Born to Limassol ‘aristocracy’, former ambassador to the UK Alexandros Zenon came of age during the Turkish invasion. THEO PANAYIDES meets him as he reflects on his affection for Churchill, his cynicism, and his regret for a hometown he no longer recognises.

Alexandros Zenon made the Queen of England chuckle. This was years ago, during his time (2008-13) as High Commissioner of Cyprus to the UK; the setting was some staid official function – one of many, many such events one must attend as a diplomat and civil servant, or indeed the Queen of England – where a Mexican delegation was also present. Of course Mexico isn’t part of the Commonwealth, noted the Queen in passing; “Not yet, Your Majesty!” quipped our hero, and Liz was tickled. Maybe she also felt a need to make up for another official occasion, around the same time, when Prince Philip had raged about the mess in Mari: “Madness, pure madness. Storing tons of explosives in containers under 40-degree temperatures is madness. And I’m talking as a naval officer,” fumed the Duke of Edinburgh, as quoted in Alexandros’ book. “Philip!” said the Queen reprovingly.

The book (not yet in English, alas) is called The Invisible Side: Four Decades of Diplomacy (1979-2018), covering the years from Alexandros’ first days in the foreign ministry – during the presidency, and indeed at the repeated behest, of his cousin Spyros Kyprianou – till his retirement at the age of 65 (he turned 70 this past January). “The book is diplomatic where it has to be,” he tells me, sitting in his flat in central Nicosia – but “when I want to emphasise something I’m a bit less diplomatic, and even quite scathing.”

Then again it’s hard to be too scathing, for two reasons. The first is that a diplomat from a small country like ours isn’t going to have access to too much top-level dirt, even behind the scenes. One of his motives in writing the memoir was “to highlight the work of the foreign ministry” – it gets forgotten, he sighs; “People look at a result [of diplomacy] and think it fell out of the sky” – but it’s also true that our power to influence developments is limited. All a Cypriot emissary can ultimately do is exploit our “relative advantages,” admits Alexandros, the fact that – despite our featherweight status – certain countries still have an interest in co-operating with us, “and then you might get something. I’m not saying you’ll radically change the big countries’ policies – but you might exert some influence, or mitigate their decisions. It’s all about being methodical, and making sure your reach doesn’t exceed your grasp… Or perhaps just a little bit.”

Spoken like a top-tier civil servant, which indeed he was – but it’s not just that. The second reason why the book was unlikely to be too sensational has to do with its author’s personality, which seems far too decorous for deliberate controversy. He’s been giving interviews in the week since the book came out – and seems a little pained that, “out of its nearly 400 pages”, everyone keeps asking about page 277, relating a conversation from the time of Crans-Montana in 2017. “In my opinion, this is not the most interesting part of the book,” he observes mildly. Then again, it’s easy to see why the media fixates on that particular conversation, which took place at the First Ukraine Reform Conference in London. Boris Johnson, whom Alexandros knew from his High Commissioner days (he also has a signed copy of Johnson’s book on Churchill), asked how things were going at the negotiations in Switzerland – then returned a few hours later, having meanwhile spoken to Turkish foreign minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu. “Is it true what Anastasiades suggested to Mevlüt?” wondered Johnson.

Alexandros, being out of the loop, asked what the alleged suggestion was.

“A two-state solution!”

profile 2Whether the suggestion was actually made remains unproven – Alexandros was quick to assure Johnson that, even if something like that had been said, Çavuşoğlu must’ve misunderstood – but the conversation surely took place; the author is diligent about reporting it, even placing most of Johnson’s quotes in English whether from memory or (more likely) from having recorded them at the time. Alexandros Zenon seems a diligent person in general. His style is low-key, his default expression rather anxious, even morose. He was mentioned twice in Wikileaks by US ambassador Ronald Schlicher – Alexandros quotes the passages in his book but puts them in an appendix, because he didn’t want the book to seem “gossipy” – and Schlicher pulled no punches in describing the foreign ministry (“An unhappy and dysfunctional place… [Its] systemic problems magnified by an increasingly vicious culture in which ratting out your colleagues is one of the swiftest and surest tickets to personal advancement”) but is notably restrained when it comes to finding nasty things to say about Alexandros himself, its permanent secretary: a “lower-profile diplomat,” note the leaks grudgingly, “whose ideology is tougher to read”.

What exactly is his ideology? “In terms of left and right, I’m politically right-of-centre – but that’s only when I go to cast my vote. In my job, the criteria are different. When you’re a civil servant, you follow the instructions of the government in power”. (It’s entirely fitting that one of the people he quotes during our interview is the fictional Sir Humphrey Appleby, the unflappable mandarin in Yes Minister.) His conservatism probably has less to do with ideology, more with a belief in good governance and order in general. It’s significant that the books on the shelves behind us are ordered strictly by subject – art books on the top shelf, World War II in the middle, French authors on the right, the Italian writer Sergio Romano at top left. Alexandros has a passion for history, and almost never reads fiction (unless it’s political). He’s also a reader of this newspaper, and boasts the feat – almost as impressive as making the Queen of England chuckle – of having once caught Patroclos, of Tales from the Coffeeshop fame, in an inaccuracy. Our columnist claimed he was using the official ministry car to ferry his wife, the second Mrs. Zenon – but not only was the car his own, she also wasn’t (and isn’t) the second Mrs. Zenon; she’s the third.

