INTERVIEW with the General Secretary of AKEL Stefanos Stefanou
● AKEL’s challenge is to have a strong presence in society
● The Party is making a dynamic comeback, aiming to retain two seats in the European Parliament and record a stronger presence in local government
HARAVGI. What would constitute a success for AKEL?
SS: For the European elections, the goal we have set is clear: to keep the two seats [out of the six allocated to Cyprus] we have in the European Parliament. To achieve this goal, we need to increase the electoral percentages that we got in the 2021 parliamentary elections. From the 22.3% we had received, we need to go above 25.5% to ensure that we retain those two seats. That is AKEL’s electoral objective.
As far as local elections are concerned, the goal is to have as strong a presence of AKEL as possible in the entire structure of local government. To elect as many of the people we support as possible, either for the Presidents of the District Organisations of Local Government, or for Mayors, deputy Mayors. We also seek to have strong party groups on the Municipal Councils and School Boards. The same applies to our presence in local communities.
From what we are currently feeling from the contacts we have with our District Organisations and Party’s grass roots, it seems that AKEL will have a very good electoral result.
HARAVGI: How difficult is the fact that two electoral procedures will be taking place simultaneously?
That it’s a lot more work, yes, that’s true. How will this be expressed in people’s electoral behaviour nobody knows, as we are in uncharted waters. It is a fact that there is currently a difficulty on the part of the people to understand how elections will be held with many ballots, with new institutions and offices, such as that of the Presidents of the District Organisations of Local Government or the deputy Mayor posts.
We seek through these elections to send a clear message that AKEL is on the road to recovery, that it is coming back strongly, that it will have an even stronger presence in public affairs. This is the challenge and we will win it.
HARAVGI: As far as AKEL is concerned, we have the feeling that local government elections in particular are very important, because that’s precisely where the relationship with people is most direct, where it develops in local communities…
SS: Both elections are very important, because we also attach particular importance to the European Parliament elections. The European Parliament is an arena of action and assertion for Cyprus, but also a field of action and assertion in the EU itself that should offer the peoples prosperity and progress.
There is a huge divergence between the policies implemented by the ruling elites in the EU – belonging to the Right – and what it declares in its principles and values. Neoliberal models and policies are being implemented, with the result that social inequalities are being reinforced and many people are being pushed to the margins. When an EU has approximately 95 million people on the poverty line, then you realise what and how many problems there are.
In relation to the EU’s international presence, double standards and hypocritical policies are prevalent. Whilst on some places the EU appears hypersensitive, as in the case of Ukraine for example, on others it is completely insensitive to the crimes being committed against humanity, as in the case of Palestine.
We must also bear in mind that the European elections will measure Party percentages. It is important that AKEL’s figures are up, which will prove that the changes being made in the party are being supported.
We are paying the same attention to the local authority elections. You have correctly said that local government is a power of direct democracy and participation, because what local authorities decide has a direct impact on society, and when local communities want to address local self-government, it does so in a very direct way.
Therefore, it is very important for AKEL to have a strong presence in local government.
AKEL’s entire presence in local government has always attached a social-centred content to the institution and at the same time given it a progressive content, helping it to evolve and develop.
● Cooperation with broader forces and personalities are an indication of AKEL’s strength and prestige
HARAVGI: What is the purpose of the cooperations forged by AKEL or the support it expresses to specific independent candidates belonging either to the centre or the centre-right spectrum?
SS: Cooperations have been an important part of AKEL’s policy throughout its history. It started in the 1940s and through these cooperations AKEL has been able to achieve tremendous victories. By forging cooperations we have elected noteworthy capable Mayors and achieved a lot in Limassol, Famagusta, Larnaka and elsewhere. Both back then and subsequently, in modern times. If we didn’t forge these cooperations, the successes we managed to record would clearly be fewer.
Therefore, cooperations are nothing new for AKEL. They are an important part of its history. Both for local self-government, for parliamentary and presidential elections, and on various other occasions. The custom of the New Forces is an expression of such cooperations, as is the social alliance that we have now concluded. Regarding the upcoming elections in local government, we do not have cooperation at the level of parties, but – mainly – at the level of candidates.
What is important for us is that these cooperations are based on a common progressive agenda or on a progressive programme.
I would say that the fact that AKEL managed to have forged cooperations from broader spectrums in these elections is not a sign of weakness. On the contrary, it is an indication of the strength and prestige that AKEL has. Because if AKEL did not have this prestige, it wouldn’t be easy for either candidates or parties to seek its support.
● Does DISY perhaps consider AKEL outside the democratic arc?
