Originally published in Haaretz in a more concise version in Hebrew, and in this version on the English website, February 25, 2008. Links to both below.
Sunday night's election of Demetris Christofias, the Communist party's secretary general, as President of the Republic of Cyprus is indeed historic. For the first time the powerful Communist party, AKEL, no longer satisfied with its traditional role as king-maker, took the risk and proposed its leader as candidate for the presidency. Also, for the first time since independence in 1960, 390 eligible Turkish Cypriots living in the government controlled south, voted in a presidential election. But that is where historic developments end, because when it comes to the problem most often associated with Cyprus, its division into Turkish and government controlled parts, the fundamental problems remain the same.
Since April 2004, the outgoing President Tassos Papadopoulos was lambasted in the western media, by supporters of Turkey's accession to the European Union, and by political opponents at home, for his stance against the UN sponsored plan to reunify Cyprus. Papadopoulos managed to rally more than 75 percent of Greek Cypriots against the plan. Henceforth, he was blamed for the impasse that befell talks between the two communities, and was used as an excuse eight months ago by Christofias to pull out of the coalition government and declare his candidacy.
Indeed, last week's surprising elimination of Papadopoulos during the first round of elections, led many pundits to hail this as a positive omen for renewed efforts to reunify the island. It would be mistaken to think that Papadopoulos, the last of the 'old guard' of Cypriot politicians, was ousted because of his refusal to budge from his strict interpretation of what constitutes Greek Cypriot interests. Some proof of this is that the centrist party that backed him, DIKO, in its vast majority opted for Christofias and not his rightist opponent, Ioannis Kassoulides. This is precisely because most Greek Cypriots who voted against the UN plan in 2004 are still not convinced that its proponents, Kassoulides among them, will hold steadfastly to Greek Cypriot interests and not, to use a commonly used term in Cyprus, "sell us out."
Papadopoulos was eliminated for two main reasons - both domestic. The first has to do with pure miscalculation, even mismanagement of his campaign. Most voters were convinced that Papadopoulos would go through to the final round, and voted along partisan lines. Since the two largest parties in Cyprus are AKEL and DISY, the rightist party which backed Kassoulides, that is where the votes went. Secondly, an incumbent government in Cyprus always has many disgruntled voters to cater to. Notwithstanding the severe attacks against Papadopoulos in the past six months, for allegedly "greasing" the palms of voters many voted for the two main parties on the basis of promises for post-election jobs, agricultural grants, and other benefits.
What will Christofias do now? Like his rightist opponent, he expressed interest in meeting with the Turkish Cypriots and moving the issue forward. He has three advantages over Papadopoulos: many Turkish Cypriots, especially on the left, believe that the head of AKEL, the only party that historically had members from both communities, will be a more agreeable interlocutor than Papadopoulos, whose nationalist credentials stigmatized him; second, he is a fresh face, but at the same time an experienced hand in Cypriot politics; finally, he will be a novelty, the first Communist leader of an EU member state, and this may gain him a period of grace both within the Union and among those involved in the Cypriot issue.
But the obstacles preventing the reunification of Cyprus are substantial, and it is hard to see how Christofias will be able to overcome them unless dramatic changes are made on the Turkish side, and predominantly in Ankara. The same problems that plagued the UN plan, namely refugees, property rights, issues of sovereignty, the presence of Turkish settlers, and the continued presence of Turkish troops on the island, all contribute to the current impasse. Is the EU carrot still enticing enough for Ankara to budge? Is it even relevant in light of recent developments in Europe where key leaders view Turkish accession as impractical? Does Kosovo constitute a precedent in the case of Cyprus? No less important, do the Greek Cypriots really want to coexist in a bizonal federation with the Turks, or has this formula expired?
February 25, 2008
"I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free."
"Δεν ελπίζω τίποτε. Δεν φοβʊμαι τίποτε. Είμαι λεύτερος."
Epitaph, Nikos Kazantzakis
Epitaph, Nikos Kazantzakis