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George Vassiliou: the years of lost opportunities

Former president George Vassiliou attending a National Council meeting

Former president George Vassiliou has just published the second volume of his autobiography which covers the years he was in office, 1988-1993. He spoke to Christos Panayiotides on his own attempts to solve the Cyprus problem, the mistakes of previous political leaders and the options now available to Greek Cypriots

In the second volume of your autobiography, you emphasise your conviction that resolving the Cyprus problem meant abandoning “protaxis” (only commencing negotiations subject to strict conditions), which was consistently followed by your predecessor, Spyros Kyprianou. At least one presidential candidate in January’s elections is clearly stating that he will go back to this approach. Voters are disappointed because in 50 years of talks neither the “aggressive” nor the “charming” approach has worked. Why have Cypriot politicians failed so abysmally?
Voters are indeed disappointed because while the impression was that everything was going well in discussions between Nicos Anastasiades and Mustafa Akıncı, when we reached Crans-Montana, despite all the positive signs and enthusiastic support from the international community, regrettably, as Antonio Guterres, the UN general-secretary put it, “a historic opportunity had been lost”. However, I disagree that the electorate is disappointed because both the “aggressive” and the “amiable” approach have failed to produce tangible results.

It is unfair to put everyone in the melting pot. The basic reason for this failure was the lack of a determination and readiness to accept that in a negotiation process there are two sides, and to reach a mutually acceptable solution there must be “give” and “take”. Neither side can expect to get 100 per cent of what they are aiming for. The solution is bound to be the result of a compromise, focusing on the huge economic and, above all, the political benefits of reunification.

In your autobiography, you refer to Michalis Dountas, the former Greek ambassador to Cyprus, and you describe him as a strong advocate of maintaining the political status quo in Cyprus. According to him nothing would have been worse than what we were called upon to formally accept for a political settlement at the time, in 1988. Subsequent developments have proved Dountas’ assessment wrong. Why does the “rejectionist school” appear to be gaining ground again?
It is true that Michalis Dountas, along with his friends and supporters, have been proven wrong in their stand that any solution would be much more damaging to Greek interests, compared to maintaining the status quo. It is most unfortunate that this kind of thinking is currently resurfacing, slightly modified, but in terms of substance, reflecting the same attitude.

Regrettably, a segment of the population believes that an acceptable solution must allow for all decisions to be taken by the majority, that the Greek Cypriots, representing 80 per cent of the population, should always be in a position to impose their views on the minorities. The disappointment, stemming from the lack of progress and the tendency to blame third parties for this failure, does provide a fertile ground for promoting extremes.

Has Rauf Denktash been vindicated when he predicted that there would come a time when Greek Cypriots would actively seek the partition of Cyprus?
In the course of my presidency but also during ensuing stages, Diko and the Centre Union, i.e. Spyros Kyprianou and Tassos Papadopoulos, as well as Edek, with Vassos Lyssarides in charge, fanatically opposed every effort to relaunch the negotiation process. And, when we succeeded in doing so, they tried by every available means to lead the negotiation process to a failure.

Despite the undermining, we continued our efforts and we prevented Denktash and his friends in Turkey (often referred to as the “parastate”) to make the negotiation process fail. We insisted on a bizonal bicommunal federation and we thus secured the support and sympathy of the Security Council and the international community. We succeeded in increasing the pressure on Turkey to confront the “parastate” and we managed to look forward to a solution being reached within 1993.

I would not say that Denktash has been vindicated. Neither the international community nor the vast majority of Greek and Turkish Cypriots have ever accepted his positions. Nevertheless, it is a fact that every time the negotiation process fails, the position of the “rejectionists” is strengthened and the idea that it may be better “for us to remain on this side and them to stay on the other side” gains ground in both communities.

Following the invasion, a de facto partition was imposed on Cyprus. Under no circumstances should we legitimise this state of affairs.

