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Cyprus at the Crossroads

Syriza wasn't the first left party to come to power in Europe. What can we learn from Cyprus' AKEL?

In media accounts both friendly and hostile, Syriza’s victory in the January Greek elections was pronounced to be the first instance of a left party winning political power in the European Union.

But there was actually more precedent than that. Cyprus, a presidential republic within the EU, was governed between 2008 and 2013 by an avowed communist and his Progressive Party of the Working People (AKEL). This is understandable, given Cyprus’s small size, its miniscule weight within Europe and, all importantly, the subordination of all politics on the island to the question of its division into a Greek Cypriot south and a Turkish Cypriot north.

AKEL, or the “peoples’ movement” as it is often called, is in many ways unique. A continuation of the Communist Party of Cyprus (the CPCy), it has historically dominated the trade union movement, being a mass party with front organizations and a popular grassroots culture since the 1930s.

After the collapse of the Eastern Bloc in 1990, while other communist parties opted to renounce “Marxism-Leninism” for social democracy or dissolved altogether, AKEL stayed put. It continues to define itself as a party inspired by Marxism, while postponing at the same time the “struggle for socialism” until “after the reunification of the island.”

Not only has AKEL not disappeared; its electoral strength has remained more or less constant since 1960, when Cyprus gained its independence from Britain, alternating between first and second place in parliamentary elections and averaging 30 percent of the popular vote. In 2008 its general secretary, Dimitris Christofias, at the time the island’s most popular politician, won the presidency.

Due to a combination of factors — and especially the impact of the global crisis on Cyprus’s swollen banking sector, which brought the island under the sway of the Troika — Christofias’s presidency lagged behind the expectations it had generated. He was effectively driven out of office by an aggressive campaign of media slander, whose starting point was the preposterous allegation of him being complicit in a naval base accident that occurred in 2011, killing thirteen and knocking out the country’s main power station.

Notwithstanding the generalized neoliberal offensive against AKEL, this seems to have reinforced an already existing view within sections of the radical left in Cyprus that AKEL represents yet another social-democratic enterprise.

While AKEL should by no means be considered a revolutionary party (it does not consider itself one), the notion that it shares the neoliberal outlook of Pasok, the British Labour Party, or the German Social Democratic Party is, to say the least, wrongheaded.

AKEL is a left reformist party whose character is informed by class as well as the specific circumstances in which it operates. And its role in today’s Troika-dominated Europe and the lessons from its experience in government shed light on the situation facing the Syriza government today.

A Brief History of Cypriot Communism

AKEL’s predecessor, the CPCy, was officially founded in 1926 by a group of radical intellectuals and workers influenced by Russia’s October Revolution. It opposed British rule and actively participated in the anti-colonial uprising that shook the island in 1931.

Its main political adversary was the powerful Church of Cyprus. Owing to the earlier dhimmi regime of the Ottoman Caliphate, the Church of Cyprus was recognized by British colonial authorities as the official national representative of the island’s Greek ethnic majority, or “ethnarchy.”

Whereas the Church and the island’s emerging Greek bourgeoisie advocated enosis, the political union of the island with Greece, the CPCy advanced the call for political independence and socialism. Organizing underground in 1930s, the CPCy channelled its activities into the founding of the island’s trade-union movement. Cypriot communists who fled the island for Britain and the United States were to constitute proportionally one of the largest contingents of international volunteers in the Spanish Civil War.

AKEL was founded in 1941, a period of reduced tension between communists and British authorities on the island due to the outbreak of World War II. It was founded initially as a “popular front” organization incorporating the clandestine CPCy as well as “progressive bourgeois elements.”

In the immediate postwar period, however, it figured prominently in a sequence of class confrontations that united workers from both the Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities and culminated in a major 1948 miners strike against an American-owned multinational. This led to the silent withdrawal of the liberal elements that remained within it.

The party successfully contested municipal elections, becoming hegemonic during the Greek Civil War, which lasted from the end of the war until 1949. A communist victory in Greece would have likely created a domino effect across Southern Europe, where strong communist parties were active, but also in Cyprus, long considered by Greek Cypriots as their cultural motherland.

And this in a time of rapidly declining British power in the Middle East. It constituted sufficient cause for the colonial authorities to raise the alarm and collude with the Church of Cyprus in founding a rival right-wing trade union federation.

The defeat of the communists in the Greek Civil War shaped subsequent events on the island. Unlike its predecessor, the CPCy, AKEL endorsed enosis as part of a new strategy. Class collaboration was justified; a bourgeois democratic stage was thought to be necessary before the transition to socialism. But after the war, with the prospects of union with a communist-ruled Greece annulled, it was the Right around young Archbishop Makarios that was able to take the initiative.

