The April 24, 2004 referendum on a plan to reunite Cyprus marks a turning point in the island’s history. While 65 percent of Turkish Cypriots voted in favor of the plan, Greek Cypriots rejected it by a resounding majority of 76 percent. European observers were shocked by the anti-democratic conduct of the campaign in the Greek Cypriot south. The negotiator in charge of the Republic of Cyprus’ European Union accession went so far as to confess that he “felt duped.” Greek Cypriots rallied around a leader known for his extreme nationalism and unwillingness to compromise. Turkish Cypriots, in contrast, cast aside their equally rejectionist leader and campaigned vocally in support of the plan. But while many observers were taken aback by this turn of events, it is in fact a sadly logical outcome of the ideologies and institutions that have shaped much of the island’s recent history.

The “Satanic” Plan

Cyprus has been divided and trapped in a political stalemate for 30 years, ever since Turkish troops landed in the island in 1974 in response to a Greek-sponsored coup aimed at annexing the island to Greece. Only when UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan laid a reunification plan on the negotiating table in November 2002 were hopes revived that the Cyprus problem would be resolved. Both European Union and UN officials wished to see a settlement before May 1, when the Republic of Cyprus was set to join the EU. Despite the declaration in 1983 of a supposedly sovereign Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, only the Greek-governed Republic is internationally recognized, and it was to join the EU as the representative government of the entire island. Without a settlement, the Turkish troops now stationed in the north of Cyprus would become occupiers of EU soil.

The Annan Plan called for a loose federation under an umbrella government that would have restricted powers over two constituent states generally defined along ethnic lines. The border would have followed the current ceasefire line, though the line would have been adjusted in order to give the Greek Cypriot constituent state certain territories that formerly had large Greek populations. The Turkish Cypriots currently living in those areas would have been relocated to newly built settlements in the Turkish constituent state. All property claims resulting from the division of the island would have been resolved, either through restitution or compensation. The state of uncertainty and isolation in which Turkish Cypriots have lived for 30 years would have been replaced by citizenship in an EU member state.

When Annan first presented his plan, many in Cyprus complained that the document contained too many blank pages—the areas to be worked out in negotiations. Since that time, diplomatic talks and behind-the-scenes wrangling between Turkish and Greek Cypriot bureaucrats resulted in the completion of a 9,000-page document that went before the Cypriot people on April 24. All blanks were filled, down to the design of the new confederation’s flag and the approval of a national anthem (without words, allowing the bureaucrats to avoid choosing Greek or Turkish lyrics). Many of the thousands of pages simply listed the rules and regulations that would govern the branches of the new government, the United Cyprus Republic. But for those who wished to undermine the plan, its very obesity became a stumbling block. Greek Cypriot President Tassos Papadopoulos complained of the “unworkability” of the plan, and few were sufficiently well-versed in its details to argue with him. Long-time Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash complained that no one could have the time to study a 9,000-page document before the referendum.

But even Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan commented that Denktash’s objections were disingenuous. Turkish Cypriots were in fact well-prepared to vote on the plan. Beginning with the 2002 announcement, Turkish Cypriots began a long, hard struggle to change their government, to gain the support of Turkey and to educate the electorate. For many voters, the referendum’s passage would have meant displacement, as land where Turkish Cypriot refugees now live would have been given to the south. But even in those districts where thousands of Turkish Cypriots would have been relocated, the plan was approved with a resounding majority, for it would have meant a new state of certainty about the future.

In contrast, Greek Cypriots certain of their own future as the wealthiest of the new EU member states spent little time discussing the plan. Up until the day of the referendum, polls showed that almost 70 percent of Greek Cypriots felt that they did not understand it, especially the complicated procedures for the return of refugees and restitution of property. The plan was presented to them in bits of propaganda and in the diatribes of the church, many of whose leaders condemned the plan as “satanic” and threatened their flocks with damnation if they voted in favor. The broadcast media put a heavily negative spin on the plan, and leading EU diplomats complained that they had not been allowed to explain their own views on the plan. Since Papadopoulos owns 33 percent shares of the three largest private television stations in the south, the rough media treatment of the plan is not surprising.

In an exit poll, more than 70 percent of Greek Cypriots who rejected the plan said that their reason was “security.” The security fear, repeatedly raised in the media, emerged over Turkey’s right as a guarantor power to intervene to restore constitutional order in the event of a political collapse, a right that Greek Cypriots and much of the world agree Turkey abused when it stayed in the island after intervening in 1974. Turkey, along with Greece and Great Britain, gained that right in the 1960 Zurich Agreement that secured Cyprus’ independence; it would have retained the right under the Annan Plan. But the Zurich Agreement was not sent to referendum, and the question of approving Turkey’s guarantor status became a point of honor among Greek Cypriots prior to the referendum. As numerous Greek Cypriots put it, echoing their party leaders: “In Zurich, they forced Turkey on us. Now they want us to put our signature on it?”

