Interview with the General Secretary of AKEL Stefanos Stefanou
Sunday, 17 September 2023. ‘FILEFTHEROS’ newspaper
Fileleftheros: Let’s start with the hot topic of the migration issue and what took place over the past few days. Do you acknowledge that there is indeed a problem?
SS: Of course we do. Over the past six or seven years, when the migratory and refugee flows have intensified, instead of pursuing policies for their rational management within the framework of international law and the Republic of Cyprus’s international obligations, we have only seen announcements being issued and fragmentary policies being applied which have regularly had the opposite result contrary to what has been propagated.
The statement made last week in Parliament by the current Minister of the Interior, who was also a Minister in the previous Anastasiades-DISY government, is characteristic, who said that “we know where the illegals are, but we have nowhere to hold them so that we can carry out deportation procedures”.
Where was the previous Government all these years to construct places for which EU funding was also available? It did very little in fact to set up the necessary infrastructure.
We are a frontline country and unfortunately the previous government went twice to the EU and voted in favor of the Dublin Regulation which traps these people in frontline countries, like Cyprus, and basically exempts the rest of the EU from taking responsibility for sharing the number of migrants and refugees.
QUESTION: The President of the Republic said in his interview to “Fileleftheros” last week that he has a plan to deal with the problem and cited figures showing a faster processing of applications, as well as various other actions. Do you consider that isn’t enough?
SS: The first thing I want to point out is that the actions that are being done now and should have been done all the previous years are putting a positive spin on things for the moment in the effort to address all the challenges and problems that stem from the migration flows.
However, for these efforts to yield results, continued efforts to provide adequate infrastructure to manage the whole situation will be required. We also need adequate staffing of relevant services so that we can meet any challenges in a timely and effective manner.
We shall also see whether the Government will assert and how it will assert from the EU substantive solidarity, the provision of effective support and assert accountability from the EU.
QUESTION: Do you think that the violence and incidents we have seen over the past few days are a consequence of the growth of racism? Where do you think this stems from? What has caused this explosion?
SS: The incidents didn’t come out of nowhere, but were the predetermined explosion of a timeframe that we saw unfolding before us. I say this because certain forces and circles pretend to be surprised and try to portray these incidents as an extension of hooligan violence that exists in football stadiums.
The fact is that the intensity of the migratory flows in Cyprus with the absence of any policy on the part of the previous government led to the development of a series of problems and secondly, the previous government’s attempt to hide the problems by engaging in a rhetoric that blamed all problems on the existence of foreigners created a breeding ground for the far-right. It is well known that the far-right ELAM party, using lies, scaremongering and racist rhetoric, is trying to strengthen its social base, as all far-right parties in Europe are doing.
When AKEL warned that the government must formulate a comprehensive policy and stop flirting with the rhetoric of the far-right as we would eventually pay a price, we were told that we were scaremongering. We are now facing the consequences of the policies that were pursued.
The pogroms that took place in Limassol and Paphos are an expression of both the absence of a policy, as well as of the racist rhetoric that was employed and the tolerance shown by the political establishment, the previous government and the majority of political parties towards the far-right.
QUESTION: Do you mean the tolerance of the other political parties have demonstrated towards ELAM?
SS: Precisely. Almost all the other political parties have at times demonstrated tolerance. DISY itself has on several occasions behaved in such a way that it shows that it considers ELAM, and the far-right in general, as a political reserve force.
May I remind you how DISY behaved during the 2018 and 2023 presidential elections to secure the vote of the far-right?
May I also recall how ELAM behaved in the election for the President of the House of Representatives, when they elected Anita Demetriou (Note: current DISY President) as a reward for the tolerance and support the far-right enjoyed?
May I recall the insistence of certain political parties, especially DISY, to give a chairmanship of a Parliamentary committee to ELAM, when in the European Parliament all the political groups of the democratic spectrum from the Left to the Right are making arrangements so that no chairmanship of a parliamentary committee is handed to any extreme right-wing groups?
QUESTION: But some will argue that ELAM got elected into Parliament with the votes of the people?