With the sun setting on the British Empire and with a pro-American regime installed in Athens, the Greek Cypriot Church launched an armed struggle against British rule in 1955 by founding the National Organization of Cypriot Fighters (EOKA), a tightly knit guerrilla group committed to enosis.

EOKA might have given expression to the prevalent anticolonial sentiments in Cyprus, but its aims towards both the Turkish community and the communists were far less noble. George Grivas, a Cypriot-born Greek officer, headed its military wing.

Earlier, he had collaborated with the Nazi occupiers in Greece, before offering his services to the British army in hunting down communist sympathizers in the attempt to keep the country within the Western sphere of influence. Grivas in Cyprus may have turned against his erstwhile allies, but he did so in a parallel attempt to marginalize his communists and Turkish adversaries.

The British, who reacted to EOKA’s struggle by outlawing AKEL, resorted to the tried and tested policy of divide and rule, encouraging greater Turkish involvement in Cyprus and disproportionally staffing police forces with Turkish Cypriots.

The seeds of ethnic division were, of course, already there to be exploited. The Turkish Cypriot community was terrified at the prospect of becoming marginalized or, still worse, of being totally uprooted from the island — as was the fate of the larger Turkish minority on Crete, once composing 26 percent of that island’s population.

Taksim, the policy of partition, rapidly gained currency within the Turkish Cypriot community. In the course of the conflict between the British and EOKA on the one hand, and between EOKA and Turkish nationalists on the other, AKEL was to prove the biggest loser.

By formally adhering to enosis, it had alienated the bulk of the Turkish Cypriot community, while still facing savage violence from the Greek right. Nationalism within both communities was the dominant force by the time the British relinquished control of the island in 1960.

The Postcolonial Social Contract

Makarios eventually accepted a negotiated settlement in 1959, brokered by Greece, Turkey, Britain, and the two communalist ruling classes of the island. Cyprus became an independent state as a compromise between enosis and taksim.

The treaties established British military bases and listening posts, which have performed a major role in every Middle Eastern conflict since. Greece, Turkey, and Britain were given unilateral intervention rights. The island’s power-sharing system — the allocation of administrative posts on the basis of ethnicity and proportionality — was bound to prove as sectarian as the violent ethnic strife it was intended to keep at bay.

Viewing independence as a stepping-stone towards enosis, Makarios sought to curb Turkish rights by advocating a revision of the constitution; something that amounted to the first shot fired in the clashes of 1963–64.

Greek paramilitaries engaged with Turkish separatists, resulting in the withdrawal of Turkish Cypriot representation from both government and parliament. The Turkish Cypriot population was forced into small and isolated enclaves, transforming the republic into essentially a second Greek state. To further enforce the new status quo, fifteen thousand Greek troops landed on the island.

Seeing the West’s unresponsiveness towards Greek Cypriot demands for constitutional revisions and enosis, and reticent towards threats of a military intervention by Turkey, Makarios now turned to the Soviet Union and the Arab world for arms and diplomatic support.

Cyprus thus became a member of the Non-Aligned Movement. Following a period of enmity that dated since time immemorial, Makarios and AKEL entered into an implicit “social contract,” founded on the logic of Cold War geopolitics and a booming postcolonial economy.

Makarios proceeded to enlarge parts of the welfare state — first introduced by the postwar Labour government in London — as well as to expand the public sector. In return, AKEL supported Makarios unconditionally, if not uncritically.

Yet, despite drawing support from about 30 percent of the electorate, AKEL was completely excluded from power, while communist sympathizers were hardly ever appointed to the civil service. As the only non-nationalist force on the island, AKEL found itself balancing a tight rope between assertions of class solidarity and internationalism, and supporting Makarios’s stance on the Cyprus issue in practice.

The party’s “left”-patriotic stance notwithstanding, it would be wrong to dismiss the impact of AKEL’s internationalist declarations as purely symbolic. Over the decades, the party built a mass oppositional culture, centered on the trade unions, sports, and local clubs, which instilled in thousands of its supporters the ideas of Greek-Turkish coexistence and socialist transformation.

It’s a legacy that continues to this day. The experience of exclusion, discrimination, and derision by the establishment, together with AKEL’s practice of class collaboration, has shaped the political makeup of the party’s huge base.

It’s a mixture of “pragmatic” politics combined with deep-seated convictions in the eventual radical change of society. This constitutes a marked difference between AKEL and postwar social democracy, let alone the Third Way social democracy that followed, where confidence in the “redistributive side-effects” of the market forms the ideological horizon of its devotees.

