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Interview with Michalis Papapetrou
Prominent lawyer Michalis Papapetrou has served in many political roles on the island. THEO PANAYIDES meets a lively footnote to Cyprus politics
“I describe myself as a person loved very much by his friends, and hated very much by his political opponents,” says Michalis Papapetrou, leaning back in his chair with the happy air of a man telling what he knows to be a good story. “Likewise, for the first half of my life I was described as an agent of Moscow, and in the second half of my life as an agent of the CIA! None of which was true, of course…”
At 65, the hair is grey, but the face is still imposing. The whole face is larger-than-life, a long, narrow, tapering canvas where a small pair of bright green eyes peer out from between a long nose and handle-like ears. He’s a big man, both tall and stocky. Given his girth, his extrovert demeanour and slow, deep, authoritative voice, it would clearly have been a waste of talent if he hadn’t gone into law or politics. Fortunately, he went into both. He’s a founding partner of Scordis, Papapetrou & Co, one of the largest law offices in Nicosia with some two dozen lawyers – and he’s also (or was) one of the most recognisable politicians on the island, his career swaying in a gentle 30-year arc from outright Communism to a position closer to the left-of-centre.
He’s an expansive personality; he likes to talk, and he likes to laugh. Just a few minutes in, we’re interrupted by the phone. “Don’t disturb me, I’m in an interview,” he barks, then he hangs up and his face softens: “It wasn’t even me they wanted!” he says, and laughs delightedly at the absurdity of all. We do the interview in English, which in retrospect I regret slightly; his English is fine, as you’d expect from a man in his position, but it limits his rhetorical flourishes. I suspect we’d have gotten more tangents in Greek, and more hilarity.
He’s no shrinking violet. You can’t be overly modest if you want to be a politician. He looks a bit disappointed when I mention that most people know him from his time as Government Spokesman to President Clerides (1999-2003) – he’d prefer them to know him from ADISOK, the party he co-founded in 1990 – but immediately brightens: “I was in the bedrooms and living-rooms of each and every family, several times a day,” he recalls happily. Later, speaking of political parties and their client-based system, he recalls something else – a speech he made in Parliament two decades ago, urging fellow MPs to get serious because (as he put it in a memorable phrase) “people are saying that anyone who passes by outside the House and honks his car-horn, we give him a duty-free car! And I like that I see this phrase published, even today,” he adds proudly. A little vanity is a useful thing in politics.
His life – or political life, which is almost the same thing – has two obvious turning points: the turbulent mid-to-late 60s, when he went to Athens to study Law and “became a politically-minded person”, then the upheavals of 1989 when he clashed with Secretary-General Christofias (among others) and left AKEL, the party he’d served faithfully for over a decade.
That clash was his single most momentous decision, in terms of political consequences; after all, Michalis was a big noise in AKEL. Still in his early 40s, he’d been Chairman of youth organisation EDON and a stalwart member of the Central Committee – an 89-member group of whom, at the time, 82 were employees of the Party (“This speaks for itself,” he shrugs). He was one of the exceptions, since he had his law office and “wasn’t depending on politics, so I had the luxury to say my opinion” – and, with perestroika transforming the USSR, he felt AKEL too should transform into a more democratic party. Others disagreed; a mammoth six-day meeting of the Central Committee led to several members being expelled and Michalis resigning. He could’ve stayed on, I suggest; even behind the scenes, he might’ve been more influential than in a small party like ADISOK. “Or I should cease to be Papapetrou,” he replies gruffly, “and I should become another person.”
So does he still have a relationship with President Christofias?
Really? They don’t even talk?
“Eh, okay…” he shrugs, as if to say some minimal contact is inevitable. “We worked for 14 years in the same office. I should say we had very strong clashes when [the other members and I] were kicked out of the Party. I even describe myself as a victim of defamation, of mud thrown against us”. After the expulsions, he heard of Party activists spreading the word in Left-leaning village clubs that Papapetrou was a crook and a thief. “In the beginning I couldn’t sleep at night. Of course, after a while, I couldn’t sleep unless I got my dose [of abuse]!” He laughs heartily.
He can laugh about it, but it’s clear he still has strong views on the local dramatis personae when it comes to politics. His highest praise is reserved for Clerides, who was “a university” when it came to negotiating skills (though the skills he mentions – being patient, and slow to answer the other side – could apply just as well to all our negotiators over the years). On the other hand, despite their rivalry, he supported Christofias’ presidential bid in 2008 “in an effort to contribute in removing from the presidency Tassos Papadopoulos, whom I considered a political disaster for our country” – though of course Christofias himself had played a part in that disaster, first in helping Papadopoulos to power then allying himself with the ‘No’ camp. “I consider that Christofias and AKEL committed a crime in 2004 by voting against the Annan Plan, which – in my humble opinion – was the last opportunity to reunite Cyprus under the auspices of a federation.”
