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Divided Island

The Players: Glafcos Clerides

Glafcos Clerides
Glafcos Clerides

This is one of a series of articles from our new feature ‘Background briefing: The Divided Island‘. It is a comprehensive interactive information guide on the Cyprus problem which we are publishing at this critical moment in the settlement negotiations. There is a menu bar to the full package to the right of this article. Just click on any of the items.

Glafcos Clerides: 1919-2013
President: 1993-2003



Glafcos Clerides, a London-trained barrister and RAF war hero, was president of Cyprus for two consecutive terms from 1993 to 2003. He helped craft the treaties that gave Cyprus independence in 1960 and was elected the first leader of its House of Representatives.

For many years he was the Greek Cypriots’ chief negotiator with the Turkish Cypriots. As president in 2002, he secured an invitation for Cyprus to join the EU, gaining membership in 2004. In 2004, he urged the Greek Cypriots to accept the Annan Plan to reunify Cyprus as a bizonal, bicommunal federation. Instead, they heeded calls by his successor, President Tassos Papadopoulos, to reject it and voted against the UN plan by a large majority while the Turkish Cypriots backed it in a separate referendum. Clerides died in 2013, aged 94.

Below is Cyprus Mail editor Jean Christou’s obituary of Glafcos Clerides printed in the Cyprus Mail, November 15, 2013

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.

Politics was not a career for him. It was his whole life.

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.

Glafcos Clerides with Demetris Christofias at a Christmas party at the House of Representatives

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.

He was shot down over Germany in 1942 taken prisoner and escaped twice and recaptured and remained interned till 1945. He was called to the bar in London in 1951 and qualified at Gray’s Inn.

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.

Then House President Glafcos Clerides with Archbishop Makarios in 1960
Then House President Glafcos Clerides with Archbishop Makarios in 1960

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”.

Glafcos Clerides with UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and Rauf Denktash in May 2002
Glafcos Clerides with UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and Rauf Denktash in May 2002

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.

You can also read about Glafcos Clerides’ remarkable experiences in WWII in this account in The Times (London), written by Michael Theodoulou

February 26 2003
WHEN he leaves office on Friday after ten years as President of Cyprus, Glafcos Clerides will be the last head of state to have seen active service in the Second World War.
Written off in a premature obituary after being shot down over Hamburg, he was equipped by his war experience to play a key role in Cypriot politics for decades and ultimately to secure an invitation to join the European Union.

His resilience and resourcefulness as a prisoner of war are legendary, but only now, at the end of his career, has the 83-year-old politician allowed himself to reminisce.

“Except for plotting escapes there was very little to do, so one of the exercises I did was to sit down and try to find out how people behave,” he told The Times. “You learn to be patient. And you learn something that is very important as a politician, to expect difficulties and find ways to overcome them. You realise then that human beings have a common factor: those who can endure the adversities and those who break down. If you see the result of those who break down, you decide you are going to survive.”

Having spent a year in chains, he endured a forced march on a starvation diet across Germany in winter and escaped three times.

CLERIDES WAR HERO OBITHis final attempt was successful, enabling him to be in London for the VE Day, although he needed nine months in hospital to recover. He still has shrapnel buried in one leg: what he calls souvenirs of the war. His bravery was commended in dispatches.

Mr Clerides was studying law in London when war broke out and immediately volunteered to join the RAF. He saw action in the Battle of Britain, then trained as a pilot and joined Bomber Command.

He was working as a wireless operator and gunner when he had his first brush with death on a freezing night in January 1942. The Wellington had had its doors removed and was stripped down to make way for a single, huge 4,000lb bomb for a raid on Hamburg.

The crew was cosmopolitan. Mr Clerides was accompanied by an Australian rear gunner, a Scottish front gunner, a navigator from the Midlands, and a Welsh pilot.

After dropping their bomb, the Wellington was approaching the German coastline when it was caught in a hail of bullets.

The front and rear gunners were very badly wounded “and died in the drink”. The pilot and navigator also came down in the sea, but survived and were picked up by a German air-sea rescue seaplane.

Mr Clerides was wounded in a leg, but managed to bail out from 8,000ft, breaking a leg on landing. He was taken to a hospital at a camp for French PoWs in Bremen, where a medical student removed most of the shrapnel and put his broken leg in plaster. Within weeks came his first escape. On being told that his plaster was to be removed the next day, he hacked it from his leg with a penknife, tied his bed sheets together and used them to ease himself down from his window to the ground.

Wearing overalls and carrying a bucket and broom, he posed as a street cleaner as he headed for the Netherlands, but was recaptured within four days. He was then taken to a big prisoner of war camp, Stalag VIII B near the German border with Poland in what is now Polish territory. There 1,000 PoWs including Mr Clerides were chained to each other for a year in a special compound.

When the year was up, he was ready to break out again. Working parties used to leave the camp and he calculated that it would be easier to escape from one of those than to attempt to tunnel out. With a Yugoslav prisoner, he slipped away one night from a guarded house outside the camp. They made their way to Yugoslavia, first by train and then by foot, trudging through winter snow to the Dalmatian coast.

They were recaptured as they tried to cross by boat to Italy, where British forces had landed. The Germans suspected Mr Clerides was a partisan. He was held in Yugoslavia in a prison for partisans for six weeks where “every morning there were executions”. When confirmation came from Germany that he was an escaped PoW, he was returned in chains to Stalag VIII B.

There he spent a further two years before his third escape, which came after Russian forces captured Warsaw and advanced on the German border. He was among 10,000 prisoners on a forced march from the camp across Germany to the French frontier.

“A much smaller number arrived,” he said. “Most of them died of dysentery.” The marchers covered about 18 miles (30 kilometres) a day and slept out in the snow. “Our ration was three boiled potatoes and two slices of bread.” Near the French border, he slipped away. The American Third Army flew him to England in time for VE Day.

For Mr Clerides, the war taught him the vital lesson of peace. “I saw Hamburg after we bombed it — 1,000 aircraft dropped 4,000 tonnes of bombs within five minutes in a built-up area. It was something unimaginable. You saw houses folding like little packs of cards and you realise that there are women and children there. When you witness that you begin to have a belief that problems should be solved by other means than war.”

More stories on Glafcos Clerides:

Tribute to Glafcos Clerides: Interview given to CM in 2010

Tribute to Glafcos Clerides: 50 years of sparring

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