April 24 2004
Greek Cypriot voters set to derail UN plan for island’s reunification
President and church accused of whipping up bitterness ahead of
Helena Smith in Nicosia
Greek Cypriots are today expected to resoundingly reject a UN peace
plan that presents a historic opportunity to reunite their divided
island. After 30 years of conflict the bitterness whipped up by the
president and the Greek Orthodox church shows no signs of ebbing –
nor do the accusations of intimidation sponsored by the government in
The Greek choice looked set last night to mar Cyprus’s May 1 entry to
the EU, entrenching the partition of the island, and barring entry to
the bloc of its ethnic Turkish minority. Mounting anger in Brussels
at the prospect of the union’s borders ending at the heavily
militarised “green line”, rather than the waters of the
Mediterranean, was reflected in a rare outburst by the EU’s
enlargement commissioner, Günter Verheugen.
Mr Verheugen blasted the Nicosia government for “cheating” its way
into the union by reneging on promises to do its utmost to bring
about a solution.
Despite the public dressing down – and the obvious disappointment of
the minority Turkish Cypriots who have enthusiastically endorsed the
UN plan – President Tassos Papadopoulos stuck firmly to his guns. He
described the UN’s 9,000-page plan for a power-sharing arrangement,
envisaging a federated bizonal, bicommunal country, as “neither
workable nor viable”.
Hogging the airwaves as the campaign ended on Thursday night, the
hardline leader rejected suggestions that today’s referendum was the
last chance to solve the Cyprus conundrum. The US secretary of state,
Colin Powell, had joined the UN in describing the vote as a “golden
opportunity” that will not be repeated.
But in a two-hour interview broadcast by all four of the island’s
television channels, Mr Papadopoulos told the nation: “From my
experience, such proposals or plans do not disappear, they are
revived and reproduced.”
As the Greek Cypriot president spoke, tens of thousands of Turkish
Cypriots took to the streets in their part of the island. Most shared
the view of Mustapha Cirakli, who sees reunification as the key that
will unlock decades of international isolation and crippling economic
deprivation. “Say yes and you connect Cyprus to the world,” he said.
“We’re really upset with the Greek Cypriots, we were expecting
different things from them. After all, a dove of peace can’t fly with
Although around 1,000 Turkish nationalists arrived in the
impoverished north from the Turkish mainland to try to scupper a yes
vote, the referendum has been met with relief by most Turkish
The scenes of optimism in the self-declared mini-state contrasted
deeply with the climate of fear that has taken hold of the much
wealthier Greek south.
The vehemence of Mr Papadopoulos’s opposition to the plan has been
matched only by the heavy handedness of the tactics to which the
authorities have allegedly resorted in the run-up to the poll.
Media manipulation and outright bullying by government-appointed
campaigners determined to see civil servants vote oxi (no) have
reportedly been rife. On the orders of the education minister,
schoolchildren were told to abandon the classroom on Thursday to
distribute as many oxi leaflets and stickers as they could. In the
process those bold enough to say nai (yes) were branded “traitors” or
“Turk lovers”. Many yes supporters have been heckled or reprimanded
by police for defacing no signs.
EU diplomats said the way the campaign had been conducted would sour
the island’s EU entry and raise questions about the nature of its
“Its embarrassing and absolutely shameful,” said the former president
George Vassiliou. “What we have seen is an industry of misinformation
at work – a special kind of police state where people have been told
what to vote and indirectly threatened.”
Until last April, when the veteran Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf
Denktash opened the “green line” under domestic popular pressure,
most Greek Cypriots had no memory of “the other side”.
Since 1974, when Turkish troops invaded in the wake of an
Athens-backed coup to unite the island with Greece, cross-ethnic
contact has been kept to a minimum. On either side of the
UN-patrolled “dead zone” the two communities have led different
lives: Greeks performing an economic miracle to make up for the loss
of territory and 180,000 refugees, and the Turks proclaiming
independence in an enclave that is recognised by Turkey but no one
For decades Greek history books have been fixated with Turkey’s
crimes: the genocide of the Armenians, the Asia Minor catastrophe,
the sacking of Constantinople, the “cleansing” of the Greeks, the
Cyprus invasion and the killing of the Kurds.
Confronted with a solution for the first time – and the reality of
its attendant compromises – insidious nationalist fever, nurtured in
classrooms, has erupted with a vengeance.
This week, for the first time since the 70s, the motto “A good Turk
is a dead Turk” appeared daubed across the walls of Nicosia’s English
school, founded when Cyprus was a British crown colony.
Mr Vassiliou, who negotiated the island’s EU accession, apologised
profusely to a top aide of Mr Verheugen.
“I am very upset for my country,” he told her. “No one expected such
a virulent no campaign from Papadopoulos. He has deliberately played
on peoples’ fears by talking about the plan’s negative rather than
positive aspects. Even if it’s late we still hope to salvage the
Unlike the no camp, which has been able to rent giant billboards and
print leaflets thanks to donations from banks and business, the yes
supporters have been largely self-funded. Some have resorted to using
bed sheets as banners.
But while the latest polls have shown at least 70% of Greeks oppose
the UN plan, many in the silent yes camp hope they could yet reduce
their lead at the polls.
The undecided vote is said to have increased lately, not least since
Bishop Pavlos of Kyrenia warned Greek Cypriots that they would face
damnation if they approved the accord. If those favouring a
settlement exceed 35%, senior local EU diplomats and political
figures told the Guardian that they hoped a second referendum could
be held soon, possibly in the autumn.