Interview with Disy leader Averof Neophytou
By Christos Panayiotides
Averof Neophytou was born in 1961, in Argaka, in the district of Paphos. He attended the gymnasium in Polis and studied economics and accounting at the New York Institute of Technology (NYIT). He served as the mayor of Polis, 1991-96. In 1996, he was elected a Member of Parliament as a Democratic Rally (Disy) candidate for the district of Paphos. He was re-elected in 2006, 2011 and 2016. In August of 1999, he was appointed transport minister by Glafcos Clerides, a position he held until February 2003. In May 2003, he was elected deputy president of Disy and in 2013 he was elected as president, a position he has held since then. Since 2016 he has served as chairman of the House of Representatives’ finance committee. Between 2011 and 2016 he was chairman of the House foreign affairs committee.
I was five years old when the referendum on the union with Greece was held, I was 10 when the Eoka liberation struggle was launched, I was 28 when the foolish military coup was staged, I was 59 when the Annan Plan was rejected. Today, I am 73. Is there any chance of resolving the Cyprus problem before I die?
You have described in a single sentence the tragic reality of the Cyprus problem. Unfortunately, time and the Turkish intransigence inescapably solidify what has already happened. We cannot afford to wait any longer. Many of our compatriots, who in 1974 were over 18 have already gone. With the military occupation being perpetuated, the situation on the ground solidifying, the settlers becoming more numerous, the Turkish Cypriots emigrating to other countries within the European Union while the remnants of the Turkish Cypriot community are transformed into an extension of the Turkish society with all the pathogenic consequences that such a development entails, and with the refugee properties being expropriated, the future is bleak. This is the reason why Democratic Rally is striving for the resolution of the problem, on a mutually agreed basis. We acknowledge the obstacles that must be overcome and we recognise the fact that the key for overcoming the problems is in the hands of Ankara.
The main argument advanced by those who oppose the reunification of Cyprus is that it would be very easy to settle the problem by simply accepting an ‘inappropriate’ solution. Which of the following would you describe as an ‘inappropriate’ solution? (a) The establishment of a unitary state? (b) The formation of a ‘centralised’ federation? (c) The formation of a ‘decentralised’ federation? (d) The establishment of a confederation? or (e) the partition of Cyprus?
Without any hesitation I would rule out partition and the confederation, which is worse than partition. Regrettably, the developments are such that a unitary state is a utopian goal. The only realistic option for resolving the Cyprus problem is through an agreement, on the basis of a bizonal, bicommunal federation (BBF), as described in the UN resolutions, in the Makarios-Denktash and the Kyprianou-Denktash Top level Agreements, in the July 8, 2006 Papadopoulos-Talat Agreement, in the February 11, 2014 Joint Statement and in the framework tabled by the UN secretary-general at Crans-Montana. A solution that will respect the European status of Cyprus, will establish a normal state and will consolidate conditions of security and prosperity for all Cypriot citizens.
For many Greek and Turkish Cypriots BBF may not be the ideal solution but, taking into account how things developed over the years, it is the only framework within which the concerns and the expectations of the two communities can be reconciled. Certain people in the Greek Cypriot community naively believe that if BBF is set aside, we will revert to the 1960 Constitution, having eliminated many bicommunal elements. Respectively, certain people in the Turkish Cypriot community naively believe that if BBF is set aside, they will succeed in attaining a two-state solution, with both states being member-states of the European Union.
The choice between a ‘centralised’ and a ‘decentralised’ federation depends on the essential definitions of these terms, which will be adopted in practice. I agree with President Anastasiades that the term ‘decentralised’ implies a higher degree of independence at the level of the constituent states, as it concerns the day-to-day affairs of the citizens of Cyprus but without affecting the unity and the functionality of the federation as a whole, thus eliminating possible friction points in addressing such day-to-day problems. On the other hand, it is abundantly clear that the competences, which are associated with the currency and monetary policy, VAT, the economy and competition, the practical implementation of the four freedoms, the exclusive economic zone, aviation security and control and, in general, all the competences that are linked to the concepts of a single international personality, a single sovereignty and a single citizenship cannot be delegated to the constituent states.
Based on this understanding, the decentralisation of the competences that relate to the daily lives of the people of Cyprus will be conducive to the attainment of a better solution to the Cyprus problem. Not only it will enhance the functionality of the state – by eliminating the friction points on daily issues – but will also re-enforce the feeling of security amongst all Cypriot citizens.
We should not underestimate the feelings of those people, who are concerned that on the day following the practical adoption of an agreed solution, their daily lives may be adversely affected. Needless to say the objective of decentralisation should not be the annulment of the political equality of the two communities, as the term has been agreed and has formed the basis of the negotiations conducted to date.
We adopt the position taken by the UN secretary-general, as documented in the “Guterres Framework” at Crans-Montana, according to which effective participation needs to be further discussed, to the extent that it relates to the issue of one positive vote and, in particular, as to when, under what circumstances and in which bodies it should be exercised as well as it relates to the issue of the conflict resolution mechanisms.
Could you provide three to four examples of competences that have to do with the day-to-day problems confronting the citizens? More specifically, would you consider the imposition of the requirement to speak Greek or Turkish, respectively, an issue falling within the framework of such ‘day-to-day’ problems?
Securing the required licences for practising a profession and the corresponding registration with professional bodies, securing building permits, monitoring the quality of goods and services, cultural matters and many other issues associated with the day-to-day life of the citizens of Cyprus, could be delegated to the constituent states. This is provided that the appropriate standards, which will be set by the federal authorities – and which are in any case now mostly prescribed in European directives – are observed and respected.
