Tassos Papadopoulos: Politician who led resistance to the reunification of Greek and Turkish Cyprus

Whatever sentiments are evoked by the death of the Greek Cypriot leader Tassos Papadopoulos, President of Cyprus from 2003 until last February, it is hard not to admire his timing. The man whose entire life was an affront to compromise and concession made his exit just as those ideas finally gained the ascendancy in Cyprus.

It was a testament to how quickly the political tide turned on the divided Mediterranean island that Papadop-oulos went from being Cyprus's main political actor to merely a bystander inside the last year of his life, after he lost high office and public support. A marginal role would not have sat well with the chain-smoking power-broker who had played practically every government role in nearly five decades in politics.

Papadopoulos was born in 1934 to a middle-class Nicosia family. His father was a teacher with prominent friends and the young Tassos went to London to study law at King's College. The Inns of Court were a fertile breeding ground for future Cypriot leaders on both sides of the ethnic divide. Papadopoulos qualified as a barrister at Gray's Inn, following a near-identical path to that of Glafcos Clerides, a fellow King's graduate and the Greek Cypriot politician whom he would eventually oust from the presidency, and Spyros Kyprianou, another Gray's Inn man and future Cypriot president. But it was also the path taken by Papadopoulos's life-long Turkish Cypriot adversary, Rauf Denktash, who was at Lincoln's Inn a few years earlier. Between them, these four lawyers were to dominate politics on the island following its division in 1974.

Papadopoulos returned to Cyprus in 1955, just as dreams of union with Greece were turning sour and Greek Cypriots were taking up arms against the colonial power, Britain. He was drawn into the ranks of the Eoka guerrilla movement, soon switching over to its political wing, Peka.

When Cyprus won its independence, in 1960, Papadopoulos was present at the negotiations. He was one of only a handful of delegates who voted against the agreements which cleared the way for independence, signed in London and in Zurich; this was an act of defiance or intransigence (depending on your standpoint) that set the tone for the rest of his career.

At 24 he became Cyprus's youngest cabinet minister, for internal affairs. It was the beginning of a tortuous path to the highest office that he would complete in 2003, by which time he had served in almost every ministry, from the interior to finance, natural resources and labour.

He was part of the administration of Archbishop Makarios in 1974 when a Greek-inspired coup d'etat toppled the government. He was imprisoned briefly. Despite this apparent distance from the plotters, he had in fact been prominent in the controversial Akritas movement, whose avowed aim was to empty the island of Turks – an objective that created much inter-communal violence. The coup plotters' ambition to unify the island with Greece prompted Turkey to invade and by the time the fighting finished the island was divided and Europe's longest-running political crisis had begun.

As a recognised nationalist leader, Papadopoulos was to be one of the key figures responsible for scuppering successive international efforts to reunify the island and reconcile the two communities. He was one of the leading rejectionists when in 1992 the then Secretary General of the United Nations, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, put forward his "set of ideas" – the closest the island was to come during the 1980s to a comprehensive deal. In the decade that followed Papadopoulos was in the headlines again when his Nicosia law firm was accused of helping the Serb president Slobodan Milosevic, a fellow Orthodox Christian, circumvent a UN arms embargo.

Papadopoulos's political talent was displayed to greatest effect in 2003 when he won a narrow victory over Clerides in the presidential election. Despite being a staunch conservative he won the backing of the Communist party and campaigned on a ticket of "change". He cultivated the idea that as a hardliner he was better placed to make concessions and could get a better deal for the Greek Cypriots as the island headed for membership of the European Union. Critics hoped for the best while his supporters counted on his rejecting all moves towards unification. His election victory appalled many outside the country and Denktash said it would make any peace deal impossible, as Papadopoulos was a "Turk basher".

The new president assured everyone that "times had changed" and so had he. He then set about sabotaging international efforts to settle the Cyprus crisis. In 2004 a new UN plan was rejected in a referendum by 76 per cent of Greek Cypriots, principally because Papadopoulos had campaigned so hard against it, to the extent of giving a tearful television address. In the same year, after Cyprus's entry to the EU, the clever barrister avoided the "nuclear option" of using the veto to block Turkish entry, but he did let wither each new initiative to reunify his island.

In the end he was caught out by his incorrect calculation that the wealthy south would realise it had won the peace and, like him, decide it could wait indefinitely to make a settlement with the Turkish north on its own terms. Affluence had not completely suffocated Cypriots' desire to reunify their island, and in February of this year Papadopoulos was replaced by Dimities Christofias, after the communist ran a campaign pledging to revive talks with the Turks and seek an urgent solution.

Daniel Howden

Tassos Papadopoulos, politician: born Nicosia 7 January 1934; member of House of Representatives, Cyprus 1970-2003; Leader, Democratic Party 2000-08; President of Cyprus 2003-08; married Photini Michaelides (one son, one daughter, one stepson, one stepdaughter); died Nicosia 12 December 2008.

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