Looking for a second chance

Today the Cypriots vote to decide the fate of the UN plan aimed at reuniting their island before it joins the European Union next Saturday. This should be a joyful time, one in which the Turkish invasion of 1974 would be rolled back to the greatest possible extent since that fateful summer 30 years ago, coinciding with this tortured and lovely island’s joining the most democratic and prosperous group of nations in the world. May 1 could have been a double birthday. Instead, the overriding sense is that the Turkish Cypriots (exhausted by decades of failure and isolation in their bid to go it alone) are grasping the challenge of the future and are preparing to vote «yes» to the reunification plan, while the Greek Cypriots seem intent on revisiting the past, defiantly risking their own diplomatic isolation. Much of the opposition to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s blueprint for Cyprus’s reunification appears to be based on the discomfort of having to share power with Turkish Cypriots after having made a great success of running Cyprus without them. There is also the understandable fear of the unknown for a whole generation of Cypriots who have grown up with horror stories about the community on the other side of a ceasefire line that until a year ago was impenetrable. But above all this is the fear of finality, of the knowledge that the acceptance of any compromise will destroy the chance of the maximalist demand of a single state in which the Turkish Cypriots will simply be tolerated as a minority and will not be equal partners. The Greek Cypriots, in their wish for something better than the Annan plan, appeared to be fighting a rearguard action against the 1974 invasion. The Turkish Cypriots, who were ostensibly the winners of that conflict, have seen their part of the island wither under the Turkish occupation and the influx of settlers from the «motherland.» The Turkish Cypriots are the ones who want more than anyone to join the world of 2004 because they have gained all they have to gain from 1974. For the Greek side, though, there is still a lot of unfinished business between 1974 and 2004. And if Greek Cypriots vote against the Annan plan today, it will be tragic if the international community blames the voters for this. The fact is that they were not ready to deal with any peace plan. For three decades the Greek Cypriots have been the victims of a military invasion, one that forced 200,000 of them to flee their homes in the north. They have mourned their dead and missing and been deprived of the use of their property by an occupying army that has been one of the most brutal in the world. All this time, they were told about how the intransigence of the Turkish Cypriots prevented a diplomatic solution to their island’s division. When the Turkish Cypriots (through Turkey’s sidelining of Rauf Denktash) suddenly said OK to a solution, the Greek Cypriots were unprepared. And this is where the unfortunate lack of leadership on the Greek side is something that we will rue for a very long time. It’s almost as if the stars conspired against a solution. But the political geography of the Greek-Cypriot side, some very sly moves by the anti-settlement government in Nicosia and the spinelessness of the government in Athens played the biggest part in dooming the UN plan. Cypriot President Tassos Papadopoulos stuck to a position that was not unexpected. He is a veteran of the struggle of independence and was the leader of the right-wing DEKO party, which, along with the Socialist EDEK, represent the nationalist faction in Greek-Cypriot politics. The Communist AKEL party, which backed Papadopoulos’s candidacy, and the center-right Democratic Rally, formerly run by former President Glafcos Clerides, are more inclined toward a bizonal, bicommunal, federal solution that will end the island’s division. As these two parties represent some 70 percent of voters, one could have expected them to back the Annan plan and, consequently, sell it to the public. Very quickly, what happened is that Papadopoulos (either because he was caught off guard when Denktash was pulled from play or out of cynicism) did not make any great effort to negotiate a better deal during the talks on the Annan plan. The UN and the United States did bend over backward to sell the idea to the Turkish side, and this ruffled the Greek side’s feathers, but the Greeks do not seem to have tried hard enough to win concessions. And when they did make significant gains, such as preventing the adoption to permanent exceptions from EU law, Papadopoulos and his spokesmen did not deem this worth mentioning. Even while the talks were going on in Switzerland, the Greek Cypriots and Greeks were being told that the final text was a disaster. The excitable Greek news media, always ready to reveal conspiracies against the Greeks, created a wave of doom and gloom that swept all before it. When Papadopoulos presented his pre-Easter speech in which he milked the Annan plan for any possible difficulties while hiding every single benefit, most media did nothing but sing his praises. When Democratic Rally leader Nikos Anastassiades argued the positive points of the plan, and the dangers of voting «no,» he could not change the climate. Even AKEL, whose political bureau had voted to approve the Annan plan, was forced to change tack. It learned that two out of three of its voters were willing to defy it and to vote against the UN plan. Instead of tackling them head-on, AKEL chose to start wringing its hands, asking for a postponement of the referendum – and when no one supported it in this call, for guarantees from the UN that the plan would be implemented and that security would be assured. In a concerted effort that would have brought some relief even to the Middle East with all its conflicts, the United States, Britain and Annan cobbled together a resolution that would give AKEL the guarantees it wanted. But in a move that was breathtaking in its audacity, the Cypriot government had dispatched Foreign Minister George Iacovou to Moscow for talks whose content was not specified. When, late on Wednesday, the Security Council voted on the resolution, 14 countries voted in favor and Russia, alone, invoked its veto for the first time in 10 years. AKEL was thereby forced to say it would reject Annan’s plan. Russia explained that it did not want the Security Council to influence today’s vote. For the same reasons, Cyprus’s state broadcaster, CyBC, did not give EU and UN officials an opportunity to argue the merits of the Annan plan for the sake of Greek-Cypriot viewers. It is not true that arguments for a «yes» vote were not heard, but keeping UN and EU officials from making their case is something that the Greek Cypriots will not be able to explain away easily. So great has the current in favor of a «no» vote been among Greek Cypriots that the Democratic Rally party’s members also are split. This leaves little hope for the «yes» camp today, despite the passionate arguments of former president Clerides, who has said he would rather meet his Maker than see the struggles of the Greek Cypriots end this way. Because the great absentee in this whole debate has been the Greek government. Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis used all his politicking skills to come up with a wishy-washy statement purporting to see more potential benefits than harm in the Annan plan while saying it was perfectly OK for the Greek Cypriots to vote against it. Instead of imitating his uncle and namesake, the statesman who founded the party Karamanlis leads, the prime minister chose to step aside rather than take the lead and shoulder his responsibilities. If he disapproved of the Annan plan, he could have said so. If he accepted it, he should have supported it. Furthermore, in the face of international efforts to reunite Cyprus before next Saturday, Greek Foreign Minister Petros Molyviatis took the pressure off the Cypriots. «I personally do not want to believe in last chances. Life goes on, life always provides possibilities and opportunities,» he opined. This echoed Papadopoulos’s own argument that «yes» would be irreversible while saying «no» would be reversible. AKEL, also, says that its «no» is aimed at reviving hopes for accepting the Annan plan later. The United Nations, the United States and the European Union say that when the Annan plan is rejected all negotiations will end. The Turkish Cypriots will win the world’s sympathy if they accept the Annan plan but are kept out of the EU by the Greek-Cypriot vote. And Turkey has been assured by Greece that Cyprus will not be an obstacle on its path to the EU. So one wonders what will make the Turkish side want to return to the issue again when it will have gained more than it has now. Perhaps the understanding of an opportunity lost will finally prompt the Greek Cypriots to debate the merits of the Annan plan and the true costs and benefits of accepting or rejecting it. The big question, then, is whether the rest of the world will be ready to give the Greek Cypriots a second chance when they are ready for it. But it is very strange to see a real chance being thrown away in the uncertain hope that it might come around a second time.

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