25 April 2004

Why would a normally cautious U.N. tie its name to an uncertain plan for Cyprus? When the U.N. Secretary General is being slammed over Rwanda and slandered over Food for Oil in Iraq, why would one add a political failure in Cyprus? Either the Secretary General is under irresistible pressure or he was misguided into the belief that all will go very well in the end and the U.N. could claim at least one success in a clearly bleak season. Hence those advance media announcements about meeting in the mountainous resort of Birkenstock (of the special sandal's fame!). Kofi Annan need not be an expert on Cyprus like Javier Perez de Ceullar who was Special Representative there, but he knows the intricate nature of negotiating with Greek and Turkish Cypriots including the bargaining system that is a modus operandi in the region. A Cypriot child is more a born negotiator than many a former ambassador to Istanbul, Athens or New York. If it was decided to tie the Secretary General to a plan, then it should be put forward forcefully and effectively, then stick to it.

Any subtle shift in press statements or a hint of a rehashed draft will be perceived immediately as an opening for further demands and counter-demands. A jovial dinner or an exchange of charming pleasantries may create a welcome atmosphere. But that's it. Little would be expected from a "take it or leave it" plan moving round in verbal circles: once appealing to the Greek Cypriots, then to the Turkish Cyprus, then to Ankora or Athens, then to both, then flown to the thin cold air of Birkenstock. Eventually, a U.N. plan aiming, supposedly, at unifying the Island ended up looking like an international endorsement of its partition.

A vote scheduled on 24 April before Cyprus is slated to join the European Union on the first of May. But tea leaves were required to foresee the likely outcome. Even before the vote, an atypically irritated Mr. Annan issued a statement expressing anger at the Island's Greek President Papadopoulos, while putting down the Turkish leader Rauf Denktash. That outburst may work into the hands of his detractors. Besides, it was against a wise old African advice that you don't provoke the crocodiles before crossing the river. Any visitor to Nicosia driving in any direction can see predominant posters announcing: "OXI" meaning "No." After decades of "NAI" (Yes) to U.N. efforts, why did it get to the point of OXI? Some Greek Cypriot leaders are referring to the proposed plan as "ethnic cleansing." Already, the powerful Synod of the Greek Orthodox Cyprus church issued an Easter Day proclamation urging people to vote against the plan. So did AKEL, an influential leftist political party.

The outcome of 24 April should not be the end of the international effort, but the BEGINNING of a new approach. Cypriot factions -- particularly political leaders -- have too much to lose from an equitable agreement. The Cypriot people may have a yearning to join together and forge ahead in a new life, but they will need clear encouragement in a sensitive intense respectful campaign that could effectively mobilize the civil society on all sides, rather than just "have a word" with a few politicians or present fresh baked cookies to a distinguished archbishop. A clear solid plan requires a consistently clear straight line and a fully mobilized approach to move ahead. Thirty years of separation can not be overturned through remote control from New York or spare meetings, however cordial, even in the crisp ambience of Birkenstock. It may be about time for our colleagues concerned to take off their laid back sandals and put on their hiking boots.