This also explains why when challenged by the Soviet Union’s collapse, the party evaded the lure of social democratization. Yet this also explains why in the current climate of discontent exhibited towards Greek Cypriot establishment parties, the party has failed to make inroads beyond its core electoral base.

The convergence between AKEL and Makarios grew throughout the 1960s, as the latter increasingly dampened visions of enosis in favor of strengthening the — now Greek-dominated — independent Republic of Cyprus. The island’s unprecedented economic growth and its non-alignment gave it access to markets in the Eastern Bloc and the Middle East. From an economic point of view, enosis made less and less sense.

Eventually, the new realities provoked a schism within the Right, driving a wedge between supporters of Makarios and Grivas, who clung firmly to enosis and enjoyed the backing of the military government in Athens. While Makarios became more reliant on AKEL’s voting bloc, the Greek regime, whose officers staffed the ranks of the Greek Cypriot National Guard, staged a coup d’etat in 1974 with the thinly veiled approval of the United States.

As Makarios escaped into exile, Turkey sent a task force that split the island in two, ethnically cleansing two hundred thousand Greeks from the north. The dramatic effects of the invasion helped knock down the already weakened military regime in Athens, as well as its local accomplices.

Ιn the eyes of Greek Cypriots, it was the US and the Greek far right (both in Cyprus and Greece) that were primarily responsible for the tragedy. AKEL’s position was thus strengthened and its political isolation broken. This was Cyprus’s “anti-imperialist moment,” amplified by events in post-junta Greece.

Makarios, undeservedly, emerged from the deluge as an Allende-like figure, securing power with the backing of a broad coalition of “democratic forces,” including AKEL as its largest component, the smaller socialist party EDEK, and the Makarios-inspired center-right DIKO. In opposition were the conservative Democratic Rally party (DISY), in which the far-right coup supporters found political shelter.

For the next two decades, the social contract between AKEL and the “progressive right” predominated. AKEL became the electoral pillar of every single government elected from then until 1993, yet without its direct participation in any of them.

More importantly, the economy boomed thanks to tourism and the civil war in neighboring Lebanon, which prompted the relocation of that country’s banking sector to the island, laying the foundations for Cyprus’s now ruined economic model. The welfare state remained in place and key sections of the economy were kept under state control, if only to reinforce the standing of the Republic of Cyprus as the “sole legitimate entity on the island.”

While AKEL is located at the left end of the broader political spectrum and DISY is on the right, it occupies a middle ground where the solution of the Cyprus problem is concerned. As a party of big business, DISY is the chief advocate of a Western-brokered settlement, in the form of a “bi-zonal, bi-communal federation.” The smaller DIKO and EDEK parties are hostile to federalism, not so much out of mistrust towards the West, but because the interests they represented stand more likely to lose out in a settlement.

Since 1978 AKEL has consistently supported a federal settlement, not so much as a painful compromise, but to advocate the political equality of Greek and Turkish Cypriots. It differs from DISY in that it is apprehensive towards Western involvement in the settlement process.

Yet its stagist approach — pursuing a political settlement within the confines of a “national strategy” along with all other Greek Cypriot political forces, class struggle after eventual reunification — injected its position with an inherent contradiction that later would come to haunt it.

The Social Contract’s Collapse

The 1990s found AKEL trying to adapt to the new realities. The historical rift within the Right was healed, with the previously marginalized DISY taking power in 1993. The entry of capital from the former Soviet Union further accelerated the financilization of the island’s economy and the growth of its banking sector. The Greek Cypriot ruling class felt confident enough to seek membership in the European Union (EU).

This period also brought change in AKEL. While not renouncing Marxism, it had become a party with a broader appeal, devoid of its earlier rigid pro-Moscow line. The economic boom had a corrupting effect on some of its more affluent layers, while it endorsed the accession of the Republic of Cyprus to the EU, on grounds that it would further facilitate a solution to the Cyprus problem.

Throughout the 1990s, AKEL was trying to revive the basic tenets of the social contract. It defended the institutionalized “tripartite dialogue” between trade unions, the government, and the bosses’ associations, which — in sharp contrast to Greece — resolved every instance of sharp class conflict since independence, on a supposed basis of “no winners and no losers.” This partly explains why the left trade union leadership has proved timid in mobilizing on a consistent mass scale against the ongoing attempts to privatize much of the country’s state sector.

The party participated in government with its own ministers for the first time in 2003, under the presidency of a DIKO politician. When the United Nations put forward the Annan Plan for reunification — a deeply flawed Bosnian-style exercise in conflict resolution — AKEL was torn. While the plan promoted the goal of federalism to some extent, it contained numerous divisive administrative clauses. It also significantly curtailed Cypriot independence, allowing permanent Greek and Turkish military presences on the island and permanently sealing the presence of British bases.

