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A new normal

Political heavyweight Takis Hadjidemetriou has spent 20 years as an MP in Cyprus before moving on. It became a way of life he tells THEO PANAYIDES


So tell me, I ask Takis Hadjidemetriou – surrounded by paintings and mementos in his cosy abode in the centre of Nicosia – are you proud of your generation? Are you proud of their achievements? Takis, after all, will be 80 next month; he belongs, as he puts it, “to the generation that lived through the entire history of [modern] Cyprus”. You and your brethren built it all, I point out, everything we see, everything we know. Are you proud?

He fixes me with a mournful glare; his basso profondo is deep and dolorous. “I despair, my friend,” he intones. He’ll often punctuate a sentence with ‘my friend’, a lifelong politician’s ingratiating habit. “Because look at what kind of Cyprus we set out to achieve, and look at where we are now. It’s like [poet George] Seferis says: ‘Wherever I travel, Greece wounds me’ – well, Cyprus wounds us. But I want to be wounded. Because I want to be a Cypriot for the whole of Cyprus.”

That’s his cue for a passionate speech on the trauma of crossing borders and seeing one’s home occupied by strangers, culminating in a vow that he’ll never give up trying, “with the hope that someday we’ll be able to create new conditions”. There are lots of passionate speeches in our hour-long conversation; Takis is fighting a cold, and sometimes interrupts to sniffle or blow his nose – but he’s mostly in robust form and even, when he talks about media coverage of the work done by the bicommunal Technical Committee on Cultural Heritage (one of his proudest achievements), gets so angry that he bangs his fist on the living-room table. Fortunately my phone happens to ring at that precise moment, and the interruption calms him down. “I apologise for becoming enraged,” he says sweetly. “But this business makes me suffer, it makes me suffer!”

He’s great fun to talk to – though it’s only later, when I look through my notes, that I realise I didn’t get very much. Most of his answers are variations on the same thing – the need for a solution to the Cyprus problem, the need for mutual understanding, the need to heed the “messages” being sent out by the international community.

None of this is especially original. When he’s saying it, however, it sounds momentous, gleaming pearls of wisdom plucked from the innermost depths of his psyche. Much of that is down to his manner and bearing – a tall man, only slightly hunched by age, his big hands enfolded as he talks. He’s extravagantly courteous, and seems very sharp (though again, it’s only when I listen back to our conversation that I note how seldom he lets me finish a question, rushing to answer as soon as he hears a buzzword). And of course there’s that voice – a deep booming voice, an orator’s voice. One can easily imagine that voice wrapping itself around countless political speeches in countless village halls and party gatherings. Takis was an MP for 20 years (1976-81, then 1985-2001), and spent countless evenings rallying the rural faithful. “I’d go to some village or other every night, as an MP,” he recalls with a smile. “I still have the files. I don’t have the heart to throw them away.”

That last part is easy to believe – because Takis is obviously a hoarder, his home bearing witness to his magpie sensibility. That home is another reason why our conversation is memorable: not an especially large house but absolutely strewn with paintings, artworks, decorative plates, Japanese prints, wood carvings, mosaics, gravures, old high-school photos, souvenirs from Madeira, Paris, Costa Rica – and that’s not even mentioning his private study, a long narrow room where the visitor has to sidestep not just piles of books (there’s no room on the bookshelves) but also piles of unread newspapers. He gives me a tour before we start, pointing out paintings on the walls. “That one’s a Stathis,” he says. “From before he got discovered”. ‘Are you a collector?’ I ask – and he shakes his head mournfully, as if I’d inadvertently asked about some medical condition. “It’s a way of life, my friend…”

That’s a recurring phrase: ‘a way of life’. Politics was a way of life, a sense of mission – of vocation – being very strong in Takis; had he been religious (as opposed to a lifelong socialist), he’d have made a pretty good missionary. It was also ‘a way of life’ that prompted his father Efstathios to volunteer to fight for Greece in the Balkan Wars and Greco-Turkish War, from 1912 to 1922. Takis wrote a book about it last year, titled Oudena Misthon Elaven (‘No Salary Did He Receive’), the title making clear what he most admires about his dad’s unforced patriotism. Those years of service defined Efstathios’ life, and hence the lives of his children (Takis and his sister) – because after being demobbed, already in his late 30s, he never really found a steady job, with severe consequences for his cash-strapped family. “We had a hard time, my friend, a very hard time,” booms Takis dolefully. “And it was that which made me a socialist. It wasn’t Marxism, it was life that made me a socialist”.

As a teen, he was violently angry: “I wanted the world to be overthrown so I could find my place in it. I felt that society was created to oppress us, to exploit us, to crush us, and I wanted all those things to be overthrown”. His left-wing convictions went hand-in-hand – unusually, by today’s standards – with a love of Greece and all things Greek; this, after all, was the time of EOKA and ‘enosis’, and Greek culture shone as a talisman in a time of colonial rule. Even now, he disclaims all ability to conduct our interview in English (despite having worked extensively with UN officials and Turkish Cypriots) and can’t resist a little dig when he admits to loving TS Eliot “despite the poverty of the English language”. Culture was important; for a decade after independence he was on the editorial team of Kypriaka Chronica, the main (or only) Cypriot literary magazine of the era. “My entry into politics came through culture,” he explains.

