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Cyprus Faces International Criticism on Eve of EU Membership - 2004-04-29

The Mediterranean nation of Cyprus becomes one of 10 new members of the European Union on Saturday, but only the ethnic-Greek southern part of the island will join and under a cloud of international criticism after its people voted down a U.N. plan for reunification with Turkish Cypriots in the north.

Well before its official entry into the European Union on May 1, the distinctive blue EU flag, with its circle of gold stars was fluttering in Cyprus. Cypriots seemed eager to take their place at the EU table.

Former Cypriot President George Vassiliou was the chief negotiator for Cyprus's accession to the union.

"The European Union, in my opinion, is the future," he announced. "The European Union is exactly what we want to achieve - forgetting about the past, forgetting about the wars and the suffering of the past and building together a future."

Cyprus joins the European Union, but not quite as Mr. Vassiliou had hoped. The internationally recognized Greek Cypriot government will take the southern part of the divided island into the European club, while Turkish Cypriots in the north will be left out. Despite intense international efforts, Greek-Cypriot voters overwhelmingly rejected a U.N.-mediated plan to reunite the island, blocking its implementation. Their Turkish-Cypriot compatriots voted in favor of the plan.

Former President Vassiliou said that the Greek Cypriot 'no' vote will have repercussions.

"Cyprus will join the Union, I agree," he said. "But Cyprus in the Union will be essentially an isolated state. The international community and the European Union are very much upset with Cyprus and they have said that."

Rejection of the U.N. plan sparked widespread international criticism and accusations of bad faith and even deception by the Greek Cypriot government of President Tasso Papadopoulos, who campaigned vehemently against the plan.

At a news conference in Nicosia following the vote, President Papadopoulos brushed aside talk of isolation, but acknowledged there was some explaining to do.

"First, you have to work very hard and that we intend to do, to explain our position to all the countries," he stated. "I believe our decision was not arbitrary or unjustified. I will do all I can myself, our ambassadors, special emissaries, which I will send to as many Cabinets as I can. When I go to heads-of-state dinners, do you think the waiter will pass me over, not serve me?"

Mr. Papadopoulos attended an EU ministerial meeting in Luxembourg this past week, where, during an official luncheon, he had to listen to some very blunt criticism of his government's handling of the Cyprus referendum and the Greek-Cypriot rejection of the U.N. plan.

Since then, the European Union has said it would work to help ease the effects of the economic isolation the Turkish Cypriots are experiencing and it has already announced an aid package and other measures to do that.

However, Cyprus analyst James Ker-Lindsay of the Civilitas research center in Nicosia, cautions there is only so much the European Union can do.

"They will not want to take steps, which are seen to go over the sovereignty of a particular member," he explained. "This has very serious implications. How would Britain feel, if the European Union tried to bypass London and deal with Northern Ireland directly? I think, member states will be very acutely aware of this."

Cyprus was divided in 1974, after Turkish troops invaded the northern part of the island in response to a coup in Nicosia, aimed at uniting the island with Greece. It has been divided into the Turkish-Cypriot north and the Greek-Cypriot south for 30 years, only Turkey recognizes northern Cyprus as an independent state.

Mr. Ker-Lindsay said that the European Union will have to tread carefully and not take any actions that might imply recognition of northern Cyprus and thus legitimize the island's division. He predicts there will be further efforts to resolve the issue and increased pressure on the Greek Cypriots to come to terms on reuniting the island.