Morever, the US-inspired plan appeared at the same time as George W. Bush’s project for a “New Middle East,” most likely in an effort to solidify the United States’ system of alliances in the region and prevent a future rupture between NATO allies Greece and Turkey.

AKEL’s historical stagist approach, which prioritized the rallying of a cross-class alliance to solve the “national question,” came to an impasse. It had no alternative to offer in a situation polarized between DISY, liberals, and big business advocating a “yes” vote on the one hand, and its coalition partners and petit-bourgeois chauvinists, which hegemonized the eventually victorious “no” camp, on the other.

Soon after, the “progressive” allies, who by now had converted to neoliberalism, tried to dispose of AKEL. Unwilling to capitulate, the party rank-and-file pushed the leadership to field for the first time a candidate from its own ranks in the 2008 presidential elections, the party’s general secretary Dimitris Christofias.

Christofias was elected in the runoff after securing the support of DIKO and EDEK. He was quick to point out that his candidacy was aimed primarily at solving the Cyprus dispute. Yet his campaign for a “fairer society” generated enormous expectations around social issues, even well beyond AKEL’s own electoral base.

In retrospect, Christofias’s presidency can be judged as an attempt to withstand the pressures of neoliberalization and of complete alignment with the West, introduced in the early 1990s. His economic policies were of a mild Keynesian flavor. Public spending increased and the privatization of state-run enterprises was categorically ruled out.

However, times had changed. Cyprus was now part of the EU, its central bank an “independent” institution overseeing the spread of the island’s banks into Greece and the Balkans. Despite some initial progress, hopes in resolving the Cyprus dispute were dashed, mostly due to Turkish intransigence.

Openings were attempted in the non-Western world, but the reality of regional geopolitics soon came to the fore. Under the impact of the Turkish-Israeli quarrel, Christofias — pressed by all other political forces and guided by the “national interest” — signed a controversial exploration agreement with Israel to develop newly discovered gas reserves in the Eastern Mediterranean.

AKEL supporters found themselves having to defend the indefensible. Attempts at reforming the nationalist school curriculum had to contend with the Church’s meddling in educational affairs. And when the government proposed legislation to impose a property tax on top earners, no party other than AKEL supported it.

Only mass mobilization could have offered a way out. But after nearly half a century of class collaboration, the movement was at a loss. AKEL did not fight back, not so much because it did not want to, but because it did not know how to.

But it was the global financial crash that proved fatal. As it became clear that Christofias would not budge on key opposition demands such as privatizations, and while the banking sector was on the verge of collapse, the media turned hysterical, with the explosives accident serving as a cynical pretext.

Overnight, Christofias was transformed into a vile “son of a laundry woman.” Behind the vitriol lay a ruthless neoliberal attack. AKEL’s coalition partners departed one after the other, and the Left was subjected to a witch hunt on a scale not seen since the 1950s.

Christofias responded with pleas to preserve the “tripartite understanding” between the state, labor unions, and business interests. The ruling class, however, was now going on the offensive, delivering frenetic deathblows to the “social contract” that had adequately served it for a half century.

When the island’s second largest bank went bankrupt in 2012 due to its shady dealings with Greek toxic state bonds, Christofias — quite wrongly — jumped in to save it, increasing public debt dramatically and forcing Cyprus into the arms of the Troika.

For the Right this was not enough. They saw a chance to finally push for privatizations and roll back decades of working-class gains. The overnight collapse of the class compromise that AKEL hand long championed meant that many people became easy prey to propaganda that the crash was somehow caused by Christofias’s “mismanagement.”

To his credit, Christofias stood firm at the level of discourse. With nothing left to lose, he pointed at the capitalist origins of the crisis, denouncing the markets as “thieves of the globe.” He also broke long-standing taboos, placing Greece’s intervention in 1974 on the same level as Turkey’s, refusing to yield to the nationalism that accompanied the campaign against him.

What’s Next for AKEL?

Christofias dragged on the memorandum negotiations with the Troika, refusing to accede to privatization demands for privatizations. However, the EU was confident enough that a new government would soon replace him. And it did.

In what looks incredible in retrospect, the current president, Nicos Anastasiades, campaigned on a platform of being able to secure a better deal, due to his “having better connections” to Angela Merkel. To this end, the European Peoples Party, the institution uniting European conservative parties, held its 2013 conference in Cyprus, just before the presidential elections.

