Cyprus still split over split

Saturday Cypriots vote on reunification. The Turkish side is poised to vote 'yes,' the Greek side is likely to vote 'no.'

Marios Vrachimis hopes he will at last be able to return to the home in northern Cyprus he has not seen since his family was forced to flee 30 years ago.

"I have the right to my memories. I want to walk the streets of my town," he says.

Mr. Vrachimis is one of 167,000 Greek Cypriots who were displaced when Turkish troops invaded northern Cyprus in 1974 after a short-lived coup in Nicosia, the capital. Forty thousand Turkish Cypriots were also displaced.

Until last year, when limited access was allowed across the divide, the two communities on the Mediterranean island had lived apart, separated by barbed wire and minefields along a buffer zone patrolled by one of the world's longest-serving United Nations peacekeeping forces.

But Saturday both sides will vote in separate referendums on whether to accept a comprehensive UN settlement plan that would enable a reunited Cyprus to join the European Union on May 1. Right now the referendum looks destined to fail; Saturday, the Greek Cypriots' biggest political party came out against the plan. If either side votes no, EU membership will effectively embrace only the prosperous Greek Cypriot community, which represents the island internationally.

The plan is strongly backed by the EU and the US. A settlement would save the EU from taking in a divided country. It would also bolster relations between NATO members Greece and Turkey and smooth Turkey's own EU accession course. Mediators insist that, most of all, it will benefit the people of Cyprus. The plan addresses the key concerns on both sides and is the "best and fairest chance for peace, prosperity, and stability that is ever likely to be on offer," said Kofi Annan, the UN secretary-general.

The plan envisages reuniting Cyprus under a loose, Swiss-style federation of two largely autonomous areas. The amount of the island's territory held by the Turkish side would be reduced from nearly 37 percent to 29 percent, enabling more than half the Greek Cypriot refugees to return to their ancestral homes under their own administration. Many others could gradually return to live in the Turkish Cypriot constituent state, while those who do not get all their property back would be compensated.

Thousands of Turkish Cypriots would need to be relocated because of the territorial handover, but tens of thousands of settlers from mainland Turkey, who arrived in northern Cyprus after the 1974 invasion, could remain.

Turkey's 35,000 troops in northern Cyprus would be reduced to 6,000 within 42 months. Eventually a token force of 650 Turkish and 950 Greek soldiers would remain to protect the respective constituent states while domestic armies would be disbanded and the 40-year-old UN peacekeeping force would be tripled in size to oversee the plan's implementation.

But according to Yiannis Papadakis, a social anthropologist at the University of Cyprus, "Both sides are so enclosed in their own feelings of victimization that they have never been able to listen to the other's pain and suffering."

A major psychological hurdle was cleared last spring when partial movement was allowed across the divide. In scenes that echoed the fall of the Berlin Wall, huge numbers of Greek and Turkish Cypriots, brimming with goodwill, have since crossed in opposite directions, renewing old friendships and making new ones.

Polls indicate, however, that the Greek side will reject the UN plan, while the Turkish side will endorse it. Years of international isolation and embargoes have left Turkish Cypriots with average wages only one-third of those in the Greek Cypriot south. A settlement would end their limbo status.

President Tassos Papadopoulos, the hard-line Greek Cypriot leader, has urged a "resounding no," insisting the plan would deepen and legalize the island's division rather than end it. There were no guarantees, he said, that the Turkish government would implement the plan, which requires it to gradually relinquish territory - enabling a majority of Greek Cypriot refugees to go home - and withdraw troops.

The EU, UN, and US insist that such guarantees are an integral part of the plan and that a reunited Cyprus within the EU bloc - and Turkey keen to follow suit - would ensure the settlement works.

There was an 11th-hour attempt by the US and Britain on Wednesday to support Mr. Annan in securing a UN resolution aimed at reassuring skeptical Greek Cypriots about the plan's security aspects. It was vetoed by Russia, which said that the measure was an attempt to influence the outcome of the vote.

Turkey, for its part, insists it will implement the deal. Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, has set his sights on EU membership and overrode strong opposition at home to back the UN plan.

Its endorsement by Turkish Cypriots on Saturday is likely to secure Ankara a date to begin its own EU accession talks. The EU has also made clear it will move to overcome the economic isolation of the Turkish Cypriots, if a Greek Cypriot "no" prevents them entering the bloc.

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