern Cyprus as key to Turkey's national security interests.

But the Islamic-rooted government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is pressing for a "yes" vote in a bid to accelerate Turkey's EU membership bid. Although Turkey applied for EU accession 17 years ago, it was not granted candidate status until 1999. Brussels has made it clear that if Ankara -- the only capital that recognizes the TRNC -- wants to open entry talks, it should convince its Cypriot proteges to endorse the UN plan.

The EU and the United States both are pressing Cypriot voters to vote for the Annan blueprint, arguing it would be easy to overcome its shortcomings once a united island becomes part of the European bloc.

Conversely, they argue that the failure to reunite Cyprus by 1 May would have serious negative consequences -- if only because Turkey would be technically occupying part of a EU member state.

Addressing reporters in Washington on 20 April, EU foreign-policy chief Javier Solana cautioned Cypriot voters against rejecting the UN plan. "If at the end of the day there is a 'yes' [vote] in the northern part and a 'no' [vote] on the southern part, life will not be the same," he said.

Opinion surveys suggest a majority of ethnic Greek Cypriots would vote against the UN blueprint, while most of their Turkish counterparts, who see entry into the EU as a way to alleviate their economic hardship, would support it.

Amanda Akcakoca of the Brussels-based European Policy Center said that despite signs that support for the UN plan is gaining ground in southern Cyprus, there is still no indication that the island is heading toward an overall 'yes' vote. "I would say it is highly unlikely," she said. "There is no indication to show that. I think that from the Turkish side it will almost definitely be a 'yes' vote. As for the Greek Cypriot side, in the past few days the polls have changed somehow. Yesterday [20 April] they went from 96 percent against [the UN plan] down to about 76 percent. So there is some change and a lot will depend on the people who haven't decided which side to vote on. [These people are] still a majority in southern Cyprus."

James Ker-Lindsay runs Civilitas Research, a think tank based on the Greek side of the island's divided capital Nicosia. He said belated campaigning explains why, despite the support of such political heavyweights as former Presidents George Vassiliou and Glafcos Clerides, the Annan plan is likely to be rejected in the south.

"The 'yes' campaign worked on the basis that one should not start campaigning for a plan that was still incomplete. And so, obviously, [supporters of the plan] did not start the race until 1 April after the end of the talks in Switzerland. However, the 'no' [supporters] have been campaigning basically since the first Annan plan was revealed back in November 2002. So this really helped develop the 'no' argument. They had 18 months to convince people." Ker-Lindsay said.

One of most outspoken critics of the UN plan is Greek Cypriot President Tassos Papadopoulos, who is openly calling his fellow citizens to reject it.

Many southern Cypriots, expelled from the north after the Turkish landing, are seeking assurances that they would be able to return to their homes once the island is reunified. But they claim the Annan plan does not provide for such guarantees and that, on the contrary, it allows the tens of thousands Turkish settlers sent to the north from 1974 on to remain on the island.

Opponents also claim Turkey is too untrustworthy a partner and fear Ankara might not meet commitments made under the Annan plan -- such as reducing its military presence on the island.

The UN Security Council yesterday debated a U.K.-sponsored draft resolution that sought to assuage Greek concerns by banning weapon supplies to the reunited island after it joins the EU and expanding the UN peacekeeping mission there to monitor compliance with the Annan plan.

UN Security Council permanent member Russia vetoed the draft, arguing it would have constituted a political intrusion in the reunification debate ahead of the vote.

But Ker-Lindsay said that 'yes' campaigners believe that despite its shortcomings the UN draft contains enough security guarantees for the Greek Cypriots. "There are a wide range of reasons why people are voting 'no.' What the 'yes' campaign is trying to do is to explain that no settlement is going to be ideal, that no settlement can be perfect in this situation and that, all things considered, the Annan plan is a fair and viable arrangement that takes into concern the worries of [both] parties," he said. "As far as trusting Turkey is concerned, the 'yes' campaign is trying to say that the best guarantee [the Greek Cypriots] have that [Ankara] will abide by its commitments is to maintain [its] EU aspiration hopes and that reaching a settlement on Cyprus that does keep the door open to the Turkish EU membership is going to be the best guarantee that Turkey will comply with its treaty obligations."

Signaling Brussels' growing impatience, EU Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Verheugen yesterday blamed the Greek Cypriot government for obstructing the reunification issue and "taking [Europe] for a ride."

In contrast to its southern counterpart, the TRNC leadership is divided on the UN draft. Mehmet Ali Talat, the pro-EU former opposition leader who was appointed prime minister after last December's parliamentary elections, strongly supports the Annan blueprint and his Republic Turkish Party is calling for a 'yes' vote.

While opposing the plan, TRNC President Rauf Denktash has not openly called for its rejection. Addressing the Turkish parliament on 15 April, the Turkish Cypriot leader said the UN blueprint was tantamount to "suicide." Alluding to Erdogan's efforts to initiate entry talks with the EU, he also lambasted the Turkish prime minister for "sacrificing the TRNC for a date."

But, paradoxically, a 'yes' vote in the north coupled with a 'no' vote in the south could profit Denktash. The Netherlands, which will assume the EU's rotating presidency in July, has said that in case of a negative outcome Turkish Cypriots would not be "left out in the cold."

Analysts have been speculating that a possible arrangement could include lifting the international trade embargo that the TRNC has been living under since its creation in 1983.

"There will be a general feeling that it would be unfair to maintain the current isolation that the Turkish Cypriots live under in the event that they do vote 'yes' - which does seem likely," Ker-Lindsay said. "So I think that there are some moves that will be taken to try to ease the isolation - both economic and political -- they suffer from. The EU, I think, will be looking very, very seriously at the sort of steps they can take which fall short of full recognition but [would] nonetheless ease the situation of the Turkish Cypriots. [They may] for example look at ways of issuing sanitary certificates on [Turkish Cypriot] agricultural produce [or] opening up direct flights to northern Cyprus from European destinations."

Ker-Lindsay said he believes Brussels may eventually come out with "some very interesting ideas." Yet, he added, it may take some time before the EU figures out how to help the TRNC "without having to go through the legitimate government of the Republic of Cyprus."