A very telling section in your book recounts a meeting you had with President Papadopoulos on August 21, 2003 when he called you to the Presidential Palace and asked you to intervene in Brussels so that the last report of the European Commission would ensure the approval of Cyprus’ application for EU entry by all the parliaments and all the governments involved in the process.

You write: “I asked the President to explain to me how he could be in favour of the Anan Plan, while, in the past, he was so much against the Ghali Set of Ideas. His response surprised me and forced me to keep my mouth shut. ‘Who said that the Anan Plan, which we have before us today, is a better plan than the Ghali Ideas? Quite the opposite. However, the Anan Plan is likely to be a better plan than any other plan we may be offered in the future.’
Fifteen years down the line, we are, yet again, finding ourselves in a deadlock situation. What do we need to do?
I would like to underline the fact that my reference to my meeting with Tassos Papadopoulos and to what was said

Former president Tassos Papadopoulos admitted to Vassiliou that the Annan plan would be a better solution than ones that came later

has never been challenged. I must admit that, when he told me ‘the Anan Plan we have before us is probably a better plan than any other plan we are likely to get in the future’, I had taken the statement as evidence of his commitment to secure the approval of the plan in the coming referendum. Unfortunately, what happened was exactly the opposite of this. As soon as the EU accession treaty was signed, an intensive war was launched against the plan. The result of that war is well known.

We are again in a deadlock situation. Mere wishful thinking and pseudo-courageous demonstrations will not get us very far. The only way out of the deadlock is the approach supported by the secretary-general in his report. We should seek to convince the Turkish Cypriot community to relaunch the negotiation process and we should be ready – whenever unbridgeable differences arise – to accept the secretary-general’s suggestions and those of the Security Council.

How far do you agree with the assessment that Greek Cypriots appear to have two basic options: (a) a federal Cyprus or (b) a partitioned Cyprus? What other options do we have?
I do not agree that partition could be a solution, irrespective of the fact that Turkey has imposed, by force, the de facto partition of the island. Our goal has been and should remain the conclusion of an agreement for the reunification of Cyprus, within the framework of a bizonal, bicommunal federation that would be a full member of the European Union. This is, indeed, the best guarantee that will secure the proper application of the European acquis and the protection of the human rights of all Cypriots, Greek Cypriots as well as Turkish Cypriots.

Archbishop Chrysostomos should stick to religious affairs, says Vassiliou

Archbishop Chrysostomos is one who disagrees with you. What is your view on his recent statement in support of two separate states in Cyprus?
The recent statements by Archbishop Chrysostomos have gravely disappointed me; they can only damage our case. Admittedly, the following day he clarified that the statements he made represented his “personal views” and he attempted to patch up the problem. Nevertheless, I believe that the time has come for him to recognise that Cyprus has democratically elected leaders and constitutionally prescribed bodies that are charged with the task of formulating public policies and with the management of the affairs of the state.

Every citizen has the right to have a “personal” opinion on all public issues. However, the person who occupies the archbishopric’s throne must refrain from expressing his “personal” views in public. Archbishop Chrysostomos must take as an example the behaviour of the religious leaders who are functioning in all the law-abiding, democratic countries of the world. He must confine his activities to the realm of his religious duties.

In terms of his views, I would like to underline, for the umpteenth time, that it is inconceivable for the European Union to even consider the possibility of a small island such as Cyprus being divided into two independent parts. We have seen the EU’s reaction on the issues of Scotland and Catalonia.

The position of the European Union is crystal clear: the union needs more unity and further political and economic consolidation. There is no European leader who will support the break-up of the European Union member states into two or three and end up with not just 27 member states but probably with more than 100. Such a development would lead to the dissolution of the European Union and abandonment of the vision of a truly unified European Union, able to promote world peace and the economic development of Europe.

I would also like to touch upon something, which is unrelated to the views expressed by the archbishop and concerns Marcos Kyprianou’s recent statement that a bizonal bicommunal federation was never a flag for his father. To say that one considers it desirable to see Cyprus functioning as a unitary state is, of course, permissible, irrespective of the fact that it is utopia.

