By Jean Christou
President, lawyer, negotiator, war hero and old sea dog
HOW DO you adequately do justice to the memory of a man whose presence in Cypriot politics was so large it spanned nearly 50 years?
Glafcos Clerides, former President, former House speaker, World War II hero, interlocutor, political party founder, lawyer, sea dog and author may fondly be remembered by the international community as the sparring partner of long-time nemesis Rauf Denktash. Paradoxically, he was also probably the closest thing to a Greek Cypriot friend that Denktash ever had.
But Clerides` commitment to Cyprus went much deeper than merely negotiating a settlement with the ‘enemy’. Politics was not a career for him. It was his whole life.
From the EOKA struggle for independence when he was fresh from the bar in London until he bowed out of politics shortly after his defeat to Tassos Papadopoulos in the 2003 presidential elections after two five-year terms.
Clerides at the age of 85, finally opted to spend more time on his beloved boat Katy II named after his only child, and working quietly on his series of books “My Deposition”.
He spent most of his last days at his seaside home in Meneou after the death in 2007 of Lila, his wife of 60 years. He cut a somewhat lonely figure during his subsequent rare public appearances, each time appearing more frail than the last.
There was always something a little ‘Churchillian” about Clerides, Perhaps it was the large cigar he toted during less formal events, the sense of humour, the little quips, the twinkle that always seemed to be present in his eyes and the feeling that he was always about to break into a smile as if something going on in his head was a source of constant amusement to him.
It made him look mischievous. And indeed on one occasion during a gathering in the gardens of the Presidential Palace he announced he would give 100 pounds to the first person that would jump into the swimming pool. A photographer obliged.
Former British envoy Lord David Hannay also recalled the ‘naughty boy’ in Clerides when the Greek Cypriots somehow managed to “purloin” a copy of an early draft of the Annan plan. “When I taxed Clerides with having purloined a UN document, he gave me a guilty smile like a child caught with his hand in the toffee jar”.
But it would be a mistake to say Clerides was just a cuddly, amenable old codger. Behind the twinkle in his eye lay a razor-sharp mind whose humour did not always mean negotiations were jolly occasions.
Hannay said the Clerides he met in his office “could be tetchy and irritable if he thought things were not going well or that he was being put under pressure”.
He said Clerides did not seem much interested in the day to day running of government and was puzzled and not particularly interested in the EU. His passion was the Cyprus problem. And even though he understood well that the Greek Cypriots had made major mistakes in the past, was determined to apply the lessons and find a solution, but “never at any price’.
Born in Nicosia on April 24, 1919, the son of prominent lawyer Ioannis Clerides who ran against Archbishop Makarios in the first elections following Independence, Glafcos Clerides served in WWII as an RAF radio operator and gunner.
Returning to Cyprus he, like his peers, fought against British colonial rule under the pseudonym ‘Hyperides’.
He broke ranks with his father during the 1960 elections and Makarios appointed him as the first Speaker of the House.
Clerides had a track record as an outstanding negotiator or interlocutor first with the British and then with the Turks. Those that know him say that at nearly every point over a turbulent 15 year period from 1960 to 1975, where a crisis was defused it was Clerides that did the defusing.
In the spring of 1960 a year after the Zurich agreement a major crisis arose between Makarios and the British over the size and function of the British bases. Makarios broke off communication with the bases negotiator who then turned to “Glafcos”. A compromise was soon worked out and has stood the test of time.
In 1967 he also played a role in defusing the crisis when Greece and Turkey moved towards the brink of war following an all out attack of Grivas forces on Turkish positions at Kofinou. Even though the crisis appeared to have been resolved at a higher level, then US ambassador Toby Belch said the credit really belonged to Clerides.
He also came close to an agreement with Denktash in 1968 and again in 1973 that would have averted the 1974 Turkish invasion but both compromises had been vetoed by Makarios.
After the invasion Clerides remained negotiator until 1976, and had served as acting President when Makarios was in exile from July to December 1974.
When Makarios returned Clerides left office amid criticism that he had overstepped his authority. In 1976 Clerides founded right-wing DISY but the Presidency eluded him twice, in 1983 to Spyros Kyprianou and in 1988 to George Vassiliou.
But it was third time lucky when he was elected in 1993 by a mere 1988 votes at the ripe old age of 73.
Oddly, while Clerides will be remembered by the international community as moderate compared to Tassos Papadopoulos, in 1993 the BBC talked about the mood of “doom and foreboding” heralded by Vassiliou’s election loss and the fact that Clerides had aligned himself in a coalition with the more hardline Spyros Kyprianou.
In the end the anticipated crisis never materialised but that is not to say Clerides coasted through his two presidential terms in domestic bliss. Like every President he had his detractors.
The biggest crisis faced by his government came in late 1998 over the deployment of the Russian S300 missile system. Clerides was accused of playing on defence issues to win votes as opinion polls showed overwhelming public support for the S300s a month before the elections in February of that year. The anti-aircraft missiles were ordered by in January 1997 but an international storm eventually forced Clerides to back off and by New Year’s Eve 1998 he had taken the decision pretty much alone to try and have the missiles deployed to Crete. The other political parties were furious but Clerides said he alone would shoulder the responsibility for the decision, which he said was “in the best interest of the Cypriot people”.
Clerides also lost some of the popular vote over his apparent initial support of the Annan plan, which likely helped lead to his defeat to Papadopoulos in the 2003 elections. But there is no doubt that overall during his two presidencies Cyprus prospered significantly. A stabilised economy helped make Cyprus the wealthiest of the ten new EU members in 2004.
Although neither Rauf Denktash nor Glafcos Clerides had managed to put right the mistakes of the past during their terms of office, Clerides will always be remembered for being the force for good that essentially he was in Cyprus politics
Asked once if Denktash, who would be vice president in the event of a unified island wanted a settlement, Clerides said: “If Denktash had to choose between being the president of a Lilliputian state and being the vice president of a pygmy state he would prefer to be the president of a Lilliputian state.”
In an even more insightful comment on the state of the Cyprus issue, he once lamented: “The flag of the Republic of Cyprus is the best in the world because it’s the only one that no one would die for.”
Yet he gave his own life over to it wholeheartedly and tirelessly for half a century.
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