As to the issue of being able to speak Greek or Turkish for practising a profession or for employment in the civil service, we must be realistic. At a future point in time, it is absolutely natural that – through the practical implementation of the solution – many of our compatriots, particularly the younger ones, will seek to learn the language of the other community. Such a development will strengthen our human resources and will open up new horizons for the future generations. However, we should not expect nor demand such a development soon. Time will be needed. What is of importance is that the public services, at the level of the federal state as well as of the constituent states, should be in a position to serve the citizens of both communities. The same principles should be followed by the various professional bodies of both communities. Language could serve as a bridge for cooperation rather than as a tool of segregation. For example, once a lawyer or an accountant decides that they wish to become professionally active in the other constituent state or wish to attract clients from the other community, they will be able to use the services of an interpreter or to employ people who speak the language of the other side. I am not worried in this respect. Cypriots have proved that they always find solutions, when the opportunity is there.
At the meeting of Disy members, which was held on November 3, it was evident that Disy continues to support, without conditions, a solution of the Cyprus problem based on a bicommunal, bizonal federation with one sovereignty, one international personality and one citizenship. However, to date, no solution has been reached. What are the principal obstacles, which prevent the attainment of an agreed solution? To what extent does the Guterres Framework facilitate the resolution of these problems?
I fully understand the feelings of disappointment of many of our compatriots. The truth is that the Cyprus problem is a chronic problem, which is not going to be solved casually. It is a fact that over the past few years, President Anastasiades has achieved substantial progress in the negotiations. We have agreed with the Turkish Cypriots that the solution will be compatible with the European status of Cyprus, the unalienable right to property has been recognised, we have secured the freedom of movement and establishment, we found ourselves within reach of an agreement on the issue of land, we agreed on the post-solution population ratio of the two communities of 4:1, roughly what it was prior to the invasion. I consider the consensus achieved on this demographic issue a most important matter.
On top of this, we had the framework, which was tabled by the UN secretary-general at Crans-Montana. The framework highlights the importance of Cyprus becoming a normal state. The reason which, to date, has prevented the attainment of an agreement is the need to ensure that, at the post-solution stage, Turkey will not have the role of a guardian in a unified Cyprus. It is true that we are very much concerned with the possibility of Turkey being involved (behind the scenes) in the decision-taking process of one of the constituent states, with the risk of this involvement leading to friction and conflict. I believe that any bona fide, objective observer would appreciate and share our concerns, which are shared by many Turkish Cypriots. I believe that the thrust of our efforts should focus on the formulation of practical proposals, on the part of the United Nations as well as on the part of the European Union, which would reinforce the feeling of security of all Cypriots and will secure a harmonious cooperation between the two communities.
We need to capitalise on the positive achievements of the negotiations and on the “Guterres Framework”, by unequivocally stating a commitment to continue and conclude the negotiations on this basis. These are the issues on which particular emphasis should be placed in compiling the terms of reference needed for relaunching the substantive negotiation process.
I have the impression that the government has not responded adequately to the need and its obligation to explain to both Greek and Turkish Cypriots the issues in which there has been convergence/agreement. Nor has it explained what the compromises are which were deemed necessary and acceptable for attaining convergence (always subject to the understanding that no element of the agreement is binding on the parties until a final comprehensive agreement is reached). Why are the government and Disy avoiding an honest, uninterrupted and ongoing briefing of the people on the details of the negotiation process and on the convergences that have been attained?
I am an advocate of self-criticism, which, in the right context, can be very useful. The Cyprus problem remains unresolved for more than four decades because of the Turkish intransigence. During the term of Nicos Anastasiades’ presidency, substantial progress has been attained on the critical issues I have already outlined. Let us retain a logical and balanced approach in our endeavour to secure the re-unification of our homeland.
Having said this, I would agree with you that, over time, the political leadership of Cyprus has failed to adequately brief its citizens in respect of the form of the solution we are seeking, on the significant progress which has been made and on the positive impact that the solution will have on their lives. We have also failed to adequately highlight the huge risks that the failure to resolve the Cyprus problem entails.
I recognise the need for greater transparency and a more extensive public debate but, at the same time, I am concerned with the practices followed by certain people, who, because they are – for their own reasons – against an agreed settlement, often distort the facts and misinform citizens on specific issues of the problem. Given that our intentions towards our Turkish Cypriot compatriots are honourable and honest and given that in no way do we wish to harm the interests of the Turkish Cypriot community in order to give the Greek Cypriot community an unfair advantage but, likewise, we do not wish to harm the interests of the Greek Cypriot community, I am of the opinion that a low-key public debate and the setting out of the reasons that lead the Greek Cypriot community to seek the adoption of one or the other arrangement, will definitely help in confronting the problem. It is, of course, understood that a similar approach adopted by the other side is both desirable and necessary. Undoubtedly, such a constructive public debate will tremendously help in reaching an agreement and in securing its approval by both communities, if such an agreement is reached.
I appeal to the Greek Cypriot and the Turkish Cypriot mass communication media to seek and to secure a better and an as-objective-as-possible briefing of their viewers, listeners and readers on the national issue of Cyprus. I also appeal to all the Cypriot politicians to avoid using the Cyprus problem as a platform for gaining temporary petty party advantages. We should definitely avoid this, at all costs. All the views must be respected, provided they are expressed in a proper and decent manner. Nor is it correct to claim infallibility or to monopolise patriotism while rejecting whatever is contrary to one’s own views and assessments. It is, indeed, this attitude that in the past got us into trouble, the cost of which was huge. This applies to both communities. The room for committing such mistakes has been exhausted.
Christos Panayiotides is a regular columnist writing in the Cyprus Mail, Sunday Mail and Alithia. The original interview took place in Greek and was rendered into English by the columnist