The true cost of a ‘no’ vote

IT SEEMS to be almost the only topic of conversation these days, at dinner parties, in offices, coffee shops and everywhere else for that matter. Not whether or not the two leaders will reach an agreement on the Annan plan, but who will vote ‘no’ and who will vote ‘yes’ in the referendum to be held in April.

By allowing UN Secretary-general Kofi Annan to fill in the blanks, a final plan that will be put to the people for approval is a foregone conclusion. The only thing that remains to be worked out is who will have the better deal in a plan that gives neither side what it really wants.

On the Greek Cypriot side, the ‘anti’ camp is already active, more so than the ‘pro’ camp, which often finds itself on the defensive against accusations of selling out.

Admittedly, the government says it is waiting to see the final settlement before promoting anything, but the reality is that there is not much room for change in the plan, so what we see now is basically what we will get, plus or minus a few details.

Diplomats and observers admit they are worried. None are willing to bet on a ‘yes’ vote from the Greek Cypriot side, and with good reason at the moment. Polls show a majority rejecting the plan, and the political parties are clearly divided.

The only chink of light comes from the large proportion of people undecided (29 per cent in the latest poll), and the fact that respondents are asked about the plan as it stands, allowing leeway for an eventual ‘yes’ campaign to focus on improvements achieved in the negotiations.

The fact is, that most Greek Cypriots worry about what a solution will bring, but focus little on the consequences of a non-solution.

It has not sunk in, probably because it has not been brought home to people that ‘this is really it’.

This is not just the latest round of open-ended negotiations; it is the last round. Cyprus has run out of chances.

It’s David versus Goliath and this time the giant is wearing a helmet and carrying a banner saying ‘Annan or nothing’; and he’s brought backup: the EU, the US, the UK and the UN, all of whom proved their intentions with some vicious arm-twisting in New York.

Yes: it may not seem like a fair fight and many Greek Cypriots think the only consequence of a ‘no’ vote will be the loss of the north, which they feel is already lost to them. They say: ‘When we are in the EU we’ll get a better deal’ or ‘Build a big wall’ or ‘We prefer partition’, but according to the international community and to foreign observers, the effects will be much more far reaching than people realise.

“A ‘no’ vote is a ‘yes’ vote for partition… permanent partition,” said one diplomat close to the negotiations.

As if that wasn’t bad enough he said a negative response from the Greek Cypriot side would lead to the massive migration of Turkish Cypriots, not only abroad but to the south of the Green Line, leaving the north as an outpost of Turkey, empty of Cypriots.

“It could also lead to the dashing of a settlement between Turkey and Greece on the Aegean. It could lead to Turkey shifting direction if doors close in Europe,” he added.

Then there is the issue of recognition of the north, starting with Islamic states, which for 30 years have held back, always giving the benefit of the doubt to the Greek Cypriots.

“A ‘no’ vote could be viewed as a racist act against Muslims in general and Turkish Cypriots in particular and it would be viewed by Europe as an un-European act.

“It would really not be wise for the Greek Cypriots to reject this and it would be such a slap in the face for the Turkish Cypriot people.”

The diplomat said the leaders of both sides had been told to stop talking down the plan and to go out and tell their respective populations that the solution that is on the table involves compromises and sacrifices.

“We are very worried, but somebody’s got to go out and tell people that this is not a choice between this plan and a better one, but between this and probable permanent partition,” said the diplomat.

A second diplomat, also close to the talks, said: “It’s not like the Greek Cypriots will be pariahs. They will still get into the EU and get the money and the EU won’t take any sanctions against them.

“But for Cyprus to get what it wants within the EU will become more difficult,” he warned. “The consequences would be a political disaster for Greek Cypriots who have been saying for 30 years that they want a settlement. The prospects for any future settlement would involve deep suspicions from the international community.”

He also spoke of the eventual recognition of the north, which would lead to tensions on the island.

“It would be a mess. Greek Cypriots would have no credibility and there would be nothing for Cyprus for the foreseeable future. The north would be 75 per cent settlers instead of the 50 per cent it is now. There will be a silent partition and the Turks, if they are clever, will come out as the good guys. The north will have a half and half status.

“The leaders just have to get this through a referendum but they will need to show an unequivocal commitment,” said the diplomat.

One foreign analyst said he was hearing a lot of Greek Cypriots say they would turn down the Annan plan.

“The biggest problem is that too many people think there is another hope afterwards, that this can be turned down because every time peace talks collapse, the UN comes along again a few years down the line. So it’s OK to say ‘no’, because when the next plan comes, Cyprus will be in the EU and can bargain for a better settlement.

“But I have not yet met a foreigner who believes that. The prevailing view is that everyone is fed up to the back teeth of the Cyprus problem.”

The analyst echoed the diplomats’ warnings of ‘silent partition’. He said the EU would probably turn round and tell Cyprus it intended to establish a new set of relations with the north and that it would continue talks with Turkey about membership.

“It’s just too an important an issue to allow Cyprus to veto any membership talks with Turkey on that basis,” he said.

“It would totally destroy the credibility of Erdogan and Gul and cause major ructions in Turkey. I think Europe will say ‘you’ve had your chance, a settlement was put on the table and you chose to reject it’.”

In many ways, a ‘no’ vote from Greek Cypriots would be ideal for Turkey, which could then turn around and say it had done everything it could.

Indeed Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said as much earlier in the week. Replying a question on what would happen if the Turkish Cypriots voted ‘yes’ and the Greek Cypriots voted ‘no’ he said: “What such a result would bring is quite clear. First of all, the European Union will assume an attitude in favour of the TRNC… the TRNC has fulfilled its duties, Turkey has taken the necessary steps. I hope that the embargoes imposed on the TRNC for 40 years would be lifted,” Erdogan said.

Sener Levent, editor of the pro-solution Afrika newspaper in the north, recently warned in the Cyprus Mail against a ‘no’ vote in the south.

“If they vote ‘no’, they will fall straight into a Turkish trap,” he said, adding what Turkey really wanted was a Greek Cypriot rejection of the plan.
Influential Turkish journalist Mehmet Ali Birand wrote in the Turkish Daily News yesterday that Greek Cypriot concerns were not unjustified.

“The Annan plan asks for more sacrifices by the Greek Cypriots than the Turks,” he said.

Birand said Ankara and Brussels had begun to discuss the possible outcome of the referenda; it was agreed that the Turkish Cypriots would probably say ‘yes’.

“Rauf Denktash’s opposition will not prevent an overwhelming approval of the agreement,” he said. “But the same cannot be said for the Greek Cypriots. What will happen if Turks say ‘yes’ and Greeks say ‘no’? When I inquired about this question in the capitals of EU countries and EU Commission officials, I received very interesting answers.”

Yes, Cyprus would join the EU, but a very difficult period would begin. The trade embargoes on the north would be lifted and the EU would probably open a dialogue with the Turkish Cypriots, who would receive financial aid. In addition, Cyprus would no longer be an obstacle to Turkey’s membership and Turkish troops would remain on the island.

“This is the most desirable scenario for the Turkish side. The TRNC will show its good will, will protect the current status quo and will be recognised internationally. This is Denktash’s dream,” said Birand.

“The situation is critical for the Greek side. Will the Greek Cypriots commit suicide or will common sense prevail? This is the most important question and we still have no answer for it.”

“This is it,” said the analyst. “If people want to reject it on this side let them be aware of what it means.”