Tables Turned

Hence, it should not be surprising that the referendum results were lopsided. In response, the EU and US are contemplating ways to “reward” the north for its cooperation. That reward has already included an easing of the embargo against the export of northern Cypriot goods, and it may soon mean direct flights into the north of the island, which could bring a dramatic increase in tourism. As a reward for the cooperation of the Turkish government in securing a Turkish Cypriot “yes,” the EU will not consider Turkey’s troops to be in occupation of EU soil. Indeed, it seems that the ceasefire line that divides the island will now mark the boundary of Europe.

This development was heralded as a triumph of Turkish diplomacy, and Denktash, along with his right-wing nationalist supporters in Turkey, breathed a sigh of relief. Before the referendum, Denktash had campaigned against the plan and promised that a “yes” vote would mean his withdrawal from politics. But as soon as the outcome was announced, Denktash proclaimed it a victory, saying that he had wanted this result and that he would not resign. Although Turkish Cypriots who had campaigned in favor of the plan celebrated their “victory” throughout the night, by the next morning the wariness had already set in. What was in store for them now? What would the Republic of Cyprus do after it joined the European Union on May 1? Even more importantly, could there be any other efforts after this?

Turkish Cypriots are not only wary, but also weary. After a long campaign in which politicians and civil society organizations canvassed villages and debated the plan in coffee shops, there is a general sense that there can be no more. This is in direct opposition to the proclamation by Greek Cypriot communist leader Dimitris Christofyas that “our no vote was intended to cement a yes.” While Greek Cypriots talked of the referendum as only one step toward reunification, for Turkish Cypriots and much of the international community the referendum was the final step that would determine the future of the island. The placard held by one of the flood of celebrants in the streets of north Nicosia expressed the sentiment concisely: “65 Percent Yes/Solution, 75 Percent No/Division.” Division, or taksim in Turkish, had long been Denktash’s “solution” to the Cyprus problem. It was no wonder, then, that crowds not only shouted “Denktash resign,” but also “Denktash to the south.” Denktash was known for telling his critics that they should “go to the south,” where they would presumably find persons of like mind. Now, it seems, the tables are turned.

Reign of Denktashopoulos

In separate speeches preceding the election, both Denktash and Papadopoulos caused something of a stir with their tearful deliveries. Denktash cried before a meeting of nationalists in Bursa, Turkey; Papadopoulos cried asking the Greek Cypriot community to vote no. But in those last weeks, I saw many people cry. A friend who is a long-time communist party member cried on the day before the referendum for what he feared would be the results. A Turkish Cypriot friend cried after she cast her vote in favor of the plan, wondering if she had done the right thing. The referendum was a period of high emotional anxiety, as average people felt torn between their desire to see a reunited island and their uncertainties.

Denktash and Papadopoulos were no doubt equally sincere in their own tears, but they cried for fear of what they might lose. Both leaders have been players of Cyprus’ political games for more than 40 years. In late 1963, Denktas crossed from Turkey in a small motor boat and landed in the northwest village of Kokkina/Erenkoy, bringing guns and the intention to lead the defense of the village enclave, which was then under attack by Greek Cypriot nationalists. An article published in the Politis newspaper during the recent negotiations showed a photograph of Papadopoulos early in 1963, inspecting machine guns that he received from Greece. Stories have long circulated in the island of exchanges of weapons, money and favors between the Greek and Turkish nationalist groups that were then in conflict. All this history helps to explain an ironic remark by a Turkish Cypriot NGO leader at a recent rally; those opposed to the plan, he said, had fallen for the strategy of “Denktashopoulos.”

Denktash has recently been discredited both in the Turkish Cypriot community and in Turkey. When he walked away from negotiations over the Annan Plan in early 2003, he spurred tens of thousands of Turkish Cypriots to pour into the streets in protest. On April 23 of that year, Denktash responded to the protests by opening the ceasefire line that had divided the island for almost 30 years. Refugees returning to their old homes and those curious to see the long forbidden flooded across the line. The tenor of Cypriot politics completely changed. Even so, Denktash’s party received a small portion of the vote in the December 2003 elections and returned only as part of a new coalition government. Denktash remains president, but his prime minister—his long-time opponent, Mehmet Ali Talat—is now the interlocutor for the EU, the US and the UN. Denktash’s stubborn insistence on retaining power has caused him a crisis of legitimacy even in Turkey, where he was long regarded as a hero.

