Looking back at independence through former presidential eyes

Cyprus Mail
1 October 2010,

By Nathan Morley

AS THE Union Jack was lowered at Government House in Nicosia just before midnight, and 82 years of British administration came quietly to an end, former President Glafcos Clerides was on hand to witness the birth of the new republic.

“On the day of Independence I was sitting in my office at the House of Representatives, I remember that the President Archbishop Makarios and the Governor were both getting ready to sign all the documents.”

A few minutes later, at a ceremony in the Parliament building, a fanfare of trumpets heralded the birth of the new republic. A brief formal statement which announced the transfer of power was read by Sir Hugh Foot – his last official act as Governor and a 20-gun salute followed.

Clerides, a British-educated lawyer who flew with the RAF in World War II, was appointed the first president of the new House of Representatives and is one of the few living politicians that recalls the earliest days of the Republic –  and a government devoid of politicians.

“There were no politicians before independence, because there was no parliament or no government elected, there was just a governor sent by the Colonial Office and he used to recruit some people round him, they were called executive councillors, – an advisory body to the government, so there was not much political life in the sense that a democracy works.”

One early consensus between new parliamentarians was a fundamental problem with the constitution, which was drawn to safeguard the rights of the nation’s 100,000 Turkish Cypriots as well as the 500,000 Greek Cypriot majority – for many it was a document that was woefully inadequate.

“There was a feeling of dissatisfaction after independence both on the Greek Cypriot side and the Turkish Cypriot side,” recalled Clerides.  “For the Greek Cypriot side the struggle was not merely to get rid of colonial rule, but to unite Cyprus with Greece- that was not achieved.

“On the other side, the Turkish Cypriots thought if the British had to leave then Cyprus must be partitioned – they didn’t get that either.”

The feeling that the new nation was facing crisis even at the beginning was widespread, as former President George Vassiliou, who was then a student also remembered.

“What I recall is that everybody was pleased that Cyprus was an independent country, but a significant percentage of the people did not believe that this was the end. Many people felt that in some way they were cheated after the Zurich agreement and looked at it as a step.”

Few were surprised that conflict between both communities arrived quickly, which then spiralled into violence and by 1964 the United Nations sent a 7,000-strong peacekeeping force to the island.

“I was always of the opinion that the constitution that was given in 1960 had great difficulties and that these difficulties would lead to tension between the two communities.  I was always aware of the risk that one day the two communities would clash,” said Clerides.

The international community remained worried throughout the sixties that Cyprus’ hard-won independence settlement might be endangered by the never-ending hostilities between the two communities.

Their worries became reality when thousands of Turkish troops invaded in 1974 and the remnants of functioning government were presented with a multitude of problems ranging from refugees to a collapsing economy – they were problems still faced fourteen year later in 1988 when George Vassiliou became president.

During the Vassiliou presidency, the island experienced rapid economic growth and despite the ever-present obstacle that remains the division of the island, Vassiliou points to accession European Union and an industrious population as being the most important factors in the development of Cyprus since 1960.

“It is another world now, and it is essentially due to the fact that Cypriots are hard working people, what happened after the invasion is that thousands of Cypriots went to the Middle East to earn money and send home, we also developed Cyprus into an international centre for offshore companies, that is really what gave Cyprus the extra boost.

“European Union accession was certainly very important, because don’t forget for Cypriots the biggest worry was a feeling of safety, the invasion meant we were alone – so the EU offered that security.”

Looking out of the window which looks down on Nicosia, Vassiliou seems satisfied with the Cyprus of 2010, but remains disturbed about unfinished business.

“It’s both a happy and unhappy country, people have succeeded in building their lives again, but at the same time they are worried about the future, not because they are afraid of being attacked or killed, but they know that this division is something that cannot stand.”

For Glafcos Clerides, now 92 and retired to his seaside villa near Larnaca, the country is virtually unrecognisable from the one whose birth he witnessed 50-years ago.

“Cyprus has, after Independence as it is now, it’s a different country – it’s not recognisable. If you look at Nicosia, at how it was then and how it is now you think what a change. There is a lot more freedom, but it’s a little bit short of discipline,” he says with a mischievous smile.

Glafcos Clerides was President of the Republic of Cyprus between February 28, 1993 – February 28, 2003. George Vassiliou was President of the Republic of Cyprus between February 28, 1988 – February 28, 1993


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