SS: But the Nazis also got to power in Germany with the votes of the people, not by a coup. They seized power through elections and also as a result of the tolerance and support shown by the economic and social establishment. You know, society shapes its consciousness and attitudes according to what it hears, what is being promoted and propagated to the people by the powers who have the dominant voice. A significant section of society judges and decides from the image they see, having formed distorted misconceptions about the reasons for its misery and problems.
When the far-right is given a free rein and is allowed to manipulate a part of society through fear, nationalism and racism, on the basis of existing and non-existent problems, then it grows stronger and acquires a strong social base, as it has done in Europe and elsewhere.
When the far-right wins elections in various countries, it is hypocritical that in Cyprus warnings by forces and circles are issued about the danger of the far-right, but at the same time they fail to point out the danger of the far-right in our own country and when they ‘normalise’ the far-right with their attitude. Or even worse when they talk about the danger of “two extremes”. Where is the other extreme?
QUESTION: There is the far left…
SS: Did you see what certain forces and circles term the far-left beating up people and destroying property? Did you see it organize pogroms?
QUESTION: Do you think there should have been government resignations?
SS: The blame lies squarely on the government for the way it handled developments. After all, they themselves have admitted that there were mistakes in the planning and that there was no proper response during the pogroms.
QUESTION: So there was tolerance shown?
SS: Of course tolerance was shown. The Government will have to give an answer, given that the President says he knows where the incidents have come from and what will happen next. Namely, whether we put them through one door to get them out the other, or whether there is a determination and will to bring the culprits and instigators of these incidents to justice.
QUESTION: The UN General Assembly will convene soon. Do you expect anything will happen in relation to the Cyprus problem? Do you think there can be mobility?
SS: Even if there is no perspective surrounding the Cyprus problem, we have to create it. From the moment there is a common belief that partition does not suit us, even more so a two states solution, it means that we should not be comfortable with making the conclusion that Turkey is provocative and is exploiting the longest stalemate ever to create new deadlocks. One has to see how behind this pessimism we can create momentum to bring the international community back to take an initiative so that we can continue the negotiations and break the deadlock.
That must be our constant steadfast approach and position. We need to look at the big picture and not at the various small things that unfortunately exacerbate the climate.
QUESTION: How did you view the President’s letter for the appointment of a UN envoy? In relation to the President’s proposal for a more active EU involvement, do you consider that time has been lost?
SS: If we are going to talk about lost time, we have to say that after Crans Montana, valuable time was indeed lost and the previous President made sure to reinforce the perception that the Security Council of the UN has formed and that has been documented in the UN Secretary General’s Reports and Resolutions since 2017, that we are simply part of the problem and that besides being held equally responsible for the failure at Crans Montana, we are also considered part of the problem for the ongoing stalemate on the Cyprus problem.
My point is that, whether an envoy from the UN or from the EU is appointed, he/she is part of the effort to find a solution to the Cyprus problem. The appointment of envoys alone does not solve the Cyprus problem. In whatever effort is made, we must have certain steadfast positions.
Firstly, without any ambiguity, without any footnotes and asterisks, we must continue the negotiations from where they had remained. That is what the President says. What he does not tend to say is what this position actually means. That is to say, that we safeguard all the convergences that have been recorded so far, including the convergence on political equality. I say this because it is Nicos Anastasiades who opened the issue.
For that reason, the Secretary General of the UN and the EU must know that the President of the Republic and the Greek Cypriot side are talking about continuing the negotiations, preserving all the convergences that have been registered. The last record was made by the UN Secretary General in his 2017 Report when he took stock of the whole journey [of the talks] culminating in the Crans Montana conference. At the same time, we must declare that the Greek Cypriot side is ready to discuss on the Guterres Framework. We must be quite clear about this.
The President also says that we must set out a positive agenda. This has always been AKEL’s position. The President’s attempt now to push a positive agenda is in our opinion also an implicit admission that the effort to impose sanctions, which he himself led when he was Foreign Minister in the Anastasiades Government, failed and thus valuable time was lost.
The President also says that Euro-Turkey relations is an adept field to create dynamics. We are not saying that we should not have Euro-Turkey relations in our planning too, but we should also be aware of the complexity and potential side effects that can be caused by these issues that are not under our control. We have a tool in our hands which is very important and which, in our view, we must put at the centre of our positive agenda. This is the region’s energy issues and the issue of Cypriot natural gas.