When Turkey’s Justice and Development Party came to power in November 2002, it was clear that the fate of Cyprus would change. Party leaders dropped hints that Cyprus was a problem that needed to be solved, because their main goal was entry into the EU. The JDP approach contrasted deeply with the uncompromising stance of previous governments, which had earned the support of the Turkish military but the ire of Europe. In January 2004, Erdogan announced that the military was in agreement with his strategy to restart negotiations, even though an agreement would mean a gradual withdrawal of Turkish troops from the island. As was repeated again and again in the Turkish press, it would not be a good thing for Turkey to have to sit across the EU negotiating table from a Cyprus represented only by Greek Cypriots.

Heading into the referendum, Denktash and key leaders of the JDP, including Erdogan, commenced a battle of words. After Denktash delivered his tearful address in Bursa, Erdogan asked, “Why do you come to Turkey and talk to some marginal groups? Go back and talk in Cyprus.” The implication was that Denktash had lost legitimacy among Turkish Cypriots and was attempting—as he had done so often in the past—to stir up hardliners in Turkey. Leaders of ultra-right Turkish parties did in fact arrive in the island to campaign in the week before the referendum. Not coincidentally, at the same time Cypriot members of the Gray Wolves, a violently fascist-nationalist organization, called on Turkish members to come to the island, where they were responsible for violence and threats against supporters of the Annan Plan. In the island itself, these efforts were seen as the agonies of a dying regime. The hardliners did not dampen the enthusiasm of the thousands who turned out in the main squares of Nicosia to sing and shout in celebration of their “victory” when a “yes” vote became clear. Denktash, then, has become a marginalized leader who has lost even the support of the state that had for so long kept him in power.

Disingenuous Complaints

Tassos Papadopoulos, on the other hand, is continuing his rise from the political ashes. Papadopoulos is a lawyer known for his past involvement in anti-Turkish activities, and, more recently, for helping Slobodan Milosevic launder several billion dollars that fueled the war in Bosnia. In 2003, he was voted into power with the surprising support of the communist party, AKEL. During the election campaign, Papadopoulos’ stance on the Annan Plan was contradictory. He expressed support for it at the same time that he said he would never sign a plan that would not return Kyrenia, one of the disputed territories now in northern Cyprus. AKEL, which suffered at the hands of nationalists in the 1950s and 1960s, has long commanded a large following in the island, though not large enough to put them in power. By backing Papadopoulos, AKEL put itself into the government, but at the expense of values it has long supported: cooperation with Turkish Cypriots, reintegration and reconciliation. Even AKEL, the only party that can claim a bicommunal heritage, was forced to make its official stance a “no” to the Annan Plan.

In his tearful speech, Papadopoulos stressed three main objections to the Annan Plan. It gave in to Turkey’s interests, he claimed, because it kept a symbolic number of troops in the island (650 Turkish and 900 Greek), and it retained Turkey’s right as a guarantor power. It legitimated occupation and division because it allowed most of the Turkish settlers in the north to remain, did not allow the right of return to all refugees and reduced the Republic of Cyprus to a constituent state. The third point was a conclusion drawn from the first two objections: if the Republic is reduced to a constituent state, and Turkey still has troops in the island, then Greek Cypriots must trust Turkey to fulfill its promises. Instead, he argued, Greek Cypriots should hold out for the better plan that they would be able to negotiate after EU entry, and they should not believe the threats of foreign powers.

These three points were reiterated by Greek Cypriots justifying their own opposition. Supporters of the plan, including EU and UN negotiators, were frustrated by what they saw as the disingenuousness of Papadopoulos’ complaints. For instance, it was always known and accepted that a federation would mean that Greek Cypriots would become part of a constituent state—why the objection now? Also, while not all refugees had the absolute right of return, all refugees did have the right to use of one third of their property, meaning that those who could not return could keep a summer house and spend weekends there. The two living former presidents of the Republic, Glafkos Clerides and George Vassiliou, both of whom had long negotiated within similar frameworks, came out in favor of the Annan Plan. But their efforts bore no fruit.

Indeed, much of the atmosphere in advance of the referendum was defiant. In an open letter to Papadopoulos on the eve of the third stage of the negotiations, the right-wing newspaper Simerini claimed that “if they pressure you and if you submit, the judgment of history will be implacable… Because you will be the first Greek who with your signature dissolves and surrenders your homeland to our enemy, without a military defeat.” Such views of Greek honor ultimately triumphed.

