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An emotional issue

Heading the Greek Cypriot team in the peace talks is a delicate balancing act. THEO PANAYIDES meets our man with a mission


I didn’t know the Latin term ‘ad referendum’ till I met Andreas Mavroyiannis, so I looked it up. It means “for further consideration by one having the authority to make a final decision”, so anything said ‘ad referendum’ is subject to approval by someone higher up the food chain. Andreas makes a point of speaking ‘ad referendum’ in his new job, indeed he could hardly do otherwise: he’s our chief negotiator – representing President Anastasiades in his capacity as leader of the Greek Cypriot community – at the UN-sponsored peace talks on the Cyprus problem, which will hopefully make progress soon if the sides ever agree (at time of writing, they hadn’t) on a Joint Declaration.

It’s frustrating, admits Andreas in his rather reedy voice as we sit around a conference table in his smallish office: “We want, on the one hand, to get it right, and on the other to advance quickly – and neither of the two is happening right now!”. He laughs with a touch of nervousness, indeed his whole body language is nervous. He seems tense and ill-at-ease, sitting with his arms folded tightly as we talk, occasionally glancing at the floor or shifting position, planting his hands on the table as if he’s about to get up. For the first few minutes, he barely even makes eye contact.

It seems rather odd behaviour for an experienced negotiator – he was also part of the team for the bicommunal talks that resulted in the Annan Plan (which he ended up opposing) between 2002 and 2008 – and lifelong diplomat. “Throughout my career I was kind of, you know, a public face,” as he puts it. “I’ve had many postings that were in the public eye, so people know who I am”. Maybe they do – but this job is different, not just high-profile but, he admits, “an emotional issue”. People want to know who the man at the negotiating table is, and whether he’ll look out for their interests – but the man himself doesn’t welcome the attention, being, he insists, “a private person”.

“I’m not happy when I’m in the news,” says Andreas, blue eyes looking slightly hunted in his fleshy face with its thin, birdlike nose and full head of silvery hair. “I don’t see this as a plus. I see this as a minus”. That explains the nervousness, then – and of course it’s not just his temperament, it’s also that too much media attention gets in the way of his job. There’s a balancing act, he points out: on the one hand, “the legitimate interest of the people to know what is happening”, on the other … well, he smiles slyly, “there is a saying that negotiations grow in the dark”. It’s a reminder that he’s always been subtly sheltered in his professional life, doing the kinds of discreet, technocratic jobs that involve lots of meetings and facades of harmonious blandness: he was twice Ambassador (to Ireland, then France), Permanent Representative to the UN, and – probably his proudest achievement – Deputy Minister for European Affairs during Cyprus’ EU Presidency.

profile2-Heart in Europe - Andreas Mavroyiannis gives a speech in Brussels
Andreas Mavroyiannis gives a speech in Brussels

Did he push for those top-level jobs?

“No, never in my life. I’ve never asked for any specific job in my life”. He shakes his head slowly. “Usually, when something was proposed to me, I just went along. I never asked for any specific job, and I never refused any specific offer”.

Andreas seems to be the kind of person who makes a good consensus candidate, someone all parties (literally and figuratively) can agree on. Not only is he congenial and happy to go with the flow, he’s also blissfully unaffiliated: “I never belonged to any political party,” he notes – then hesitates, as if reluctant to blow his own horn: “I’m kind of more of an intellectual, if you like, with social sensitivity but a liberal approach to economy and markets”.

He spent most of his 20s in academia, taking three DEAs (the French equivalent of a Master’s degree) in International Law, Political Science and Sociology, as well as a PhD in Sociology. He remains an avid bookworm – though the negotiations have cramped his style somewhat – often reading five to 10 books at the same time. ‘Like what?’ I ask, but he’s not really the type to offer strong opinions. Oh, anything, he replies: fiction, non-fiction, memoirs, history books, “whatever comes”. Pressed to name specific titles, he recalls Les Bienveillants, the Jonathan Littell novel that won the Prix Goncourt some years ago – and of course poetry, especially Greek poetry: Elytis, Seferis, Cavafy.

“Cavafy you can translate very easily,” he tells me, his body language seeming to relax slightly, “because what is most important is not what the words are saying, but what is behind. As the linguists would say, it’s not the signifying that matters, but the signified. You have the exact opposite in a poet like Elytis – in Elytis, what is most amazing is the words, the signifying. Because there, you can dream of everything. It does not matter what is behind the words – there is something different for every person. It is the beauty of the words that matters.”

I get the impression that you’re closer to Cavafy in your approach to life, I venture.

“Yes,” he replies. “Certainly.” Not only is Cavafy a great poet, but “from the philosophical point of view, I believe I’m very close to him.”

How would he define that philosophy?

Andreas hesitates. “In Greek we would say Dorikos [Doric],” he hazards, trying to describe his aesthetic. “So, it’s beautiful but it’s clear-cut, there are no ornaments”. Something like the Parthenon – “very straight,” as he puts it, preferring not to use the word ‘austere’ (austerity has a bad rep at the moment). Simply put, he doesn’t go in for ostentation – not just in poets and pillars, but also in people. “My family and friends are not people that like to show off. We just enjoy simple things in life.”

