By Elias Hazou
The Anastasiades administration’s apparent intention to negotiate with Turkey the delineation of that part of the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) to the north of the island is arguably an exercise in futility given that Ankara does not even recognise the Republic, let alone parley with it.
To a number of political commentators, the reasoning behind the decision is not rocket science. The proposal is nothing more than an election gimmick, floated to corral the so-called ‘patriotic bloc’ of voters, some three months before the presidential elections.
Given the proposal’s unfeasibility in the real world, it’s intriguing how much play it got in the media, with one politician after another claiming ownership of it.
Following reports of the government’s intentions last Sunday, Diko leader and presidential candidate Nicolas Papadopoulos accused Anastasiades of purloining his EEZ idea.
The next to get hot under the collar was also-presidential hopeful Giorgos Lillikas. He lambasted Papadopoulos, contending that the EEZ proposal was in fact his own.
Lillikas claimed he had tabled the plan to the National Council as far back as February 2015.
Last to enter the fray was cranky Disy MP Eleni Stavrou who insisted she was the first to suggest this in an interview she gave to a media outlet years ago.
“This latest EEZ business is so patently asinine, it’s not even funny,” Stavros Tombazos, associate professor of political science at the University of Cyprus, told the Sunday Mail.
“Clearly it lacks any substance…let’s call it what it is, a strategy for internal consumption. With this proposal, Anastasiades is looking to pinch votes from the so-called ‘patriotic front’ – typically sympathisers of Diko, Edek, the Citizens Alliance and the Disy splinter group, Solidarity.
“If these tough-on Turkey antics can lure just 1 per cent of voters away from the other parties, that’s enough, mission accomplished.”
After reunification talks ended on a whimper earlier this year, the ‘Cyprus Problem’ is not exactly a hot draw for a jaded population. Thus, another gambit needed to be found to make the meme sexy once again – enter the EEZ idea.
But the broader question, said Tombazos, is why politicians in Cyprus engage in blatant populism and seem to get away with it.
A lot has to do with the political culture in the country, which has been dominated by the Cyprus problem theme.
“There exists a sort of speech terrorism in Cyprus, where if you say the ‘wrong’ thing or employ the wrong terminology – such as not using ‘pseudo’ every time one refers to the breakaway regime – you are labelled a traitor effectively,” said Tombazos.
“In this emotive climate, built up over decades, propaganda, stereotypes and sloganeering tend to flourish.”
That’s as far as the politicians go. What about the public, why do they stand for this behaviour?
“Cyprus lacks a strong civil society that can mount a sustained or effective reaction to whatever it perceives as wrong. We have a little of that going on now, what with social media and the like. But on balance, there is just not enough pressure from the public on politicians.”
The analyst cited one example of the lack of public engagement.
Earlier this month, Archbishop Chrysostomos admitted to having threatened the antiquities department after it refused to revoke the designation, as an archaeological site, of a plot of church-owned land in Yeroskipou, which he plans to lease out to an investor to build a luxury resort.
“Had this happened in any other country, it would have raised up a storm.”
That’s not to say that the Cypriot public does not react – it does, but not in a proactive manner.
Cypriots tend to manifest their disillusionment with politics through abstention, steadily on the rise over the past few years.
A number of factors have contributed, says Tombazos.
People tend to be more distrustful during times of economic hardship, and this certainly fits the bill in post-2013 Cyprus.
“People belonging to the ‘Left’ feel they were let down by the parties that represent them, especially by Akel. Those stung by the financial crisis believe that nothing was done subsequently to help them.
“And on the other hand, folks on the ‘Right’ are increasingly convinced that politicians care only for their careers. Little wonder, then, that more and more people choose to abstain from voting.”
If politicians have cottoned on to this it doesn’t show. Pragmatism and rationality continue to be shunned, says Tombazos, because the political culture is one of short-termism: let’s win the next elections on the horizon. Having a consistent message that makes sense doesn’t enter the picture – in fact, it can be an impediment.
Asked to comment on the government’s implausible EEZ proposal and the apparent lack of pragmatism in local politics, Antonis Ellinas, also an associate professor of political science at UCy, had this to say:
“Well, it depends on what you mean by pragmatism. As politicians see it, they are being very pragmatic, in that their goal is to win elections. Yes it’s a very narrow definition of pragmatism, but there you have it.”
The media – the public’s conduit to public affairs – shares the blame for the lack of critical analysis, thereby allowing politicians to get away with anything, noted political analyst Christoforos Christoforou.
“In what is a largely partisan media, the scope for proper discussion of any topic – take the EEZ proposal – is extremely limited. Rather than standing back and analysing how far the proposal is realistic or feasible, all the media outlets merely repeated what the politicians said about it,” he said.
“Sadly, political debate in Cyprus is not focused on what makes sense, but on whether something conforms to preconceived notions of how things ought to be.”
And the absence of potent ‘alternative’ political platforms leaves the public little room to escape the narrow confines of this type of discourse.
“Look at what the UniteCyprusNow movement is up against,” said Christoforou, alluding to the pro-peace bi-communal platform.
“They [politicians] have sought to discredit and demean this movement every step of the way.”