The irony is that Greek Cypriot opposition to the plan appears to present the danger of realizing the goal of their long-time enemy, Rauf Denktash, who has for decades demanded that the international community accept the de facto partition of the island. For once, as the Turkish press delighted in pointing out, it is not Turkey but the Greek Cypriots who appear intransigent. A further irony is that despite oppression and censorship, Turkish Cypriots have created a lively debate around their own future and the future of the island, while the supposedly free and democratic Republic is now haunted by accusations of censorship and intimidation. How did things reach this point?

Institutions of Ideology

In Greek Cypriot rhetoric, the northern part of Cyprus is referred to as “the occupied areas,” while the south constitutes the “free zone.” A Turkish Cypriot friend whose opposition to Denktash led her to move several years ago to the south has long worked for reconciliation and the reunification of the island. But even she, on the night of the referendum, joked that perhaps now she should move to the “free zone,” by which she meant the north. Her remark succinctly expressed the general sense that Turkish Cypriots have engaged in and won a political battle that their Greek Cypriot compatriots have yet to contemplate—a battle against the oppressive forces of their own regime.

For 30 years, the Republic of Cyprus has been the recognized government of the island, while the government of the north is always referred to as a “pseudo-state” with “so-called” ministers and a “so-called” president. The Republic has maintained various state fantasies that shape popular views of the Cyprus problem. Refugees from the north vote in national elections as though they still live in their former villages, and the parliament is made up of representatives who supposedly represent areas now under Turkish control. These same refugees vote into office mayors of their towns and villages. The mayors are viewed as the “real” and the “legitimate” mayors, despite the fact that they have no access to the municipalities and so do nothing besides crank out propaganda and organize outings for elderly refugees. In the meantime, the Turkish Cypriot mayors who actually manage the towns and villages are “so-called” mayors who are part of the “pseudo-state.”

In the meantime, Turkish Cypriots have been keenly aware of the tenuousness of their situation. Not only have they lived under an embargo, but they carry an unrecognized passport and so have been forced to obtain passports from either Turkey or the Republic, which still counts them among its citizens. With the Republic’s acceptance to the EU, many Turkish Cypriots chose the latter option; now many wonder what will happen to those passports if the Republic is no longer the sole government of the island. Many Turkish Cypriots were also resettled after 1974 in Greek Cypriot houses, often in areas that they knew might eventually be returned. In such areas, they were often reluctant to invest in the maintenance of houses and property, because they never knew when they might have to leave. As a friend commented, “We lived a false life in a made-up state, and now we have to face the consequences.”

While Turkish Cypriots have lived the quotidian realities of a “made-up state,” Greek Cypriots have lived the quotidian fantasies of recognition. Moreover, Greek Cypriot politics has long been centralized and party-oriented, leading to a general malaise. At the start of the last round of negotiations, several thousand Turkish Cypriots gathered spontaneously in one of Nicosia’s central squares to express their support of a settlement. Such meetings have become common in the north, an expression of a newfound capacity for local democracy. Even at the time, they repeated the question, “Why is nothing happening on the Greek side?” But Turkish Cypriots knew very well that nothing was happening because Greek Cypriots felt secure in their advantage of wealth, recognition and imminent entry into the EU.

The initial wave of enthusiasm after the opening of the ceasefire line in 2003 was followed by the onset of something worse than malaise: an unwillingness to converse, even when there was a chance. At a March meeting of almost 4,000 refugees from Kyrenia, organizers who vilified the plan claimed to want “a just solution for Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots,” but had invited no Turkish Cypriots to the meeting. Bicommunal meetings or initiatives are sparsely attended by Greek Cypriots. While Turkish Cypriots arrive at meetings eager to discuss and negotiate the future of education in the island or health initiatives, Greek Cypriots have been more reticent. This willingness to leave politics to the politicians has meant a general wariness about a plan that depended on the good will of the people for its workability. Those who favored the plan saw it as a start, something to be worked on and improved as Cypriots built mutual trust. But building that trust requires work, and work requires motivation. For many, it was not clear what their motivation might be.

It is no wonder, then, that Greek Cypriot politicians who claim, in a naively patronizing way, that they will negotiate a better solution “for both Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots” still have an audience in the south. For 30 years, Greek Cypriots have claimed to speak for their Turkish Cypriot compatriots, who lived in an unrecognized state and were portrayed in the media of the south as silent prisoners of an illegal regime. Such fantasies die hard, and only now are Greek Cypriots beginning to recognize that their Turkish compatriots have political voices of their own. It is only when those voices are heard in the south, and real dialogue emerges, that there can be any hope of reconciliation in the island.

How to cite this article:

Rebecca Bryant "An Ironic Result in Cyprus," Middle East Report Online, May 12, 2004.

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