HARAVGI: In this election period, certain forces and circles are strongly projecting the concept of the “two extremes”, something which is clearly not the case and you don’t share this view…
SS: The Right, and unfortunately not only the Right, are adopting the unhistorical and erroneous ideological concept of the “two extremes” with the ultra-right ELAM party on the one side and AKEL supposedly on the other side. This ideological concept is being used by the Right to hide its political affinity with the extreme right, which it considers and treats as its reserve force. This is precisely what is happening in Europe, this is what is happening in Cyprus.
The Right-wing DISY party made an agreement with ELAM to support and vote for DISY President Anita Demetrious to the Presidency of the House of Representatives, in exchange for granting the Chairmanship of a Parliamentary Committee to ELAM. DISY MP D. Demetrious admitted this in an interview he gave. Now, of course, when the reserve force ELAM began to GATHER votes from DISY, DISY remembered the ideological concept of the “two extremes”.
But the far-right cannot be combatted by such ideological concepts, nor by adopting its policies and rhetoric, because that is precisely what is DISY actually doing, making the boundaries between the Right and the far right undistinguishable.
But since DISY uses the “two extremes” concept, permit me to ask the following question: Does DISY consider AKEL to be outside the democratic spectrum? This is a question that DISY will have to give an answer to at some point instead of hiding.
HARAVGI: Is the migration issue subject to exploitation? We notice that people rank migration as the first problem, with the issues of price increases, expensiveness, corruption and the economy ranking lower.
SS: Migration is a complex and complicated issue that is affecting the whole world. International organisations avoid using the word problem because by using this term migrants and refugees are targeted. And as any reasonable person can see, no one chooses to become either a migrant or a refugee. It is forced by the prevailing conditions and circumstances, as Cypriots were forced to in order to avoid poverty or the war in 1974.
The far-right and, unfortunately, the Right are trying to exploit politically the issue of immigration by employing xenophobic and racist rhetoric, and by doing so spreading fear and hatred among the people.
Are there challenges, pressures and problems caused in relation to migration?
The answer is clearly affirmative, especially when you are a small country in terms of population and territory, as well as being semi-occupied too, as Cyprus is. And because you do not invite refugees, but they come to you, you have a duty as a state governed by the rule of law to handle the issue within the framework of international law and international conventions, but also in a humanitarian manner. You cannot let migrants drown at sea, nor can you engage in what are termed pushbacks.
There needs to be a comprehensive policy for handling the issue, which must include the issues of relations with neighbouring and other countries from which migrants come, including having the necessary infrastructure, asylum and integration policies.
● AKEL has proposed two measures – assertions on migration from the EU that the government has managed to secure
HARAVGI: Cyprus doesn’t have this comprehensive policy?
SS: No, Cyprus doesn’t have such a policy and the responsibility lies with the previous government. Not only did it not elaborate and apply policies, but it also did not establish structures that the EU paid for, such as the pre-removal centre. It is the obligation of the present government to formulate a comprehensive policy. It is the government’s responsibility to demand practical solidarity from the EU.
We as a party have proposed two measures in this direction.
First, the government should demand from the EU that there should be a sharing of refugee flows among all member states, as there was for Ukrainian refugees. In this case, the EU decided that the 2 million Ukrainian refugees would be shared across all member states and rightly so. Cyprus accepted twenty thousand such refugees. Cyprus, which is also an EU member state, must ask for the same to be done in its own case. Unfortunately, neither the previous nor the current government has asked for this.
Secondly, Cyprus must ask for an exception to the principle of the Dublin Regulation that traps migrants and refugees in the first country of arrival. Cyprus is an external border of the EU. Many migrants and refugees arrive here and are trapped here. We have raised these two challenges before the government and the political parties, but everyone is turning a deaf ear.
HARAVGI: You mentioned money Cyprus has received from the EU for establishing infrastructures that haven’t been established. Where did this money go to?
SS: It’s something we’ve asked the government countless of times. The previous General Secretary of the Party had sent letters to this effect. Questions were also asked through the exercise of parliamentary scrutiny to the Minister responsible. I have to admit that we did not get any specific or clear answers
● We cannot feel comfortable with a situation on the Cyprus problem that perpetuates ongoing dangers
HARAVGI: The Cyprus problem may no longer be considered by citizens as the first problem that concerns them. But not solving the Cyprus problem de facto leads to a number of other problems or does not help to solve them.
SS: People are currently ranking the Cyprus problem lower, because they see no prospects ahead [for its solution] and because they are preoccupied with pressing daily problems, such as, for example, price increases and the high cost of living.
