Glafkos Clerides: Statesman who saw Cyprus through independence, partition and entry into the European Union in 2004


Glafkos Clerides was the incarnation of modern, independent Cyprus – from the struggle for independence from Britain to the tragedy of the Turkish invasion and division of the island in 1974; from the long and still fruitless efforts to heal that partition to the entry of his country into the European Union in 2004.

For half a century of Cypriot history Clerides was at centre stage. He was an activist in the Eoka movement that sought to end British rule and unite Cyprus with Greece. After independence was achieved in 1960, and tensions grew between the island's Greek majority and Turkish minority communities, he was a key negotiator in efforts to find a peaceful settlement, conspicuous for his courteous pragmatic style and quick sense of humour.

But he was best known as president. His first stint in the job was brief and accidental, during the five-month interregnum between the July 1974 overthrow of Archbishop Makarios, in a coup mounted by backers of union with Greece and ordered by the colonels' junta in Athens, and the formal reinstatement of Makarios that December.

On five occasions subsequently, Clerides stood for president in own right, winning twice. He held the office between 1993 and 2003, failing to achieve his dream of a re-united Cyprus but laying the groundwork for the internationally recognised Republic of Cyprus to join the EU a year after he left office.

As a young man, Clerides also personified the complicated relationship between Cyprus and its colonial power. Hoping like many Greek Cypriots that an Allied victory over Germany would lead to enosis, or union with Greece, he volunteered to serve in the Royal Air Force. Shot down over Germany, he was a prisoner of war until 1945, returning to London to take his law degree at King's College.

During his London years Clerides first met a young Turkish Cypriot lawyer named Rauf Denktash – later to lead the island's Turkish community and serve as president of the rump Turkish Republic of Cyprus. The two men became friends but lifelong political competitors. They were sparring partners but always respectful of each other, despite years of gruelling and ultimately unsuccessful negotiations. Even so, Denktash's stubbornness would drive Clerides close to despair. "If I had someone else instead of Denktash," he said later, "the Cyprus problem would have been solved long ago."

It was intractable from the beginning. During the 1950s Clerides was by day a lawyer in Nicosia but an after-hours member of Eoka, operating under the alias "Hyperides". In 1959 he took part in the London conference on independence, and became the new country's first minister of justice before being elected speaker of the new parliament, a post he held until 1976.

His most important function, however, was as a negotiator, first with the British over the UK bases in Cyprus, then with the Turks as strains between the island's two communities worsened. Twice, Clerides and Denktash came close to agreements that might have averted the disaster of 1974, but both deals were reportedly blocked by Makarios. Then came the coup, the Turkish invasion and creation of the TRNC, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, recognised only by Ankara, and of which Denktash was president from 1983 to 2005.

Clerides had twice been defeated for president, in 1983 and 1988, but his third attempt was successful. His tenure, inevitably, was a balancing act between ensuring the security of his country and keeping the door open to reunification with the North that occupied some 40 per cent of the island's territory.

The former concern in 1997 provoked the biggest crisis of his presidency, as Clerides sought to bolster Cyprus's defences with Russian-built S300 long-range anti-aircraft missiles. Turkey's response was the threat of a new war. Eventually he backed down and the missile systems were moved to Crete.

Clerides' most tangible success was entry into the EU, a testament to his country's economic performance during his presidency. But that quest became entwined with the search for the biggest prize of all, a settlement with the Turkish north and re-unification of the island.

In the years around 2000, the common ambition of both Republics of Cyprus and Turkey to join the EU offered an unprecedented opportunity. Denktash was, of course, against the idea. Not so, however, ordinary citizens of the TRNC, who saw Europe as the means of ending their isolation and boosting a standard of living by now far below that south of the "Green Line" demilitarised zone, patrolled by United Nations peacekeepers, which divided the two states.

The plan elaborated under the aegis of Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary General, foresaw a united Cyprus as a member of the EU, a federation of two states loosely modelled on Switzerland. Clerides supported the scheme, but ancient suspicions proved too strong. Although 65 per cent of the Turkish community voted in favour of the plan in a referendum in April 2004, the Greek Cypriot community rejected it by an even larger margin.

Glafkos Joannou Clerides, lawyer and politician: born Nicosia 24 April 1919; President of Cyprus 1993-2003; married 1945 Lilla Erulkar (deceased; one daughter); died Nicosia 15 November 2013.

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