The who’s who of European austerity politics descended to pledge their support to Anastasiadis and give him the aura of competence. At the same time, Christofias was vilified in the media as somebody out of touch with reality, his working-class background providing the basis for Latin American-style scorn by the rich and the upper middle classes.

Just two months into his presidency, Anastasiadis accepted (or proposed according to EU sources) a “bail-in” during negotiations with EU finance ministers, which saw savers forced to pay a huge chunk of the debt. Overnight, the EU imposed capital controls on the island, blocking access to all banking accounts.

The logic behind this move was to compensate for the bank-made public debt by holding the bloated financial sector — which also houses shady deposits by Russian oligarchs — directly accountable. However, this was a cynical pretext at best, since this has ruined the island’s service-based economy, destroying small enterprises and accelerating the rise of unemployment.

More importantly though, it has not prevented Cyprus from entering the condition known to Greece or Spain. Workers in Cyprus are currently facing an unprecedented attack on their rights and wages, whereas the government is offering quite profitable state-run enterprises such as the Cyprus Telecommunications Authority up for grabs to private investors.

The vicious cycle of memorandum “adjustments” is accompanied by an increasingly authoritarian rule. AKEL seems to be slowly recovering from the onslaught, holding on to its base and playing a key role in recent anti-Troika mobilizations. However, it is faced with problems affecting all established parties in the era of “post-democracy”: due to its earlier experience in government, it fails to be widely perceived as an “anti-establishment” party, something reinforced by the low level of social struggle in Cyprus today.

And yet still, AKEL is often the lone parliamentary force voting against the introduction of savage neoliberal legislation, as was recently the case with the bill sanctioning bank home foreclosures, a measure that if implemented, would have disastrous consequences on countless families, many of whom have financed their housing through loans.

AKEL has also undertaken some administrative measures to revitalize its base. But the two-pronged danger of a Greek Communist Party-style sectarianism on the hand, and of the mere tailing of social movement struggles on the other, will continue to loom large in the absence of an alternative political strategy to resist the Troika-sponsored measures.

The moment has caused much of the radical left in Cyprus to consider how to relate to AKEL, especially in light of Syriza’s recent victory in Greece.

To wish, let alone strive, for the fading away of AKEL while under the concerted attack of neoliberal forces — by parliamentary parties, the media and, most tellingly, the judiciary itself — would be self-defeating. To forecast the rise of a “genuine” radical left in Cyprus, when the targeting of AKEL aims to facilitate the slashing of the interests of the working class as a whole, is both ahistorical and adventurist. It is true that AKEL’s influence has somewhat waned over the past three or four years, yet not because of defections to its left, but to its right.

Defending AKEL against neoliberal attacks is a necessity. But constructive, fraternal criticism is also in order. The last decade has shown that a return to earlier policies of class collaboration is untenable — if only because the capitalist class is no longer interested in such a formula.

It is not enough to support a negotiated settlement of the Cyprus problem and to proclaim support for reapproachment between Greek and Turkish Cypriots. AKEL needs to develop a more dialectical approach towards the fight for social justice and the fight for the island’s reunification. Passively waiting for a mediated settlement could once again split its own ranks, one part trailing the “pragmatic” right under the banner of “conflict resolution,” and the other in the camp of the most reactionary, chauvinist elements of Greek Cypriot political life.

Above all, a political settlement premised on neoliberalism, privatizations, home foreclosures, mass unemployment, and rising racism can hardly produce the conditions necessary for peace and a durable solution to the Cyprus problem; it could well prove a recipe for further disaster.

To avoid such a scenario, AKEL has to direct its energies towards the common struggle against neoliberalism, militarism, the presence of foreign bases, and for migrant rights as the main vehicle uniting the Greek and Turkish Cypriot working classes in struggle, rather than invest in well-intentioned but rather fatalistic notions of Cypriot identity politics.

The recent historic May Day gathering in Nicosia’s United Nations–controlled buffer zone, organized by the AKEL-controlled labor federation PEO and Turkish Cypriot trade unions, serves as an example of the enormous possibilities that a break with the primacy of national over class politics could generate.

Such a new left project in Cyprus — both within and outside AKEL — will also be of great significance for the fate of Syriza, the Left in Turkey, and in the region as a whole. Already, Syriza is engaging in some of AKEL’s mistakes in government, by continuing military cooperation with Israel and engaging in a tripartite agreement with Cyprus and Al Sisi’s Egyptian dictatorship.

The subordination of class politics to the logic of realpolitik is very much at odds with both Syriza’s and AKEL’s emphasis on social justice. Breaking with this logic while drawing on the best traditions of a century of Cypriot communism can be the Left on the island’s most important contribution to a region ravaged by imperialism and ethnic conflict.