NEWS

Cypriots agonize over the right choice for their island

NICOSIA – More than four decades after their «reluctant republic» was founded, the people of Cyprus – whether they like it or not – will finally have their say on one of the world’s most intractable problems. Twin referenda Saturday on the divided island will determine the fate of a UN reunification plan for the rival Greek and Turkish Cypriots. While Turkish Cypriots are expected to vote «yes» to end their international isolation, all eyes are on Greek-Cypriot voters, shown in the opinion polls to be overwhelmingly opposed to the plan named after UN chief Kofi Annan. EU membership, looming on May 1, was not subject to a referendum. Now many voters, both in the «yes» and «no» camps, not just among the undecided, are agonizing over which way to come down. «We are bloody confused. Our politicians grew fat on the Cyprus problem, and they did not explain for 30 years how it will be solved and what it will mean,» said Gregory Philippou, a Greek-Cypriot motorbike mechanic. «It is a choice of jumping between two holes, but they are not telling us how deep the holes are. I am a mechanic, not a politician,» he complained. «Do I have the right to f**k up this land with my decision?» he asked, pointing to the goose pimples on his arm when he just contemplates the choice imposed on him. The 9,000-page plan for a Swiss-style confederation of two states is «so complicated that we cannot understand it in detail,» agreed housewife Sylvia Avraamides. «It’s like taking medicine. You need to be able to study the small print and the list of side effects.» Emotions are running high south of the UN-manned «Green Line» as D-day nears, with the political parties divided and as charges fly of lack of patriotism and a sellout. President Tassos Papadopoulos was in tears at the end of a televised appeal for his people to vote down the plan, on which he and the Turkish-Cypriot leadership failed to agree at final negotiations last month in Switzerland. In sharp contrast, his predecessor, Glafcos Clerides, said he would «rather die» than face the international fallout of a «no» vote. «I personally call on every Greek Cypriot… to reject the easy ‘no’ which leads to destruction, and to say the difficult, big brave ‘yes,’» said the 85-year-old veteran of Cyprus politics. The «yes» camp, while slow off the mark in plastering the streets with stickers, compared to the ubiquitous «no» signs, are urging the electorate to vote with their heads, not their hearts. On the eve of a milestone in a 40-year conflict, since intercommunal strife broke out in 1963, the opposing sides have lined up final street rallies as political figures vie for airtime on television. Although Turkish-Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash views the plan as akin to «suicide» for his breakaway northern statelet, the peace blueprint would allow his minority community to join the EU along with the Greek Cypriots. A major hurdle was cleared last April 23, when partial freedom of movement was allowed across the Green Line. For many Greek Cypriots the choice is clear-cut and boils down to personal interests. Coastal developers in the south are fearful of the competition if the largely unspoilt north opens up to tourism. Officers would lose their jobs if the National Guard was disbanded under the fine-tuned «Annan V» plan. And an army of civil servants would compete with Turkish Cypriots for cushy posts. On the other side of the equation, tens of thousands of fellow Greek Cypriots would return to homes lost in 1974. But even then, some are unbowed. «This is a people’s dignity at stake,» said Stavros Trantas, a Nicosia doctor and opponent of Annan V, although he would recover hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of land on the other side of Europe’s last divided capital.