U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan presented his blueprint for the reunification of Cyprus Wednesday and set an April 24 date for islanders to vote on the plan, saying “the time for decision and action has arrived.”
Turkey’s government quickly endorsed the proposal, but the Greek side was more cautious.
Annan’s plan is a last-ditch attempt to reunify the Mediterranean island before it joins the European Union on May 1. Turkey, which wants to join the European Union itself, had hoped an agreement on Cyprus would help its cause.
“The hour is late, but the cause is urgent,” Annan told the parties, gathered within minutes of the midnight deadline for completing four-way talks at the Swiss mountaintop resort of Buergenstock.
Long history of division
Cyprus has been split into the Greek Cypriot-controlled south and the occupied north since Turkey invaded in 1974 in the wake of a short-lived coup by supporters of union with Greece. The breakaway state in the north is recognized only by Turkey, which maintains 40,000 troops there.
The sides failed to reach an agreement of their own, prompting U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to step in with a plan that will now go directly to the island’s voters.
The plan — which is 220 pages long and is accompanied by some 9,000 pages of annexes — envisage separate Greek and Turkish Cypriot states linked by a weak federal government.
Annan said he had written a letter to the leaders of the Greek and Cypriot communities on the island setting out his plans for national referendums on the plan on April 24 — four days later than originally planned.
“The time for negotiations and consultation is over. The time for decision and action has arrived,” Annan said.
The Turkish side was quick to give support to the plan, confirming that it would hold the referendum as planned. “No side has lost in these negotiations,” Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told reporters.
Greek Cypriots cautious
He said the most important issues for Turkey were ensuring that the agreement would be adopted by the European Union, political equality for the Turkish Cypriot minority, boosting prosperity in the impoverished north, ensuring the continued presence of Turkish troops and protecting Turkish settlers.
The Greeks and Greek Cypriots were more cautious. They had earlier expressed disappointment in the failure to guarantee Turkish troop withdrawal and the return of all Greek Cypriot refugees to their homes in the northern part of the island.
Annan told the gathering that his new plan made major changes to one produced on Monday, including an improved proposal on returns of property and compensation for refugees, as well as financial and economic measures.
Plan beset with challenges
A proportion of the Greek Cypriot refugees who fled or were forced from their homes in the north will have the right to go back, while Turkey must drastically reduce — but not withdraw entirely — the number of troops it maintains on the island.
However, the plan has been beset by problems, as the Greek side complained that all the Greek Cypriots refugees should be able to go back, and that around 80,000 Turkish settlers who moved to the island after the 1974 Turkish invasion should leave.
The Turkish side wanted to further limit the number of Greek Cypriot refugees who could return and wanted to maintain a Turkish military presence in the north of the island.
The Annan plan is the closest that Cyprus has come to reunification and would represent a huge feather in Annan’s cap if it succeeds.
The United Nations has been in Cyprus since 1964 and currently maintains more than 1,200 peacekeepers there. Successive secretaries-general have tried to solve the Cyprus problem but have been unable to find a solution that satisfied both communities.
Annan’s most difficult task will be convincing the Greek Cypriot majority to vote for the plan.
Greek Cypriots know that — whatever the outcome of the vote — they will join the European Union on May 1 and get all the benefits that entails. Their standard of living is five times that of the Turkish Cypriots, and reunification would require them to pour money into the impoverished north.
Yet the Greek Cypriots have deep emotional reasons for wanting to see their island reunited. Some 180,000 people are waiting for the chance to return to their homes in the north. Annan will have to wait to see whether that will be enough to sway the referendum.