From The Times / December 13, 2008
Tassos Papadopoulos was a shrewd British-trained barrister who became Cyprus’s youngest ever minister nearly half a century ago. He made it to the top in politics late in life when he became President in early 2003.
As President, his term marked one of the defining moments in Cyprus’s often turbulent modern history. Papadopoulos rallied the Greek Cypriot community in 2004 to reject a controversial United Nations plan designed to resolve the long-running Cyprus problem. In an emotional television address, the usually steely conservative politician catalogued the flaws in the plan, which aimed to reunite the estranged Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities under a loose federation of two largely autonomous areas. He argued that the bulky UN plan was tailored to suit Turkish interests at the expense of Greek Cypriot rights and would legalise the island’s de facto partition instead of reuniting it. His tough public persona melted towards the end of his 50-minute speech as his eyes moistened with tears.
Within weeks, 76 per cent of Greek Cypriots rejected the plan in a referendum. The Turkish Cypriots, hoping to end their international isolation, endorsed the plan in a separate vote by a majority of 64.9 per cent. They did so against the urging of Rauf Denktas, their long-serving hard-line leader, whose obduracy was blamed for the failure of most previous UN-sponsored settlement efforts. Despite backing the UN plan, the smaller Turkish community was sidelined when Cyprus, represented internationally by the more prosperous Greek Cypriots, entered the EU on May 1, 2004, precisely a week after the twin referendums.
Washington and London were aghast at Papadopoulos’s stance on the UN plan, which they maintained was the best chance in a generation to reunite the strategically located island. There was also dismay in Brussels. The EU was relying on an eleventh-hour Cyprus deal to save it from absorbing a divided country. There were fears that Greek Cypriots might also wield veto rights over Turkey’s hopes of joining the Union.
Opprobrium abroad left Papapodoulos unruffled. He had support where it counted — at home. He was admired as a steadfast champion of Greek Cypriot rights who had the gutsy strength of character to resist Anglo-American pressure to accept an unworkable and unfair peace deal. Many of his supporters thought that the rejected arrangement was shaped to suit the strategic interests of outside powers more concerned to smooth Turkey’s EU path than to achieve a just solution for Cyprus. Papadopoulos, his supporters believed, had saved Cyprus from Turkish dominance.
Critics at home and overseas, however, saw him as a hard-line veteran rejectionist who squandered an historic opportunity to reunite Cyprus. For Greek Cypriots who supported the UN plan, Papadopoulos was also a deeply divisive figure who did little to disguise his contempt for their opinions. Yet Papadopoulos bristled at the rejectionist tag and appeared equally aggrieved by suggestions that he was disliked and distrusted by Turkish Cypriots. He insisted that he had rejected a particular plan, not the idea of a settlement, and would use Cyprus’s membership of the EU to secure a better deal. Peace talks, however, remained moribund for his remaining four years in office.
Apart from presiding over a buoyant economy and navigating Cyprus into the eurozone last January his main appeal was his determination to resist any big power pressure to accept a bad reunification deal akin to the previous UN plan. “Despite the threats and blackmail, we saved our state,” he proclaimed during the election campaign, referring to his championing of the “no” vote four years earlier. “We averted turning Cyprus into a Turkish protectorate.”
Cyprus has been divided along ethnic lines since 1974, when Turkish troops seized the northern third of the island after the Greek junta engineered a short-lived coup in Nicosia by supporters of “enosis”, or union with Greece. Deep scars were left by fierce intercommunal bloodshed in the 1960s.
Papadopoulos failed to win a second term in elections last February when he was defeated unexpectedly. He faced two moderate candidates who successfully argued that his uncompromising stance was entrenching the island’s division and isolating Cyprus in the EU. He was replaced as President by Demetris Christofias, the EU’s first nominally communist leader, who was committed to resuscitating the peace process and is currently involved in negotiations with Mehmet Ali Talat, the Turkish Cypriot leader, aimed a securing a reunification deal by the middle of next year. For the first time in decades there is a conciliatory leader on both sides of the Cyprus divide.
Tassos Papadopoulos was born in 1934, in Nicosia. His father was a teacher who mixed with lawyers and judges that were influential in steering the young Papadopoulos towards his future career. He was schooled at theprestigious Pancyprian Gymnasium, Nicosia, whose prominent alumni include two other former presidents of Cyprus. Lawrence Durrell, the author of Bitter Lemons, which is set in Cyprus, taught English there in the early 1950s.
