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2016: The football president

Demetris Christofias with Miltiades Neophytou in happier times

It’s not yet clear whether Demetris Christofias’ presidential term was the worst overall in the young republic’s history, but the battle for the single most disappointing one, relative to the hope it inspired at its outset, is no contest. The harder they fall, as they say.

And yet, almost four years after he left office, his legacy continues to take one hit after another, this year more than ever. It’s certainly true that he has done himself very few favours: for instance, his claims that the 2011 Mari blast was an act of sabotage by foreign agencies out to get Cyprus’ communist president, or his proclamation that some of those who overthrew Cyprus’ legitimate government in July 1974 are now at the helm of the country, are just two examples from this year alone. But the bitter polemic launched against him by the late Costas Papacostas, who went from defence minister under Christofias to disgrace and imprisonment over Mari, and, worst of all, the ongoing legal assault launched against him by contractor Miltiades Neophytou, his former close friend, are testament to a presidency gone very wrong indeed.

It’s not just that Christofias and Neophytou disagree over the true cost of work done by the contractor on the former’s house. It’s that not many people find it hard to believe that Neophytou’s claims against the former president might well be true. Understandably, his political rivals would pounce at the chance to slam him – but even nuanced observers are reluctant to dismiss the allegations, however preposterous they may seem.

Among other things, Neophytou has claimed in court that Christofias urged him to take over as chairman of Omonia football club in 2008 and spend whatever it took to win the league in order to fortify his re-election bid in 2013, promising to pay him back through Akel-affiliated companies. Christofias allegedly arranged for millions in loans to the contractor through direct contact with top management at two major banks in Cyprus, offering the managers of one a casino monopoly that was supposedly in the pipeline. He allegedly also instructed his interior minister to upgrade the building coefficient in an area where Akel owned land so it could get a better price, despatching Neophytou to local community leaders to incite demand for the zoning upgrade from the bottom up.

Miltiades Neophytou celebrating after defeating Apollon in the 2011 Cup final
Miltiades Neophytou celebrating after defeating Apollon in the 2011 Cup final

Such petty Machiavellian machinations would be beneath any of the rest of the presidents that came before and after Christofias. This is not to say that any of them were seen as saints – some have been accused of much, much more sinister scheming – but none used their presidential time and wielded the office’s power to strengthen a football club. In fact, the only president known to support a particular football club, other than Christofias, is incumbent Nicos Anastasiades – an Apollon Limassol fan – but the claim that he may have been embroiled in behind-the-scenes string-pulling to help the club would be beyond belief. With Christofias, it somehow doesn’t sound that far-fetched.

Of course, when the time came for him to take the stand, the former president dismissed the claims and made his own case. Instinctively, pundits seemed to search for the ‘but’ in each of his rebuttals.

He has always been an ardent fan of Omonia, he conceded, but as president he couldn’t possibly find the time to even follow it, much less get involved in its day-to-day – a reasonable enough proposition, except Neophytou didn’t claim that Christofias got involved in the club’s day-to-day, but that he planted the contractor to do so on his behalf.

That he has – indeed – always been accused of being hostile to bankers suggests that it is unlikely that he might have curried enough favour with them to get them to release money to Neophytou on his word alone, he said. Correct, but “the bankers” were supposedly being offered the word of the president, not the man personally. Also, the timeframe in which Neophytou has set his claims was before the Christofias administration started overtly blaming the banks for anything, i.e., before any actual hostility was aired.

He has always been against the establishment of a casino in Cyprus on moral grounds, and has said so many times in public, he protested. True, but in 2011 his finance minister floated a bundle of economy-boosting measures in parliament, which included a possible casino licence. It seems unlikely that he would do so without the explicit green light from the man who had repeatedly rejected the very notion in public.

And, he said, building coefficients aren’t the remit of the interior minister but of the independent zoning board. Right, except the minister gets the absolute right of final say on the board’s recommendations.

Whether or not Christofias did any of these things is a question for the court to answer, but if the trial has proven anything thus far, it’s that the man – who habitually refers to himself in the third person while taking exceptional pride in his humble beginnings – has lost most of the credibility he had cloaked himself with by 2008, when an air of hope for social fairness, a sense that a solution to the Cyprus problem could at last be within reach, and the promise for that final break from politicians and political mindsets shaped in the troubled 1960s, propelled him to the presidency.

This year, as his sporadic public commentary grew increasingly controversial – borderline erratic – and his autobiography took suspiciously long to come out, I thought the two might have been linked, and that Christofias was clumsily trying to create as much buzz as possible ahead of its release. But the book has now been out for over a month – in Greek; it was released in Turkish last September – and I’m just now reading an interview in which the former president claimed being convinced that Mari was an act of sabotage, not negligence or government inertia, because he heard some scientist say so on a fortuneteller’s talk-show on TV. It is entirely possible that what went wrong is simply that we voted for a man not up to the task.

“It’s evident, even from his public remarks, that his psychology and mental state are not what they used to be, and probably not just from the Mari incident,” one political analyst told me at the height of the Neophytou hearings, suggesting that his ill-fated quest for personal vindication appears to have consumed the political instincts that served him so well in the past.

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