So why was the Plan so reviled? Could it have won more support with better negotiation?
“The ‘Annan III’ plan that Mr Papadopoulos received from Mr Clerides – and I was in the negotiating team of Mr Clerides at the time – was a miracle,” he insists hotly. “It was much, much better than the one Mr Papadopoulos, after strong negotiation, presented to the people to vote in the referendum. It was much better. And I’m sure that, if somebody honestly wanted to make it even better, he could negotiate further in 2003 to make it better. But my opinion is that Mr Papadopoulos was negotiating with an aim to be in a position to more easily kill it. That’s obvious.”
The dream of federation ended in 2004, says Michalis – or at best a few years later, “when Mr Christofias treated Talat as Denktash… and let things shift to Eroglu, where things are impossible”. Even after the Plan was rejected, there was hope; the National Council unanimously asked for it to be re-negotiated – but Christofias (he says) hammered the final nail in its coffin by refusing to go to Talat with the half-dozen issues identified by the Council and insisting instead on starting from scratch, wasting valuable time. “And I want to remind you that just before the elections in the north – which Talat lost – the UN Secretary-General came to Cyprus and was begging Christofias to sign together with Talat, in order to lock them, the issues they had agreed so far. And Christofias refused. Do you know why? Because he had one eye on the negotiations and the other eye on what the Archbishop will say, or his allies in the government – DIKO, EDEK – will say.”
We could talk like this for hours – but of course there’s one salient fact that goes unmentioned, viz. that the Annan Plan wasn’t just rejected by the Greek Cypriots; it was trounced. It seems unlikely that a slightly better version of the same Plan – or even a much better version – could’ve passed in the referendum, or (more importantly) that it could’ve proven workable, even had it passed. The sad fact is that Michalis Papapetrou is somewhat out of step with the man in the street, a fact he wryly acknowledges when I ask if he isn’t tempted to go back into politics (he retired in 2007, when he stepped down as president of the United Democrats). “You see,” he replies with a smile, “all the eggs I had for throwing against the wall have run out. So it’s obvious that, at least for the time being, the majority of the people of Cyprus do not share the way I think.”
Yet he isn’t cynical. I’d expected him to be slightly bitter, but he isn’t bitter. Partly, I suspect, it’s a question of temperament. As already mentioned he comes across as extrovert and hearty, not a brooder. He reads, obviously (recently he’s been re-reading Marx, trying to see how his theories might apply to a Cyprus “where the real dilemma of the average working man is where to build his holiday home, by the sea or in the mountains”) – but when I ask what he does for fun he mentions sports, not books. He used to play football and tennis, but now mostly sits on the couch watching TV (“With a beer?” I ask; “Yes. Yes, it’s obvious,” he laughs, patting his belly). He and five friends also like to go to London – where they all studied – for a long weekend: “We watch three or four plays, we visit some exhibitions, we drink a barrel of beer each, have some good food, then we come back!”
I recall his description of himself: hated by enemies, but loved by his friends. He had an “excellent” relationship with his father – another staunch Leftist – and his own children, a son and a daughter, share both his profession (both are partners in the law firm) and, as far as he knows, his politics. Easy to imagine him being beloved and charismatic; even as a young man, he says, “I could convince people”. Then there’s his work as a lawyer, which was always (he claims) more about social justice than making money. He cites the case of a client who was fired by Church station Logos in the 90s for being pregnant and unmarried; Michalis successfully sued for punitive damages, a victory he still relishes. The Church is one of his bugbears, as befits a proud old Marxist.
That’s the key, perhaps: not just an expansive personality, but an idealistic one. Michalis Papapetrou is among the what-if men of Cyprus politics – something of a footnote, having never made it to the top of a big party – but in fact his political career wasn’t just about himself, it was about the politics. He loves the milieu, irrespective of success or failure. Even now, watching from the sidelines, “I’m a political animal. I follow developments, I follow things. From time to time – just because I want to open the valve of the pressure cooker – I intervene with articles, or some interviews in the media. So from this point of view, I’ll always be a politician.” So he doesn’t regret having wasted his time with all that? “No. I don’t regret anything I have done.”
He reckons we’ll survive the current crisis, but the client-based system has to change. Parties don’t make policy in Cyprus, they’re just “offices to find jobs for the unemployed. To serve the voters, whom they deposit in the bank and every five years they collect the interest!” His white knight is the EU, in which perhaps he sees a new version of the old central planning – a vision of a federal Europe, albeit with respect for local language and culture. It’ll happen, he says. He’s optimistic.
He’s a dreamer, I suggest. An idealist.
“Yes,” smiles Michalis Papapetrou. “That’s why I dropped into public life. And maybe that’s why I dropped out again…”