by Marina Economidou and Oriana Papantoniou
"I didn't hear anyone mention Mr. Kasoulides, the foreign minister, after the wreckage in Crans Montana. Nobody could blame him. He was not the most directly involved, nor was he the one who would take the final decisions..." declares the candidate for the Presidency Nikos Christodoulides in an interview with "K" in response to the criticism he received for the deterioration of the Cyprus issue during his term of office, noting meaningfully that "it is very easy for people to say afterward that someone is responsible, especially if it serves election purposes." He supports the sanctions policy and sharply criticizes the policy pursued by his successor, Ioannis Kasoulides. "The tool ceased to be used after I left the Foreign Ministry, at a time when international circumstances could have favored its strengthening," he asserts. He believes the quarter fell short of their goal and declares that if elected, he will personally address the issue of the minimum wage.
Even though international circumstances might have favored its strengthening, the [sanctions] tool was no longer used after I left the Foreign Ministry.
A presidential candidate is used to highlighting his accomplishments from his prior position. Even though a lot depends on Turkey and world events, the Cyprus issue wasn't at its best during your administration.
The foreign minister is interested in more than just the Cyprus issue. Since the talks are ultimately led by the Greek Cypriot community's representative, the President also appoints a negotiator with direct accountability. For instance, I never heard anyone mention Mr. Kasoulides, who served as the foreign minister, in 2017 after the wreckage in Crans Montana. Nobody held him accountable. He wasn't the one who was most directly involved, and he wasn't the one who would make the final decisions.
The Varosha opening and the fact that the Cyprus problem was getting closer to partition occurred during your administration.
Unfortunately, as long as the Cyprus issue is unresolved, there will be more fait accompli. The events in Varosha served as the catalyst for Turkey's unprecedented provocation and revisionism of Cyprus, Greece, and the larger region. The government stopped these developments by using every tool at its disposal. All available options for international condemnation and deterrence have been used up. The issue is whether additional steps could have been taken or whether there were resources available that could have been used to stop it but weren't. It is very simple to claim someone is at fault later, especially if it serves electoral purposes. We did everything we could. All the foreign officials will confirm this.
But the sanctions strategy also failed.
It was the first time that Turkey had a legal framework within the EU that could be sanctioned, and it still has significant legal and political ramifications. Due to our persistence, methodical approach, resolve, and good coordination with Greece and other member states, we were able to establish a legal framework and give the EU the ability to impose sanctions for Turkey's violations in the EEZ of Cyprus. When we first began the effort, major EU countries made significant objections. After I left the Foreign Ministry, the tool was abandoned, even though international circumstances might have been favorable for its improvement at the time (i.e. sanctions against Russia for invading Ukraine).
Resumption of talks with the EU at the head of the table
Of course, Antonio Guterres mentions in his report a weakening of any hope for resolving the Cyprus issue. If you are elected, what will be your first move to end the impasse?
In order to hasten the restart of the negotiations, we must always consider the international environment in which we will be required to operate when discussing the Cyprus problem. Given the Russian invasion of Ukraine at the moment, the EU is the only entity that can resolve the Cyprus impasse. We have a clear strategy and know exactly how to carry it out. During my visit to Athens, I briefed the Greek Prime Minister and Foreign Minister as well as the EU ambassadors. I am also in contact with my former counterparts who are still serving as foreign ministers in EU nations to discuss the necessity of the EU taking the lead. We, therefore, have a specific strategy for using all the resources at our disposal to restart the negotiations with a genuine chance of success, particularly by utilizing the entirety of the Turkish-European relationship matrix.
How did you come to recognize the importance of the EU's role now but not when you were a Foreign Minister?
Of course, it's not something I recognized only now. After all, I am well aware of the challenges and how the EU operates from the inside. The global context has a much greater influence over us than we do on it. I think the EU is the framework within which we should move to resume talks at this time, given the role the EU is playing and the wise actions taken against Russia. with planning, precision, and persistence.
Averof Neophytou declared that he would quickly sign the Guterres framework. Would you?
We negotiated and worked hard to achieve the framework's important and positive points. However, there are some things I disagree with as well, and we will work to change them.
With which of these do you disagree?
