Tassos Papadopoulos is pleased. In a televised address two weeks ago, the Greek Cypriot leader urged his people to vote oxi (Greek for no) in the April 24 referendum on the latest United Nations plan to reunite the Greek and Turkish sides of the Mediterranean island. Since then, Greek Cypriots have taken up their President's call with fervor. Oxi fever is sweeping southern Cyprus: the slogan screams out from highway billboards, T shirts and posters; one hearse in Paphos drove to the graveyard with an oxi sticker on the windshield. From the pulpit, Cypriot Orthodox priests have pilloried the mild-mannered U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan as a "Judas" and branded his plan dangerous, even "satanic." Mobile phones are lighting up with anti-Annan sms messages. "What do you say to the Annan plan?" asked the teacher last week in one Nicosia nursery school. "Oxi!" piped a room full of 2-year-olds.
"My speech had a wider appeal than I expected," Papadopoulos, 70, tells Time in his stately presidential palace overlooking the capital, Nicosia. Last week, opinion polls said 60-70% of Greek Cypriots will oppose the Annan plan; only 15% say they are in favor. The scene could hardly be more different on the Turkish side of the island. Evet (yes in Turkish) stickers are everywhere. On Wednesday, about 40,000 young protesters, mostly students, turned out on the Turkish side of Nicosia to chant: "But of course, yes!" and "Just yes, Mom!" A poll last week found 63% will back the plan.
The trouble is, rejection by either side will torpedo the effort and Cypriots may never get another chance to reunite their island. If one side says no, the Greek Cypriots will enter the European Union on May 1, leaving Turkish Cyprus isolated. The U.N., E.U., U.S. and Turkey and even to some extent the Greek Cypriots' traditional allies in Athens all favor the plan, and have warned this could be Cyprus' last opportunity to find a solution. "There is no Plan B," said U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell last week. Far from getting another "bite at the cherry," as one U.N. official puts it, Greek Cypriots may be facing de facto permanent partition of their island, barring them from one of the most fertile and picturesque parts of their beloved homeland.
Cyprus has been keeping international negotiators busy since an Athens-backed coup triggered the invasion of the northern part of the island by Turkish troops in 1974. Today, U.N. peacekeepers still keep the two sides apart along a fortified "green line" that runs the width of the island, trimmed with sandbags and razor wire. The Annan plan is the most ambitious effort to find a solution so far: a 9,000-plus-page tome that would establish a Swiss-style "United Cyprus Republic" in which two constituent states are unified by a federal government but retain responsibility for their own daily affairs, from policing to tax collection. The plan is minutely detailed, providing the colors of a new flag and even the score of a new national anthem (you can listen to it at www.cyprus-un-plan.org). U.N. negotiators had hoped that this time pressure from the E.U. and the fact that Turkey wants to join would get results where previous efforts have failed.
Turkey lifted its historical objection to a deal under the country's new Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who managed to convince that country's powerful military that a unified Cyprus meant one step down the road to future prosperity inside the E.U. The Turkish Cypriot leader, Rauf Denktash, known as Mr. No for his stubborn refusal to accept peace overtures, was sidelined. Greek Cypriot leaders, meanwhile, suddenly found themselves forced to declare their objections after years of letting Denktash be the spoiler. Papadopoulos' televised speech spelled out the obstacles: Turkish Cypriots and Turkey were favored by the U.N. and in the plan, he claimed. Greek Cypriots would suffer "unbearable economic effects." Many of them would not be able to return to their homes in the north, and too many Turkish settlers and troops would be allowed to stay. And anyway, Papadopoulos says, there is no assurance that Turkey will fulfill its obligations and hand over the land. "We would be buying only hope," he complains.
Papadopoulos dismisses warnings that this is the last chance, though he also allows that the odds of permanent partition, something he says he's worked his life to prevent, are increasing. Bishop Chrysostomos, leader of the island's Orthodox faithful and an ardent backer of the oxi campaign, is defiant: "As soon as we say no, six days after [that] we will be in the E.U.," he says, proudly. "Our voice will be heard even louder." Will anyone still be listening?