Cyprus: the price of rejection

Alex Rondos
21 April 2004

The people of Cyprus vote on 24 April 2004 in a referendum on a United Nations-sponsored plan for the island’s reunification. It seems probable that Greek Cypriots will reject the plan and Turkish Cypriots will vote in favour.

But if the electorate fully understood what was at stake, then the chances are that we would have an overwhelming vote for the Annan plan – named after the UN secretary-general, Kofi Annan, whose staff have crafted a complicated, logical compromise to the emotionally irresoluble .

With their vote, Greek Cypriots are being asked to put the seal on a tragic part of their history and to acknowledge that – after the defeat of 1974 when Turkish forces invaded and occupied the northern third of the island – they will never retrieve what they once had.

In terms of Greek Orthodox tradition, Greek Cypriots are being asked to be “economical”. It takes statesmanship to make that case.

“Real patriotism lies in compromise” writes Alex Rondos. Do you agree? Respond to his article in our forums

A negative vote by either community more than freeze, it will petrify this thirty-year division of the island and leave the region clouded in strategic uncertainty. Meanwhile, a Turkish Cypriot vote in favour – influenced by the government in Turkey – will win them a new moral high ground internationally that Greek Cypriots will have difficulty recapturing.

Subsequent plans are not likely to be any more beneficial for Greek Cypriots. The security of Greece will be mortgaged. Athens had banked strategically on a Cypriot solution as the path to a resolution of all issues with Turkey. The stability of this corner of Europe and Nato will still remain open to doubt. Turkey , undergoing a fragile process of reform, is trying to justify to the EU the merits of its case for membership, while its troops (represented by a powerful military constituency in Ankara) continue to occupy part of a European member state.

A pivotal moment

If, as the polls predict, Greek Cypriots say no to the plan, Cyprus will enter the European Union a week later, on 1 May, as a full member but still a divided island. Thirty years of Greek and Greek Cypriot diplomacy that called for the United Nations to develop a plan to reunify the island will have been overturned. The “green line” that separates the two communities will become a frontier of the European Union.

Around 30,000 Turkish troops will continue to occupy the northern part of the island. After all, the Turkish government will not double the political loss of not having Turkish Cypriots in the EU by also unilaterally withdrawing from the island, and thus provoking the military constituency in Turkey.

Turkish Cypriots, who voted in favour of the plan, will find themselves excluded from the full rights of citizenship in the Union. Immigration from the Turkish mainland will not be controlled. An international community, whose patience has been considerably taxed by the Cypriot issue for three decades, may well give up the fight to prevent recognition of the Turkish occupied part of Cyprus as a sovereign entity.

Yet should Greek Cypriots vote in favor of the Annan plan, they would be agreeing to a legal framework that returns some territory to them, lost in 1974 during the Turkish invasion. Over half the population of refugees would be free to return over a protracted period. All Greek Cypriots would have the right to purchase land on the island. Those who lost land will be compensated in cash or kind. A significant portion of the settlers brought in from the Turkish mainland after the invasion will have to return to Turkey.

Also, in the event of a “yes” vote, Greek and Turkish troops will be gradually reduced so that the island becomes demilitarised. Much of the plan would be financed by contributions from the international community. Given that this must occur over a period longer, even than a decade, there will be a set of “derogations” – temporary exceptions – made to the acquis (the binding legal requirements) of the European Union. Greek and Turkish Cypriots will be invited to live together in a variant of a federation (bi-zonal, bi-communal state, to use the routine jargon of the Cypriot issue) within the European Union.

The Turkish fallout

The implications, though, do not stop on the island of Cyprus. Failure to resolve the Cyprus issue mortgages Greek security. Based on the principle that the stability of our neighbour is our security (something relatively new for south-eastern Europe), Greek strategy had sought to invest in democratisation and prosperity in the Balkans and a resolution of differences with Turkey by placing a reforming Turkey within the embrace of European Union values and practices.

This has been a far-sighted strategy, because Greek compromise with Turkey meant not only peace for Greece and the economic benefits of substantially reduced military expenditures, but also the establishment of a wider zone of security in south-eastern Europe that would benefit all of Europe and Nato.

The path to the full rapprochement between Greece and Turkey, however, runs through Cyprus. And so long as Cyprus remains partially occupied by Turkish troops – without the binding commitment to leave that is contained in the Annan plan – it is very difficult either to see Cyprus promoting, or a Greek government supporting resolutely, Turkey’s candidacy for the European Union.

Also in openDemocracy: the former Swedish prime minister and European Union envoy Carl Bildt on “Europe’s future in the mirror of the Balkans” (April 2003)

In addition, a weapon will have been handed to those in Europe who are desperate to find a legitimate reason to slam the door on Turkey. They reflect the darker side of European politics as well as illuminating our collective European failure to resolve the debate on immigration. Turkey has become a lightning-rod for the nativists in Europe, and a Cyprus “no” vote will give them another brick with which to build the cultural bunker they wish to inhabit.

This will all come to a head in December 2004, when the question of Turkey being granted a negotiating date for entry to the European Union is to be decided. The Turkish government has invested heavily on the European option because it offers both the foundation and a political alibi for reform.

The reforms that Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the Turkish prime minister, and his Justice & Development (AK) party are embarked upon are radical. In his reformist policies – allowing a more free expression of religion in public life (something in which Greeks have a vested interest because the spiritual leadership of Orthodox Christianity resides in Istanbul), reducing the constitutional supremacy of the military, permitting a wider expression of minority rights – he is challenging the very foundations of the Kemalist tradition.

It is a risky venture and Turks have found that their path to reform lies through Europe. It would be a myopic Europe that fails to grasp how infectious its values and practices can be, especially in so strategic a location as its south-eastern corner.

This is why the stakes are so high in Cyprus. This is why, at critical moments in history, statesmen summon their citizens to be “economical”; to understand that real patriotism lies in compromise; to balance the sovereign rights of self-determination with the burden of responsibility to those beyond our immediate community.

This is why a “no” vote on the Cyprus referendum risks unraveling a delicately woven strategy that would bring a progressive future to the island within the European framework, resolve an historic dispute between Greece and Turkey, bring reform to Turkey, and, consolidate a zone of strategic stability on the edge of the profoundly unstable regions of the Middle East and Central Asia.

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