However, we should not lose sight of how we were led to the Turkish invasion and the de facto partitioning of Cyprus. We need to appreciate the fact that, if we wish to break the deadlock, we should not view a bizonal bicommunal federation as an “illegitimate child”. This should be our principal goal, our prime target. Not only we should fight for it but we should also believe in it. Given genuine commitment and an on-going proper and consistent effort, a federal solution could serve the needs of all Cypriots.

Many Greek Cypriots argue that perpetuating the “Cyprus problem” indefinitely is preferable to a “bad solution”. By keeping the issue open, one can at least hope that at a future point in time, a miracle may salvage the situation. What would your definition of a “bad solution” be?
The argument that the perpetuation of the Cyprus problem is preferable to a “bad solution” is a variation on Dountas’ arguments and the “no negotiations unless the other side accepts our basic conditions” approach. This is the argument promoted by those who are against the federal solution. These people are wishful thinkers, who aim at what they consider to be the “perfect” or “ideal” solution and reject what is realistically attainable. This is exactly the problem with the stand taken – for his own reasons – by Nicolas Papadopoulos.

At least one presidential candidate appears to suggest that setting clear-cut targets and securing a political consensus on what those targets should be is all that is required to attain them. Surely, this is a naive approach. The more ambitious the targets, the easier it is to get people to accept them but the more difficult it is to reach them. Is this a trap into which many Greek Cypriot politicians have fallen in the past?
It is true that a number of Cypriots have fallen into the trap of the “ideal solution”. It is dead easy for somebody to support or to formulate a position on the basis of a dream. Initially, this dream was the union with Greece. Now, it is the protection of the Republic of Cyprus, on condition that the final say will always be in the hands of the Greek Cypriots. Unfortunately, this is “a childish and naïve approach”, something you can easily propose but impossible to achieve. It is a form of Don Quixotism. The key to any successful effort is not what I would like to see happening but what is practically attainable. The tragedy of Hellenism is that the ideal target is cast in concrete but what is attainable keeps changing for the worse.

We often hear the argument that it is pointless to agree to “just any solution”, which will collapse in a matter of months.
If we, the “guarantor powers”, the European Union and the Security Council were to reach an agreement, it is inconceivable that the system would collapse because of a disagreement. The Walloons and the Flemish have disagreed between them but Belgium has not collapsed.

Our political system affords small parties the power to control the political scene and to impose their preferences on the majority.  Such small parties often come out and shamelessly claim the right to tip the balance of power in one or the other direction. Do you share the view that this is a grossly undemocratic arrangement?
In a democracy, nobody has the right to specify the number of political parties that should be set up. What is important is that as a minimum the two large parties, Akel and Disy, which are in favour of a federated Cyprus, should have the political courage to cooperate (along with all non-partisan forces that are, likewise, in favour of reunification) in resolving the political problem of Cyprus by imposing their views on the smaller parties, rather than the other way around.

Attempting to attain a universal consensus amongst the political forces in Cyprus has in the past led to political indecisiveness, inertia and stagnation. Has the time come to scrap the National Council?
I do not believe that the element which has led to stagnation was the desire to attain political consensus. Stagnation is the result of indecisiveness. When I was president, I was naturally aiming at political unity and we managed to formulate a common line (the unanimous positions of 1989), which we followed consistently. It is true that the National Council has for quite some time now ceased to perform the role which I dreamt for it, namely to serve as a think tank in which all ideas are aired and considered, leading to decisions being taken by majority. In this process, the president had a decisive role and this is what was happening in the course of my term. I believe that we were getting to the point of reaching an acceptable settlement and we would have done so, had the late Glafkos Clerides not modified his positions, a few months prior to the elections of 1993.

What advice would you give to the present presidential candidates?
The only piece of advice I can offer is: stick to the road that UN Secretary-General António Guterres has outlined.

Volume B of the autobiography of President Vassiliou is available in most bookshops

Christos P Panayiotides is a regular contributor to Cyprus Mail and Alithia.

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