The user will always have the final say in areas that will continue to be administered by T/C, for instance. The G/C side's position at the time I was involved in this process was something that does not align with my personal philosophical positions on how to solve the Cyprus problem because the fundamental human right to property is in conflict.
Of course, the parties working with you reject the Guterres framework.
What matters are the positions we take, which are outlined on my election platform. And I already told you about it.
Corruption, the Seychelles trip, and quick reactions
The perception in society is that while the middle class shrank under Anastasiades' administration and as a result of the golden passport program, a small circle of people became extremely wealthy.
If I am elected, I won't promise that Cyprus will be free of corruption the following day. The main problem is how to address this systemic issue, which has long existed in our nation. Transparency, control, accountability, and punishment must all be present first and foremost. And in this case, the justice system as well as civil service practices are crucial. We have specific recommendations to combat corruption, some of which are even outlined in our plan for governance for the first 100 days. Control, digitization, and more effective justice administration.
However, to put it mildly, the terminology you used to describe corruption was unfortunate.
You're right; I should have used a better illustration.
Do you think it's appropriate for the President to fly for free to Seychelles with his family on a Saudi private jet?
I wouldn't do it.
In hindsight, as a member of the cabinet who approved passports, do you believe you are responsible or that you should have had better reflexes?
The Cabinet decisions were accompanied by specific recommendations made after a thorough review by the relevant departments. Because the program had issues, there were several changes in legislative procedures. If you're wondering if there was a problem, the answer is yes, and corrective action should have been taken sooner.
The passport cases are said to be on the verge of being dropped because the legal department is led by former cabinet members who signed the passports.
In terms of the Attorney General and the Assistant Attorney General, I believe it is best to avoid appointments from either the legislative or executive branches.
Now, how should the problem be handled?
The two former ministers who now work in the legal service were not directly involved in the process or the processing of passport applications. They were cabinet ministers. The Attorney General, as the state's legal adviser, and the public prosecutor should be kept separate. In general, I consider the model used in the appointment of the Anti-Corruption Authority to be a successful model, and we will use the same model in future appointments, such as those to semi-governmental organizations.
In what way?
There is a societal perception that there is a sharing based on party percentages. In our case, this will be different. After we, as the executive, define a framework not with names but with characteristics that should govern those who will participate in semi-governmental organizations, we will issue a public call to all those who are interested. A committee comprised of the executive, the legislature, the university community, and others will make recommendations to the executive. Recommendations that, if not followed, would be clearly justified in public by the executive.
If elected, will the minimum wage be revisited?
It was critical that we reached an agreement on the minimum wage. It is one of the first issues, already included in our preparations for the first hundred days of our administration, that we will discuss and on which I will take the lead in any discussions.
How much will you discuss it? Do you believe that EUR 940 is enough to live on?
It is also a matter of money, but there are many other considerations such as hours, professions, and so on. So, yes, it is an issue that I will address personally from the start of my administration.
Do you intend to reform the public sector?
In the civil service, there is a successful model that I have personally witnessed. However, there is still room for significant improvement, particularly in terms of digitization, transparency, control, and accountability, all of which contribute to the fight against corruption. Along with the critical area of judiciary reform.
Nicos Anastasiades leaves a legacy in the General Health System. What would you like to leave behind if you were elected and left? Perhaps another grand vision within government?
Let me state unequivocally that I have always supported the General Health System. From the start, I believe it has been one of the government's most important social reforms. My primary goal is to improve our citizens' daily lives. When we speak of improving daily life, we primarily refer to health, education, public safety, and the welfare state. To be able to improve the daily lives of citizens, a strong economy is required. As a result, all issues are linked, including the Cyprus problem. When you have a strong internal situation in terms of your economy, welfare state, and education, and you have social cohesion and a prosperous state that cares for everyone, your negotiating position on Cyprus issues is de facto strengthened. As a result, all of the issues are interconnected, which is why strengthening our state's status is central to our strategy. I am particularly concerned about two issues.
The fact that the Cypriot middle class, which was the backbone of the economy and society, is under severe strain and has shrunk. It must face significant challenges, having borne the brunt of all previous crises. The second thing that worries me is that our country's young generation is at risk of having fewer opportunities than their parents did. You understand that if we allow this to happen, it will be a tragic outcome. Our children are not going back to Cyprus. This will have disastrous social, economic, and political consequences.
