A FUNNY thing happened on the edge of Europe last week, when the second round of a presidential election on a divided Mediterranean island yielded a communist victor. Even more peculiar, arguably, was the reaction in some European capitals to this development: Jose Manuel Barroso, the head of the European Commission in Brussels, described it as an excellent opportunity “to overcome the longstanding stalemate”, while David Miliband, the British foreign secretary, saw the election result offering “a renewed sense of hope”.
Perhaps most remarkable of all is the reaction of Turkish Cypriot leader Mehmet Ali Talat, who has been speaking in terms of putting Cyprus back together again through a negotiated settlement “by the end of 2008”.
The reaction to the election of Demetris Christofias has not been uniformly positive, however. One member of AKEL, as the communist party in Cyprus is known, has been quoted as saying: “Sensible people are calling me, asking whether, as atheist communists, we’ll close down churches, abolish religious education classes and even stop Greek language and culture being taught in schools.” Christofias, who holds a doctorate in history from the Soviet-era Academy of Social Sciences in Moscow, has been irked by suggestions that he could turn out to be “a Mediterranean Fidel Castro”; he prefers to describe AKEL as “a party that cares of social justice” rather than as a Marxist-Leninist entity that poses a threat to the capitalist way of life in Cyprus.
AKEL traces its origins back to the foundation of the Communist Party of Cyprus in 1927, making it the oldest political organization in the country. After years of victimization by the British colonial authorities, it was reinvented as AKEL in 1946. Unlike most of the post-communist parties on the European mainland, it has persisted with traditional communist imagery of the hammer and sickle variety, and banners featuring Che Guevara were much in evidence during victory celebrations in Nicosia last week. However, notwithstanding the ideological contents of its constitutional manifesto, there aren’t many grounds for suspecting the party’s intent is anything other than moderately social democratic, or for doubting Christofias when he says his government will “work within the framework of the free market”.
While this is disappointing in some ways - it would have been interesting, to say the least, to see how the European Union (EU) would have coped with a member boasting a radical socialist agenda - the woes of Cyprus are primarily political in nature, and it is on this front that the advent of Christofias has rekindled hopes that were dashed four years ago when Greek Cypriots voted down a United Nations proposal for the reunification of Cyprus on the basis of a loose federation. At the time, President Tassos Papadopoulos - who second-term ambitions were thwarted in the first round of the presidential election last month - vociferously advocated a no vote in the referendum, and AKEL came down on the same side at the last minute. Rauf Denktash, too, was less than enthusiastic about Kofi Annan’s plan, but Turkish Cypriots ignored him and voted overwhelmingly in favour of reunification.
Brussels was keen on a reunified Cyprus joining the EU; ironically, those who voted against the Annan plan were allowed in, while those who backed it were left out. The Turkish Republic of North Cyprus, which Denktash established in 1983, has never been recognized by any country other than Turkey and North Korea. A trade embargo against the entity has entailed a great deal of economic pain, including an unemployment rate now estimated to be in the vicinity of 50 per cent. Small wonder, then, that Turkish Cypriots have been more than eager to rid themselves of the crippling straitjacket. The Annan plan offered them political parity and a great deal of autonomy within a federation; it would have allowed them to hold on to roughly one-third of the island, disproportionate to their numerical strength. It would also have permitted a fraction of the 35,000 Turkish troops stationed in north Cyprus to remain there for the time being. All of which helps to explain why Greek Cypriots were far more ambivalent about the UN proposals.
Given its ethnic composition - largely Greek - and its physical proximity to Turkey, it’s hardly surprising that Cyprus has had a convoluted, and often violent, history. The Turkish component of its population dates back to the Ottoman era. In the late 19th century, control of the island was ceded to the British in return for their assistance in the Russo-Turkish war. Britain annexed Cyprus in 1914, at the outbreak of the First World War, and recruited Cypriots to the war effort by promising union with Greece afterwards. The same ploy was used during the Second World War, whereafter the colonial power had to contend with growing local resistance, sometimes coordinated between Greek and Turkish Cypriots.
Cyprus was granted independence in 1960, and serious ethnic strife surfaced some three years later, partly as a consequence of the divide-and-rule strategies implemented by the British. UN troops have patrolled the island ever since. The big break came in 1974, when the military junta in Greece instigated a coup, backed by the CIA, against the reasonably popular government of Archbishop Makarios. He managed to elude would-be assassins and escaped abroad, from where he denounced what he described as an invasion. At this point Turkey - which technically shared responsibility for the island’s security alongside Greece and Britain - deemed it opportune to intervene militarily, occupying the parts over which Denktash subsequently established his rule.
In recent years, Turkey has been keen on a negotiated solution to the divide, if only because its occupation of one-third of Cyprus is incompatible with its urge for full EU membership. The circumstances for a settlement are propitious, not least because about three years ago, Denktash was succeeded by a left-wing critic, Mehmet Ali Talat. It so happens that he and Christofias have long been on cordial terms, not least on account of AKEL’s involvement in the trade union movement. Fortuitously, it is also the case that politicians on the left are far less likely to be prey to the ethnic prejudices that have for so long bedevilled the island.
It would be futile to pretend, however, that the road ahead will be anything other than bumpy. There are plenty of complications to be resolved, and almost no chance in the short term of an ideal solution that would enable all Cypriots, regardless of their origin, to coexist side by side. A bizonal, bicommunal federal won’t exactly dispense with the divide, but it will undoubtedly render it less unpalatable - and serve, hopefully, as the first step towards a rebirth in which ethnicity becomes redundant.
It would be almost criminal to squander the opportunity that has arisen. The concept of enosis - amalgamation with Greece - lost its validity a long time ago. Athens and Ankara would, in all probability, both be relieved to see the Cyprus knot untangled. Britain has shown no inclination to remove the two huge military bases it maintains in Cyprus, but the republic’s new president has described them as a “colonial bloodstain”, and a political settlement would make it easier for Nicosia to demand their removal.
The progress of Comrade Christofias will be followed with keen interest.