EU sharply assails Greek CypriotsAngry over loss of reunification vote, it wants to end isolation of Turkish side
NICOSIA Greek Cypriots came under a withering barrage of criticism from the European Union on Sunday after they resoundingly rejected a plan to reunify the island, with EU officials saying they would now quickly search for ways to end the isolation of the Turkish Cypriots who strongly supported the plan.
The mirror-opposite results in separate referendums on Saturday meant that the United Nations peace plan, four years in the making and fine-tuned last month in a personal effort by Secretary General Kofi Annan to resolve the 30-year dispute, was effectively dead.
The vote also set the stage for Cyprus to join the EU on May 1 as the only European country with UN peacekeeping forces patrolling its interior and a government that controls just two-thirds of its territory and one-fourth of its people.
The east-west line that divides the entire island, slashing through the capital of Nicosia, will now effectively become an external border of Europe; EU immigration and trade controls will have to be enforced along that so-called Green Line.
But people on both sides of the line will be entitled to European citizenship, and Turkish Cypriots, who have the right to ask for Cypriot passports, could even vote in elections for the island's European Parliament representatives. They are not, however, represented in the government of Cyprus, which is considered by the EU to represent the whole island.
In the Saturday vote, three out of four Greek Cypriots rejected the power-sharing plan even though it would have allowed 120,000 people to return to the homes they lost in 1974, when Turkish troops occupied northern Cyprus in response to Greece's attempt to annex the entire island. All other refugees would have been entitled to compensation under the failed plan.
In contrast, about 65 percent of Turkish Cypriots approved the settlement in hopes of ending the international isolation of their breakaway state in the north and shaking off the effects of an international economic embargo.
"The political damage is large," Günter Verheugen, the EU enlargement commissioner, said on Germany's ARD television. Before the voting, he had expressed more blunt disappointment with Greek Cypriot leaders, saying they had "cheated" their way into the EU by indicating that they favored unification and then opposing the settlement at the last hour.
Each side of the island - the more prosperous Greek Cypriots in the south and the Turkish Cypriots in the north - voted on the Annan plan separately.
Turnout for the vote was high, with 90 percent of the 480,000 registered Greek Cypriots and 75 percent of the 143,000 Turkish Cypriots going to the polls. It was the first time the island's citizens had the opportunity to weigh in on any peace plan since the formal partition of the island.
Alvaro de Soto, Annan's envoy to Cyprus, said he would now be leaving the island. Asked to evaluate the reasons for the failure of the referendum in the south, de Soto repeatedly told reporters, "I have to bite my tongue."
He said the Greek Cypriots had missed a unique opportunity to end a conflict they had long insisted they wanted to settle by uniting with their estranged Turkish Cypriot compatriots.
Reopening negotiations with UN help, he added, might only happen in the vague "fullness of time."
The seemingly intractable Cyprus dispute, involving refugee property claims and prickly questions of ethnic identity, has bedeviled all four of Annan's predecessors and legions of their negotiators. Tassos Papadopoulos, the Greek Cypriot president, said the world would be wrong to interpret the referendum as his people's rejection of reunification. They want a settlement, he said, but not the Annan plan.
"The Greek Cypriots are not turning their backs to their Turkish Cypriot compatriots," he said, adding that he wanted to pre-empt the European Union and propose his own measures to help the northern side of the island share in the benefits of EU membership.
Papadopoulos also shrugged off suggestions that Cyprus would meet a frosty reception at the European Union, saying, "When I go to heads of state dinners, will the waiter pass me over and not serve me?" He had told Greek Cypriots before the vote that they would surely have another chance to negotiate a settlement, despite comments from Annan and others that the plan put forward in the referendum was the only one on the horizon. European Union foreign ministers open a two-day meeting in Brussels on Monday to discuss benefits to Cyprus that were promised before the vote. The northern part of Cyprus, which declared itself a state in 1983, is substantially poorer than the Greek south and has trade and communication links only with Turkey.
Among the possible EU assistance to the Turkish Cypriots would be to lift tariffs on farm products, to finance infrastructure development and to acquiesce in the face of any airlines that began direct flights to the north of the island. The trade embargo itself, imposed as protest for Turkey's occupation of the northern third of the island from 1974, had been upheld by judgments at the European Court of Justice. The United States, which strongly supported the Annan settlement plan, also expressed disappointment at the vote. American officials had promised the Turkish Cypriots before the referendum that if they endorsed the settlement and it still failed over all, they would not be left "in the cold." Turkey, meanwhile, reveled in what its leaders described as a diplomatic triumph. The Turkish government, eager to demonstrate it was a constructive force for a Cyprus settlement, had urged people in the north to vote 'yes' on the Annan plan. Turkey, long regarded as an obstacle, is hoping to start accession talks with the EU at the end of the year. Cyprus is only about 55 kilometers, or 35 miles, from Turkey's coastline, closer than it is to Greece. Twice in the past half-century it has brought regional rivals Greece and Turkey to the brink of war. The Greek government, which had offered tepid support for the Annan plan, said it would continue to work for a settlement to reunify the island.
In the northern part of the island, the Turkish Cypriot leader, Rauf Denktash, reacted to the vote by calling for an end to the long-standing economic embargo on his self-declared republic and for its international recognition.
"For more than 40 years Turkish Cypriots have been subjected to physical and economic deprivation and debilitating uncertainty," he said. "It is time to put an end to this. Turkish Cypriots have done nothing to deserve such treatment." In an interview, Denktash, now 80, had predicted that his deeply held suspicions about Greek Cypriot intentions would be confirmed by a "no" vote in the south.
"They won't need a settlement as long as the world treats them as the government of the whole island," he said. Like his counterpart, Papadopoulos, he had urged a "no" vote on the plan. Denktash said it was a prescription for permanent Greek dominance over the Turkish minority, while the Greek Cypriot leader criticized the plan for maintaining Turkey as a guarantor, along with Greece, of peace on the island. Under the Annan plan, the two sides would have retained control of their own affairs but be linked to a weak central government run by a committee made up of four Greek Cypriots and two Turkish Cypriots. Turkey, the only trading partner for the Turkish Cypriots, also has some 35,000 troops stationed in northern Cyprus. The Turkish foreign minister, Abdullah Gul, said the soldiers would now remain indefinitely, saying the island's partition would be fixed by the results of the referendum. Under the United Nations plan, the number of Turkish troops would have gradually dropped, reaching 650 in 2018, the size of the Turkish garrison on Cyprus at the time of its 1960 independence from Britain. Greece would have been allowed to station 950 soldiers on the island.