In the interview of the President of the Republic to your newspaper he said that we are not going to give up sovereignty. Who told the President to give up sovereignty? If he considers that the proposal that AKEL submitted in 2020 and again forwarded to him represents a violation or a concession of sovereignty of the Republic of Cyprus, then I will say what we were saying about Nicos Anastasiades too. That is that either he did not read the proposal or he misinterprets it. As the President is an experienced diplomat, I believe that he understood its meaning that we shall discuss the issue of natural gas with Turkey after the solution of the Cyprus problem.
As far as the Turkish Cypriot community is concerned, we will discuss how it will become involved in the issue when a strategic agreement has been reached, which according to the Secretary General of the UN is the path of no return for a comprehensive solution of the Cyprus problem.
Our proposal is based on the convergences that have been recorded that make the issue of the ownership and management of natural resources a federal competence, hence state sovereignty. Therefore, let the President say that he disagrees, but he shouldn’t misinterpret our proposal.
“It is our duty to react to the far-right”
QUESTION: You are also accused as a party that you are exploiting the issue politically with the numerous mobilisations you have organized.
SS: This accusation too seeks to whitewash and exonerate the far-right. What do those who make this accusation propose – that we should let the far-right act unhindered in promoting its dangerous policies?
AKEL has acted to ensure that society stands up against the danger and activity of the far-right, racism and intolerance. If society hadn’t reacted to the pogroms that took place in the peaceful and democratic way that it reacted, would this not be a signal and an indication to the far-right that they can proceed to fulfill their goals?
In truth, what do all those people who talk about “two extremes” or that AKEL is supposedly trying to gain political capital from the situation mean or when they talk about the need to counter the far right, how do they mean it?
How should society express its opposition and disapproval of the far-right – by keeping silent or by shouting from one’s couch?
It has been and will continue to be our duty not only to oppose the far-right and fascism, but also to help society express its opposition.
“The goal is for AKEL to retain its two MEP’s”
QUESTION: At what stage are the processes in relation to the European and local government elections?
SS: At the moment we are in the process of submitting proposals to complete our election ballots for local government and the European elections in the Party Base organisations. Fermentations are also taking place at the level of Party district committees. These processes will be intensified according to the timetables we have set, whereby our candidate list should be ready by the end of November.
QUESTION: There is a discussion underway for DISY to forge a cooperation with the parties supporting the government. Furthermore, the Ecologists have decided to contest the elections on their own. One could say that there is a tendency to isolate AKEL. How do you see it?
SS: Local elections, as we have noted in our political resolution too, are an opportunity to forge cooperation, on the basis of specific political objectives and programmatic goals that benefit society and local government itself. Secondly, these are elections in which local communities should play a leading role, because there are facts and priorities that differ from one municipality to another and from one district to another. Hence, this cannot but be taken into account.
That is precisely why we have left the initiative to the District Committees so that, in cooperation with local communities, they can proceed to make the necessary contacts with other parties and organised groups of citizens so that we can express in the best possible way progressive society that wants to see a local authority that is effective for the benefit of the many and not the few.
I do not consider that AKEL feels isolated. On the contrary, the presidential elections conveyed the message that there is a powerful progressive pole that AKEL can express in cooperation with progressive forces.
QUESTION: Will AKEL’s cooperation with Niyazi Kızılyürek continue?
SS: We have not yet specified this with anyone. Of course there is a dialogue underway. An evaluation will be made of five years of the activity and contribution of the AKEL delegation in the European Parliament, which includes AKEL MEP’s Giorgos Georgiou and Niyazi Kızılyürek. So far, we believe that the intervention of our MEP’s has been very significant and worthwhile in various areas on issues that concern both Europe itself and our country and people, Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots. In addition, I must say that the historic step of including a Turkish Cypriot in our ballot is something we want to continue.
QUESTION: Have AKEL’s electoral objectives changed? Has the bar of expectations been lowered and why?
SS: AKEL’s goal in the European elections is to retain the two seats we have had since our participation in the European Parliament.