In a fresh blow to the Cyprus peace process, Greek Cypriot leader Tassos Papadopoulos has urged voters to reject a U.N. plan to reunify the island in a referendum later this month.
Papadopoulos believes the U.N. plan favors Turkish Cypriots.
Despite the collapse of talks between Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot sides over a U.N.-brokered plan to reunify the divided island of Cyprus last week, experts are still holding out hope that the blueprint would be approved by citizens from both halves of the island in two separate referendums scheduled for April 24.
The vote will determine whether a united Cyprus joins the European Union on May 1 or whether its 30-year division will continue.
Papadopoulos dashes peace hopes
But on Wednesday Greek Cypriot leader Tassos Papadopoulos threw a damper on reunification hopes when he called on his citizens to "vote a strong no" during an impassioned televised speech.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan
Papadopoulos, who has made no secret of his dislike for the plan ever since U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Anan (photo) ordered it to be put up for a vote, said during a 50-minute speech broadcast live on Cyprus TV that the plan reinforced the current partition of the island rather than leading to reunification.
"Our country is living through the most dramatic moments of its history that will determine our present and that of our future generations," he said. "After judging all the facts… I am sincerely sorry that I cannot sign acceptance of the Annan plan."
Turkish Cypriot slant
Though Papadopoulos's call to reject the plan amounts to a setback to the peace process, the Greek Cypriot stance has not prompted much surprise. The latest version of the U.N. blueprint was widely perceived as favoring the Turkish Cypriot side.
Cyprus has been divided since Turkey invaded the north in 1974 in response to a failed Greek Cypriot coup that was supported by Greece. A breakaway Turkish Cypriot state in the north is only recognized by Turkey, which maintains 40,000 troops there.
Under Annan's plan, separate Greek and Turkish Cypriot states would be created that would be linked by a weak federal government. It would also restrict movement and property rights, allowing no more than 18 percent of Greek Cypriots to move into the Turkish-controlled northern half for the first 18 years after reunification. An estimated 180,000 Greeks are seeking to return to their homes in the north.
Papadopoulos said on Wednesday that the plan was too biased. "The Turkish side gets all its demands from the first day of the imposition of a settlement… The plan writes off the Turkish invasion and the consequences of the occupation and legitimizes the illegal presence of the tens of thousands of Turkish mainland settlers," he said.
The Greek Cypriot leader added that the plan violated basic human rights and principles of the European Union ensuring the right of refugees to return and to repossess their properties.
Polls have shown a majority of Greek Cypriots are against the plan. Their main objection is that it limits the right of all Greek Cypriot refugees -- numbering about 200,000 -- to return to the north and reclaim their properties in accordance with Security Council resolutions, while allowing more than 60,000 Turkish mainland settlers in the north to remain.
Turkish Cypriots wavering too
Turkey in principle has accepted the U.N. peace plan and stands much to gain through reunification. Overnight, northern Cyprus, an internationally isolated and unrecognized state could become a member of the EU.
Though Turkey would be giving up some land, it would also gain political power in a united Cyprus, and the embargo against Turkish Cyprus would be suspended, bringing economic growth. A reunified Cyprus would also boost Turkey's own chances of joining the EU some day.
Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash
Despite those obvious advantages, Turkish Cypriot opinion is also split on acceptance. Polls indicate approval by a margin of only a couple of percentage points. Veteran Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash (photo) has shot down the plan and said on Wednesday that he would campaign hard for its rejection in the referendum.
Hope, though dim, still flickers
But all may not be lost yet. Turkish Cypriot Prime Minister Mehmet Ali Talat and Greek opposition leader George Papandreou have both appealed to people in both halves of the divided island to approve the U.N. plan so that Cyprus can enter the EU unified on May 1.
Even the EU's Expansion Commissioner Günter Verheugen, speaking in Brussels earlier, said the opportunity for reunification of the island "should not be missed." Verheugen added: "I can only express the hope that the two communities in Cyprus will seize this opportunity to reconcile their differences." If that doesn't happen however, the outcome looks bleak. Only the Greek half of Cyprus will enter the union and EU laws and benefits will only apply to the internationally recognized Greek Cypriot southern part of the island.