The loser takes all

Observations on Cyprus

''I haven't drunk this wine since 1974," remarked my Turkish Cypriot host, an adviser to President Rauf Denktash, as he placed a bottle of Greek (Paphos) red on the table. "But they tell me it is still quite good."

It was the hour of decision on the future of Cyprus. As we sat in the shade of the Kyrenia mountains looking across the narrow strait towards Turkey, the polls in the Greek south were closing. The exit polls immediately indicated a crushing No to Kofi Annan's 9,000-page plan for reunification. On the Turkish side of the island, everyone expected a big Yes. But only the Greek side's votes would count.

Historians will be mystified as to why experienced diplomats such as the UN secretary-general and the EU enlargement commissioner, Gunter Verheugen, devised a referendum that gave one side a veto. Greek Cyprus would enter the EU on 1 May, regardless of the result. So Greeks who resented the loss of property after the Turkish army invaded in 1974 could vote for their maximal demands, not for what was on offer from Annan.

After 30 years of being blamed as the intransigent ones, many Cypriot Turks were basking in the unaccustomed sunshine of international approval. But would they get more than a pat on the back from Brussels? Days before the not-so-joyous entry of Greek Cypriots to the EU, the European Commission agreed to give Turkish Cypriots the 259m euros earmarked for them in the event of a vote for unity on the Greek side. This will be a lifeline to Mehmet Ali Talat, the north's prime minister, who urged a Yes vote and now has to prove that his policy will bring benefits to the embargoed north.

But will it be enough? Trade, not aid, is the real prize. The north wants the port of Famagusta reopened and the restoration of direct flights. Talat was appointed last December on the promise that he could get Brussels to lift the embargo on Turkish Cypriots and even get them into the EU itself. Denktash, by contrast, argued for a No vote: the Greeks, he said, would never agree to any plan acceptable to the Turks. Hadn't he been proved right?

Sipping wine, Denktash's man judged that, despite losing the referendum, the president had won the argument. The Greeks had voted to keep the island divided. They had brought closer the day when the current blockade, by all except Turkey, on the unrecognised Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus would be broken. For more than 30 years Denktash has played a long game. It is not over yet.

This article first appeared in the 03 May 2004 issue of the New Statesman, Religion: Why do we still give a damn?