But whenever there are developments surrounding the Cyprus problem, which we have not had for seven years, the Cyprus problem immediately comes back to the top of the list of issues that people are concerned about. This is precisely because the average Cypriot understands that what we are experiencing, the provisional nature of conditions since 1974, cannot be a permanent solution, because there are numerous dangers involved.
This situation that has prevailed since 1974 enables Turkey to prevent the Republic of Cyprus from exercising its sovereign rights, as is the case, for example, with our country’s energy programme.
The average Cypriot also understands what it means to have a big power like Turkey against you, so consequently the non-solution of the Cyprus problem is not a solution. Whatever we may be building is not based on a solid foundation, because you do not know what can happen through a logic of either escalation [of tension] or ignition, and this is not the first time we have seen this happen.
We are seeing frozen conflicts turning into hot conflicts, so there is no choice but to be committed to the efforts to achieve a solution that will liberate and reunite our country within the framework of a bicommunal, bizonal federation with political equality.
HARAVGI: The UN Secretary General’s personal envoy on Cyprus María Angela Holguín Cuéllar is expected to pay a new visit to Cyprus. What are your expectations?
SS: Ms. Algin has the responsibility on behalf of the Secretary General of the UN to explore exactly what the positions of the two sides are, to study some thoughts, to see if there is room, to see what can be done to unblock the negotiation procedure. The situation so far does not fill us with optimism.
The Turkish side continues to repeat its demand for “sovereign equality”, which cannot be accepted as it would mean two states. Turkey is instrumentalising the stalemate on the Cyprus problem by creating new occupational fait accompli.
Turkey is comfortable with the passage of time, because the de facto partition on the ground is being perpetuated and consolidated, which is precisely why it is allowing time itself to complete what it started with the Turkish invasion in 1974.
It may possibly be that certain other forces and circles prefer partition, because they may consider in their minds that “its better to have half [of Cyprus] but one that is ours rather than sharing it with the Turkish Cypriots”. Let us not forget that the previous President of the Republic also sounded out numerous people for a two state solution, even if he himself does not admit it. We cannot feel comfortable with a situation on the Cyprus problem that perpetuates ongoing dangers [from such a disastrous development].
We must for that reason take specific initiatives aimed at breaking the deadlock and resuming the negotiations from where they had remained at Crans Montana, preserving the convergences that have been recorded so far and negotiating on the Guterres Framework.
HARAVGI: What are these initiatives?
SS: A positive agenda must be adopted towards Turkey, but with issues that really represent its first priority. Only in this way can the positive agenda work if we want to unleash incentives and dynamics to break the deadlock on the Cyprus problem. The government says that a positive agenda can be achieved with EU-Turkey issues. We say that EU-Turkey does not constitute a sufficient field for releasing such incentives that should convince Turkey to come back to the negotiating table.
HARAVGI: But the government says that the latest European Council Conclusions link the solution of the Cyprus problem to the EU-Turkish issues.
SS: They do indeed say that, but that’s not exactly how things stand – not to mention that it’s not at all like that. The EU’s strategic objective is that the recommendations of the joint Borrell and European Commission document should be promoted. This goal has been entrusted to the Committee of Permanent Representatives (COREPER).
It is in this context that the European Council believes that breaking the deadlock and resuming negotiations – no mention of a Cyprus solution – will create a better environment for taking forward the recommendations on Turkey.
But coming back to the issue of the positive agenda, it is well-known that AKEL has submitted a proposal since December 2020 on how we can turn energy issues and Cypriot natural gas into an incentive for Turkey to accept to come back to the negotiating table.
I stress that our proposal does not envisage an agreement with Turkey before the solution of the Cyprus problem, but after the solution. And I want to underline this, because certain forces and circles are misleading [the people] about our proposal.
HARAVGI: At the same time, civil society itself has an important role to play. How does AKEL send these messages to the Turkish Cypriot community?
SS: The role of society and the actions of movements is important to keep the urgent need to reach a solution to the Cyprus problem in the news. It is useful to put pressure on the political leaderships to work for a solution and to take the appropriate initiatives and moves that will lead to breaking the deadlock. We therefore stress working with society, as well as strengthening cooperation between Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots.
The role of the mass organizations and parties is also important. We are strengthening our relations more with the progressive Turkish Cypriot parties and especially with the big party of the left, CTP, without underestimating the activity of smaller parties and other organizations that play a role in this direction.
Recently with the Turkish Cypriot CTP party we have created Working Groups with the aim of creating areas of joint action between the two parties to push society towards a solution of the Cyprus problem. At the same time, we continue as a Party, in cooperation with other Turkish Cypriot political parties, to exert pressure in the direction of the political leaderships to take the necessary decisions that will lead to the solution of the Cyprus problem.

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