Speaking of family, here’s a quick summary. Andreas is married and has two children, Diomedes and Athena, both now in their 20’s. He was born in the village of Agros 57 years ago, one of seven siblings, his father a furniture maker turned EOKA fighter turned migrant worker (he was working abroad during most of Andreas’ childhood) turned restaurant owner. Almost all his early tension seems to have dissipated as we chat about these things. In the end, maybe what upsets his self-effacing temperament isn’t talking to the press but talking about the Cyprus problem – that intractable problem whose solution “has been eluding us for so many years”, invariably addressed by politicians spouting the kind of high-flown, non-Doric phrases he himself despises.

The problem has followed him all his adult life – literally so, because he turned 18 on July 20, 1974, the day of the Turkish landings (“Many calamities happened on that day, including my birth!” he notes with the air of an old joke). He volunteered to fight but was sent home after one day, due to a shortage of weapons, did auxiliary work for the duration then joined up for his two years of National Service in November. At the time, he recalls, many of his friends hoped they wouldn’t have to do 26 months, because a solution would be found and the army would be abolished. No-one imagined that negotiations would still be taking place, and Cyprus still divided, 39 years later.

Andreas is under no illusions about the magnitude of the task faced by our team (indeed, both teams). He knows that many people have become cynical about the whole process. “It’s very easy to become cynical,” he admits, “because there are a lot of grounds that can make you cynical – above all the fact that we’ve tried so many times, the whole political system in this country was built around the Cyprus problem and nothing came of it. But my personal approach is that when we don’t have any [other] options, we just have to continue trying. I’m very pragmatic in saying this – because we can’t just give up. We need to build a future for our country.”

What if the better future lies in two separate states, though?

He shakes his head firmly: “Ethically and morally, I cannot compromise with the idea that my country will remain divided”. Besides, he adds, “today we have a much more mature political society than 40-50 years ago”. The danger of extremists on both sides scuppering a solution with bombs is overstated. And of course there’s Europe.

That’s the ultimate safeguard – and the ultimate ideal underlying the political philosophy of Andreas Mavroyiannis. He didn’t just come of age with the Turkish invasion, he’s also the same age as the European Union (having been born nine months before the signing of the Treaty of Rome), and his reverence for that institution is a big part of why he’s optimistic about reaching a settlement. “I’m 100 per cent European,” he announces proudly.

“This has been the big vision of my life,” he asserts, warming to his theme. “I was, from very young, one of the people who saw the future of Cyprus in the EU, well before we applied for membership, and I was one of the people that worked very hard for the accession of Cyprus”. In the 80s and 90s, working at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, he toiled at making Cyprus look presentable as an EU candidate, seeing that as “the natural course” for our little island. “I think this is the biggest success of our country, to manage to get into the EU. Where would we have been today without that?”

Well, exactly, I respond – where would we be? Maybe better off? Maybe haircut-free? Maybe better able to weather the crisis?

“How? Where? With whom? With whom?” sputters Andreas.

Well, I offer, if we were able to make our own policy…

“But you see that we are not able to make our own policy! We are a small country in the middle of nowhere, if we are not in the European Union.”

Andreas Mavroyiannis was never (he says) the ambitious type. “Nothing very specific,” he replies when I ask what he wanted to be as a younger man. He doesn’t consider himself a born diplomat, or indeed a born anything: “If tomorrow I were to do something else, I would do it”. Maybe that’s why he’s drawn to the EU, with its solid institutions and rational, technocratic way of doing things – and maybe that’s why he’s a good negotiator, able to strike a balance between experience and intelligence on the one hand, humility and absence of ego on the other. “I don’t have any magic recipe, or magic wand,” he warns. Needless to say, “there’s always the ambition to manage to make the difference … If I can have any positive contribution, I will be most happy. But I don’t want to appear as somebody who believes that he is special, and he is the saviour. No, no, it’s not my style.”

Will the talks succeed? Ordinary people tend to doubt it. “What we lack right now is real hope,” admits Andreas. “People do not believe that this is possible. They want it, but they don’t believe. We need to restore hope”. Society’s on the ropes, I point out. The timing of the talks was imposed on us (“It was imposed?” he muses, with a deep sigh; “I don’t know if it was imposed…”), there’s a danger of accepting an inadequate solution just to help us through the crisis. Yet our self-effacing, poetry-loving chief negotiator remains optimistic.

“I don’t believe there can be a bad settlement for the Cyprus problem,” says Andreas Mavroyiannis. There are so many safeguards, from the EU ‘family’ to the final referendum, that no unacceptable settlement could ever be imposed on us. “The real question is whether there will be a settlement or not”. This writer’s personal opinion – based on the talks so far – is that there probably won’t be. But of course I only say that ‘ad referendum’.

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