The books on WWII include an entire shelf on Winston Churchill, graced by a marble bust of the man himself. It seems a little odd that Alexandros’ personal hero is a man who might’ve been his polar opposite – pugnacious, reckless, a politician rather than a civil servant – but “what I like about Churchill is that he was the classic example of the English aristocrat who was also a patriot”. Now we’re getting somewhere – and it’s surely no coincidence that a photo with the Queen (presumably from the time he made her chuckle) is prominently displayed in his apartment, or that his book includes an entire chapter on King Constantine of Greece. Alexandros Zenon seems profoundly stirred by aristocracy, especially the blend of aristocracy and personal courage that one might call ‘noblesse oblige’ – and indeed he’s an aristocrat himself, or as close as we get in Cyprus.

He was born in Limassol, to a wealthy family of lawyers; he too studied Law, in Athens, followed by a Master’s in France (his only child, a daughter, is also a lawyer). His grandfather, Alecos Zenon, had been mayor of Limassol for several years in the 1920s; his great-uncle was Christodoulos Sozos, also a mayor of Limassol who famously left his office to enlist – and die in action – in the First Balkan War of 1912. This, in a nutshell, is noblesse oblige, setting out to serve one’s country even when it might be comfortably avoided. Churchill, too, sent his son to fight with Tito’s partisans in Yugoslavia, “I can’t think of a single one of our own politicians” who’d do something like that – and indeed Alexandros himself fought in 1974, in the battle for the Turkish Cypriot sector of Larnaca.

He felt no fear, he recalls, even when a bullet grazed his helmet; fear is a luxury in wartime, you’re just trying to survive. He was fortunate enough not to witness others getting killed, though a sniper who shot at his platoon must’ve died (if only because he stopped sniping after they returned fire). It’s also quite intriguing that 21-year-old Alexandros fought in the same platoon alongside two other young men, Nondas Metaxas and Myron Nikolatos, later CEO of the Stock Exchange and president of the Supreme Court, respectively; theirs really was the generation that came of age during the invasion and later shaped today’s Cyprus – with its riches, to be sure, but also its corruption and entropy. Does he feel any kind of collective responsibility for how it turned out?

“No, I don’t,” he replies. “Because, to the extent that corresponds to my own career – which is not such a great extent – I always did what my conscience demanded… I don’t like to boast – but I do hear older colleagues saying ‘You were fair, you were strict, you were correct’.” He has some regrets, to be sure, but they’re personal, not professional; as for corruption, he always kept – “physically kept” – a copy of the Constitution on his desk, along with the law on the civil service, “so I’d always say [to those seeking favours]: ‘There it is, don’t ask for anything more’”. It sounds plausible, based on his stern demeanour and (especially) his links with the grand old families of Limassol. It would surely have hurt his aristocratic pride to betray his principles for mere money.

Didn’t the job make him cynical about the way the world works, though?

“Yes,” he replies at once, not even having to think about it – then sighs, warming to his theme: “Look, you have the international system, which they say is governed by international law, and principles and values and so on – but there are double standards, some [countries] are more equal than others. You become cynical. In practice, you become cynical.” He pauses unhappily, loath to dismiss a lifetime’s truisms: “OK, international law, UN resolutions and all that – I’m not saying they’re not useful and important. But up to a point. After that you have power politics, interests – even circumstances”. The finest diplomacy will founder if the timing isn’t right (that’s why he hesitates to criticise Crans-Montana, based on “the political context in Turkey at the time”). He nods wearily: “But yes, you become cynical”.

That, in a sense, is why he wrote his book: not to ‘set the record straight’, necessarily – but to complete the picture, to ensure that history is left with more than just the airbrushed, hypocritical façade of politics. Some things he chose to omit even now, like the remark by former Turkish undersecretary Sitki Uğur Ziyal – made when they were both ambassadors to Italy in 2004 – that the Greek Cypriot side “refused to come and negotiate” on the Annan Plan at Bürgenstock. (Alexandros suspects it to be true, having also heard it from others; but, since the only direct testimony came from Ziyal – who may have been biased – he preferred not to publish it.) Other revelations felt too important to leave out, like the fact that France, specifically Jacques Chirac, threatened to veto our EU accession if we imported the infamous S-300s from Russia – an aspect of the game that was hitherto known “only to Glafcos Clerides, [foreign minister] Kasoulides, Mr. Pirishis who was ambassador in Paris at that time, and myself. Four people”.

Alexandros Zenon was indeed in the inner circle of Cyprus politics: ambassador to Holland and Italy before the UK, permanent secretary at the foreign ministry in 2006-08 and again in 2013-18. His aide during that first stint, incidentally, was a helpful young man named Nikos Christodoulides. He was “low-profile” and “soft-spoken”, he recalls of the current president; “It didn’t seem like he had those kinds of ambitions”. I suppose it’s always a bit disconcerting when a fellow civil servant turns into a politician.

Retirement hasn’t been too much of an anti-climax, at least so far. (Writing the book helped, though in fact he’s been busy in general.) That said, he’s been in Athens for the past five years – his wife was posted there – and Cyprus seems different since his return eight months ago: more dysfunctional, more disorganised. He complains about plumbers not turning up when they’re supposed to, cops letting illegal immigrants go unchecked. He may be turning into a grumpy old man. He recalls the old days in Limassol, when it was still a small town, and that’s sad: taking the evening stroll down Gladstonos, “and for every 10 people you’d see, five of them you’d know”. He can hardly walk around in his hometown anymore, it’s too depressing. But he also recalls the time he made the Queen of England chuckle, and that’s something.