Yet he didn’t study Literature or History; he studied Dentistry and became a dentist, a profession he practised all his working life. It wasn’t easy. He’d wake up at four or five in the morning, he relates (he’s one of those lucky people who can function on four hours’ sleep), write his speeches and articles, prepare for Parliament – then he looked at people’s mouths and extracted teeth all day, came home in the evening and headed off to this or that village, wearing his political hat.

Family life suffered badly; his children (now in their 40s) still complain that he’d promise to take them to the park when they were young, and never did. Yet he stayed the course, for two reasons. The first, and more obvious, was that dentistry offered security; the boy who grew up poor cared very much about financial stability. The second was that being a dentist was an independent job, outside the sphere of political favour. “I didn’t want to become dependent on the party”.

That’s a problem in Cyprus, especially it seems on the Left. AKEL have been crippled by this problem, as became apparent in the Christofias administration. When the man from Dikomo became President, Takis rejoiced that bilateral politics had finally come to Cyprus: “At that point it could’ve become a case of AKEL having 50 per cent and the Right having 50 per cent, and the two of them alternating in government” – but they failed dismally, precisely because “they never went beyond a partisan sensibility”. People who’d been dependent on the party all their lives proved unable to look beyond it.

Takis’ own party was EDEK (indeed, he was among its founding members) but he managed to look beyond it – and ended up leaving on bad terms, his last decade having been spent in a kind of “internal opposition”. They parted ways on the Cyprus problem and Takis’ growing awareness, after the end of the Cold War, that division could only be healed by moving beyond the language of rejection and confrontation. “When the Boutros Ghali plan came out, I realised it was part of the path towards a solution,” he recalls. “My party was talking of rejecting it, [but] I was saying we should discuss these things”.

The Annan plan in 2004 was even more divisive. By then he was no longer an MP – but held an important post as EU harmonisation co-ordinator, which he resigned after finding himself in “total conflict” with the Papadopoulos government. The referendum was undermined, he says hotly, propagandistic media coverage of Burgenstock (where the final negotiations took place) painting mutually-agreed positions as concessions to the Turks. As for the current demonisation of the Annan plan, “there hasn’t been a plan since the time of Radcliffe which hasn’t left its mark on the solution of the Cyprus problem – so it’s idiotic to talk of rejecting this and that. Nothing goes away! Every plan leaves its mark on the path to come.”

profile2-Hadidemetriou was an MP for 20 years

That’s another of his many passionate speeches – and there isn’t space to give every detail, but basically his argument comes down to this: we must stop insisting on “dogmatic positions” and deal with the world as it is, not as we’d like it to be. We must stop, for instance, talking of the UN as if it were a court meting out justice (when in fact it’s “a political organ”) or calling on the EU to enforce a solution when it doesn’t even have a foreign policy. Above all, we must look to the future – or, to quote a passage from his book The 24 April 2004 Referendum and the Solution of the Cyprus Problem, written soon after the Annan plan was rejected:

“This book does not claim that the arguments used by all those who voted against the plan are totally groundless. They were founded, however, on stagnation, and based on feelings of mistrust of the other side. On the contrary, the positive response towards the plan was based on exactly the opposite logic. It was obvious that a ‘YES’ vote included the element of danger and uncertainty that the major change could produce. It did, however, open prospects and possibilities that would lead Cyprus and its people to a future that was different.”

So here he is now, the political doctor (dentist, whatever) with a sense of mission and a house full of memories. He looks forward to a new round of talks, convinced that money can triumph where common sense failed for so long – “There’s no exploitation of natural gas, and there’s no solution to the economic [crisis], unless there’s a solution to the Cyprus problem,” he declares flatly – and looks back fondly to his own political journey, from socialist firebrand to champion of bicommunal co-operation. 

Is it fair to say he’s found his true self in the past decade? “There comes a time when you’re free of all bonds, party and otherwise,” he replies. “And I can honestly say that I feel more myself. I lost a lot of friends, I gained a lot of new ones. But I’m not erasing my previous history – because I gave myself body and soul to these things. Political action wasn’t just a job for me.”

How much longer can he go on? He’s not starting any new projects, he says with a twinkle, but does hope to bring the existing ones to fruition. Will he live to see the “new message”, as he calls it? “Listen, in politics – well, that’s the advantage of politics. It takes centuries to create a culture, but in politics you can create a new situation from one day to the next”. And do people accept the new normal? “Straight away! I’ve seen that in my life, where the whole climate changes overnight”.

“At my age, I no longer have role models,” intones Takis Hadjidemetriou at one point – yet in fact his whole philosophy hinges on role models, men like his father who set out to do the right thing, or the bearers of a messianic “message” that can change a whole society. We don’t have a climate of trust, I lament; how can we work with the Turkish side when we don’t have a climate of trust? “I place a lot of emphasis on leadership,” he replies. “That the leadership will act as a teacher. Because yes, in politics and democracy, a politician acts as a teacher sometimes”. Sounds like that orator’s voice hasn’t made its last speech yet.

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