Papadopoulos went on to study law at King’s College, London and trained as a barrister at Gray’s Inn. As a student in London in the early 1950s, he shared rooms with Spyros Kyprianou, who later became President of Cyprus (1977-89), and a charismatic law student, Lellos Demetriades, who served as a popular mayor of Nicosia for nearly three decades.
Papadopoulos was remembered as a clever and hard-working student who spoke his mind forcefully. He had a good sense of humour and engaged in heated debates with British students about Cyprus. Like his two ambitious roommates, he was heavily involved in Greek Cypriot community matters in London, which was then absorbing many workers from Cyprus.
Papadopoulos returned to Cyprus to practise law early in 1955, shortly before Eoka, an underground, largely right-wing Greek Cypriot movement, launched a violent campaign to shrug off British colonial rule and unite the island with Greece. He was soon a key member of Eoka’s political wing. After four years of guerrilla revolt by Greek Cypriots, a compromise settlement was reached that was designed to accommodate both Greek and Turkish Cypriot aspirations. It gave Cyprus independence rather than union with Greece. Papadopoulos took part in the London conference in 1959 that, together with one in Zurich, formed the basis for Cyprus’s independence in 1960. The agreements were negotiated by Greece, Turkey and Britain.
There was little input from the island’s Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities and many Greek Cypriots felt that the deal had been imposed on them. Papadopoulos was one of the few delegates who voted against signing the treaties, which was seen later as an early indication of his refusal to compromise. Nevertheless, as a high-profile young lawyer, he served as one of the four representatives of the Greek Cypriot side that drafted the constitution of the fledgling Republic of Cyprus. Under the wing of his charismatic mentor, the late Archbishop Makarios, who was President of Cyprus from independence until his death in 1977, Papadopoulos was appointed Interior Minister at the age of 24 and eight months. It was a few months short of the legal age limit, but he said later that no one bothered to ask him his age at the time. Despite his youth, he played a major role in developing the machinery of the nascent state. He held a wide variety of cabinet posts for 12 years as Minister of Interior, Minister of Finance, Minister of Labour and Social Insurance, Minister of Agriculture and Natural Resources, and Minister of Health and Agriculture.
In 1970 he was elected to parliament as a representative for Nicosia of the Eniaion (United Party), which he had co-founded the previous year. From 1976 to 1978 he served as the chief negotiator of the Greek Cypriot community in intercommunal talks with the Turkish Cypriots. He was re-elected to Parliament in 1991 as a member of the centre-right Democratic Party (Diko), which historically has taken a hard line on the Cyprus peace process. Papadopoulos took over as Diko’s president in October 2000 when, Kyprianou, its ailing founder leader, stepped down.
In presidential elections in 2003, Papadopoulos narrowly ousted Glafcos Clerides, a veteran statesman. The new President had been backed by his own party, Diko, and a social democrat party. But the key to his victory was the support of the large communist party, Akel, even though Papadopoulos had been seen as a dedicated anti-communist for most of his life. He declared at the time: “I want to take a united Cyprus into Europe, and I am ready to negotiate a better settlement which is viable and functional.”
As well as being closely involved in politics for half a century, Papadopoulos established and led one of the island’s most successful law firms. In recent years, his law practice was dogged by controversy over registering offshore Serbian companies in Nicosia that were allegedly used as a conduit for illicit funds channelled out of the former Yugoslavia by the former Serbian dictator, Slobodan Milosevic. Papadopoulos always denied involvement. “Lawyers who establish companies do not get involved in what the companies’ activities are,” he said.
Throughout his life Papadopoulos was staunchly loyal to friends but could bear grudges against opponents and was sometimes prickly. Even his critics, however, acknowledged that his keen legal mind made him hard to best in an argument.
Papadopoulos is survived by his wife, Fotini, who is a member of the wealthy Leventis family, and four children: Constantinos and Maria, from his wife’s previous marriage; and Nicolas and Anastasia.
Tassos Papadopoulos, President of Cyprus, 2003-08, was born on January 7, 1934. He died of cancer on December 12, 2008, aged 74