The initial goal of four months has not been met.
Do you support or oppose the four-month period?
The four months were designed to reduce learning stress, reduce curriculum requirements, and improve learning outcomes. None of the three goals have been met. We must dare to re-evaluate this measure, and we must develop the habit of generally evaluating the measures we take, and if something is not working, we must correct it. This is true across all policy areas.
What about educators? Will you venture a substance evaluation? Because, according to the current evaluation, there appear to be teachers in classrooms who should not be there...
Of course, we must take the risk and include the issue of continuous teacher evaluation in our program. Our educational system is designed to cover as much material as possible. The main issue should be how we help students develop critical thinking skills and connect them to our economy and job market. Officials from DISY who do not support me agree with the coalition scenario.
Nikos Christodoulides tells "K" that he is also speaking with DISY executives who do not support him but are in favor of a broadly acceptable government if he is elected. He emphasizes that there is no commitment with the parties that support him because it is not a traditional agreement and that DISY should not be absent from the country's governance. He keeps his cards close to his chest when it comes to cabinet formation, but he does mention that he will have DISY members.
What is it that binds you to the parties that back you?
There is no commitment to the parties who back me up. It is not a traditional agreement like those we've seen in the past, as I've explained numerous times. Furthermore, the parties have stated that there have been no traditional types of agreements. There are issues on which we share approaches and goals, as well as issues on which we disagree. What matters is that we all strive for modern, transparent governance based on a comprehensive, innovative program that achieves breakthroughs and reforms while improving the daily lives of all citizens.
Are we to believe that no representatives from the parties that support you will serve in the cabinet?
You will see my Cabinet and form your own opinion. It will be the first political act I will be required to perform if elected. I fully recognize the significance of this high-level political act, and I will be present to be judged by the Cypriot people.
You stated that you have already received resumes.
I stated that three CVs were sent - primarily via email - with more on the way.
From supporters of your political parties?
No, more like civil society members.
And you mentioned that you have an understanding of people from other countries. Will you appoint people from other countries as ministers?
It's not something I rule out. On the last pages of my agenda, I have listed several people with whom I have regular contact, with whom I have met through their expertise, through their work, and with whom I have come to my office and talked without knowing my intentions. I am prepared. I am very clear about the characteristics and profiles of the ministers I want to comprise the government's cabinet. Individuals with vision, determination, honesty, and ethics who have proven themselves in their fields. I also have some names that I do not believe are necessary or appropriate to reveal. I will do so as soon as I am elected.
Do these people include some who are currently employed by DISY?
Without a doubt.
You've stated that once the elections are over, you'll approach Averof Neophytou and ask him to join you. Isn't that arrogant at a time when he is your opponent and you did not support the decision of the party to which you belong?
To exclude anyone from the discussion would be arrogant. Who am I to rule over anyone? The election will be completed. On March 1, the newly formed government will face challenges and problems that are neither ideological nor partisan. It would be arrogant of me to say that I will not speak with the Democratic Rally or Averof Neophytou. My words are always conciliatory. So will my leadership.
Are you concerned about your chances of obtaining a majority in Parliament?
During his five-year term, no President of the Republic has ever had a majority in Parliament. One of the system's advantages is that there is no absolute power of the executive or legislature, which necessitates the creation of convergences. Looking back in time, the majorities formed from time to time are different and based on approaches to the issues at hand. This is not a concern of mine.
However, there must be a foundation upon which partnerships can be formed.
Do you believe there will be a party that will take a negative stance if the Cypriot people choose us to govern? And will they refuse to cooperate in the interests of society?
Will the group that now staffs your office be close to you in key positions, or will they be president?
Yes, some will be.
Are there any ministers you have worked with recently who you believe could be part of your government?
Of course. I'm not here to undo the work that has already been done. I'm here to advocate for the implementation of a modern program that will, among other things, build on previous successes. It goes without saying that I will make every effort to correct all of the negatives with the best people possible. Many ministers have produced work, and there are many deserving people who have not had the opportunity to contribute to the public until now.
The cases of Flesas and Manolis Kyriakou have given some people the impression that you make poor choices when it comes to colleagues. Given that you are not putting your cards on the table with regard to your cabinet appointees, how do you intend to change this image?
On a daily basis, I collaborate with many capable and deserving partners. And I have many colleagues who are afraid to appear in public because of the climate of intimidation. The people will elect a President of the Republic, and he will select the best of them to work with the new President once he has received the mandate and has a full picture of each one and his objective assessment, always with the public interest and the work that must be done for the good of Cyprus and all its people in mind. There is no doubt about it.
Did the President of the Republic prevent you from running for the Presidency?
I don't have to tell the world what the President and I talked about. However, he had made a move to control the situation, and I had responded to him at that time, among other things, that I hadn't made any firm decisions. Some people wanted me to reveal my intentions, but I was unable to do so because no final decisions had been made. Let me remind you that during that time, when DISY expanded its political office, I heard different things from my colleagues that unavoidably had an effect. We shared a cabinet together.
Because you frequently claim to be an alarmist, shouldn't you abide by the party statutes in addition to your rights, but...
Let me remind you that there are no parliamentary elections.
You are criticized nonetheless for disobeying the party constitution.
The party's procedures did not go exactly as planned. To avoid certain nominations, the processes were expedited. However, that is a matter for the Cypriot populace and DISY voters to decide. I am a member of the Democratic Rally, and I would never publicly criticize my party while maintaining respect for the people of DISY. However, after consulting with the community, I decided that it would be better for my nation if I ran for president on my own independent platform.
However, the DISY political office has decided that by submitting your candidacy, you are now off the DISY register.
This is wrong in my opinion, and it makes me very sad. Over time, DISY does not alienate people; rather, it brings them together. And Glafkos Clerides, the party's first leader, always acted with the goal of preserving the unity of Cypriot society and avoided ever fostering division.
You stated that you would speak with Averof Neophytou the following day if elected, but he is opposed to the idea of a coalition government.
In my humble opinion, I think that the role of DISY is to actively participate in national governance in order to address the issues that Cypriot society is currently dealing with. There should be DISY present.
Given that you are running against it and are now discussing its participation in governance, should we assume that your disagreements are purely personal rather than political?
They are political disagreements, not personal at all, and within DISY, different strategies and tendencies have developed over time. Let me remind you that the majority of members opposed the Annan plan's supporters, including Glafkos Clerides and Nicos Anastasiades, on the most important issue, the settlement for Cyprus. They had every right to do so because there were no member expulsions or DISY persecution. DISY won the election for members of the European Parliament shortly after that. So DISY is not a party of exclusion, it has never operated in this way.
But perhaps another DISY President would have made a better choice given that Averof Neophytou disapproves of the government of national unity.
You heard me right when I said that our differences with Averof Neophytou are not personal. It is neither a conflict between people nor a personal grudge. Although I cannot speak for Mr. Neophytou, I don't believe he takes a different approach.
Let's assume that you are speaking with DISY officials who support the idea of a government of national unity.
I speak with DISY officials who are in favor of my candidacy as well as those who are opposed to it and who agree that the day after the elections, DISY must move forward within the framework of a broadly supported government. At the end of the day, the DISY's collective bodies will decide what actions to take. In the event that I am elected, I can assure you that I will ask to speak with the President of DISY and express my willingness to form a broadly popular government.
Won't that put the cooperating parties that supported you from the start in an awkward position?
The parties that have backed me from the beginning are well aware of my goal of forming a government that is broadly supported. At our initial meeting, I explained my political and ideological outlook to them as well as my goal of forming a broadly popular government.
Shouldn't AKEL be included? Will you discuss a government of national unity with them?
I'm not allowed to discuss conjecture. At this point, my focus is on how we can make sure that we not only advance to the second round but also win by a wide margin. The second round is a different process, and we will decide what happens there based on the available information. There are, of course, already personalities from the left who support my candidacy and I am in continuous contact with them.
From AKEL or the broader left?
I am also in contact with people on the left who oppose my candidacy.
Which members of the left?
There are also cadres who have publicly stated their support for the candidacy, as well as others with whom I am in contact.
There have recently been rumors that Dimitris Syllouris is endorsing your candidacy. Is this true?
I have not met with Mr. Syllouris, and I have no idea who he will support in the presidential election.
[This article was originally published in Kathimerini's Sunday edition and translated from its Greek original]