New mayor of Nicosia predicts a brighter future

NICOSIA – Lellos Demetriades first became mayor of Nicosia, the capital of Cyprus, in 1971. Even then, it was a divided city, with UN troops keeping the peace between Greeks and Turks. Thirty years later, Demetriades, now nearly 69, is finally stepping down while the city remains divided – an unenviable distinction that no other capital in the world has. Demetriades did not run in the December 16 mayoral election won by businessman Michalakis Zampelas, and will hand over the office to his successor in early January. But the colorful character with a sense of humor that endeared him to voters over the years is not calling it quits in politics. He says he has an intuition that Cyprus’s division will soon end. If that happens, he says, he will run for president of a new Cyprus in which Greeks and Turks live in peace. His optimism may have been fueled by the first face-to-face talks in four years between leaders of Cyprus’s Greek and Turkish communities on December 4 and the resumption in January of negotiations to reunify the island. Nicosia is divided along a green line, patrolled by the UN peacekeeping troops, that was established late in 1963 after battles broke out between the ethnic Greek and Turkish communities. The line was fortified and extended across the entire island after 1974, when Turkey invaded Cyprus following a failed coup by supporters of unity with Greece. In 1983, a breakaway Turkish-Cypriot state was declared in the northern part (recognized only by Ankara), where Turkey keeps about 35,000 troops. Demetriades, a London-educated lawyer and a member of an old Nicosia family, is aware that time and history are not on the side of anyone who aspires to lead a unified Cyprus. The Cyprus problem has proved resistant to international mediation. Its intractability has humbled or frustrated seasoned diplomats like Richard Holbrooke, architect of the 1995 Dayton peace accords that ended the war in Bosnia, and former UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali. I am not going to spend sleepless nights worrying that people won’t vote for me or that the day won’t come, he told The Associated Press in an interview. But I have this thing inside me that tells me that something will happen. Then, I’ll immediately become a young man fighting for something. And I like this, oh yes, I like this. Demetriades was appointed mayor of Nicosia in 1971 by Archbishop Makarios, Cyprus’s first post-independence president. After a change in the law made the mayor’s post an elected one, Demetriades first ran for office in 1986. He has won three successive five-year terms with more than 60 percent of the votes each time. A member of the political wing of EOKA, a Greek-Cypriot guerrilla group that fought British occupation, Demetriades was elected to the island’s first post-independence Parliament in 1960 and remained a lawmaker for 10 years. His political career appeared all but finished in 1968 when he angered the junta that ruled in Athens at the time with remarks belittling the role of Greece as a motherland for Greek Cypriots. Cyprus belongs to the Cypriots first and not anyone else, he recalls having said. During Demetriades’s decades in office, greater Nicosia has grown into a city of about 240,000 people, of whom 190,000 are on the Greek side. The city’s landscape blends houses from the turn of the 20th century with modern buildings. Its old quarter is circled by a wall built by the Venetians in the 16th century. Of late, Nicosians have learned to live with the realities of their city, with some of the trendier and busiest restaurants, cafes and bars now located a stone’s throw from UN posts on the line dividing their city. As mayor, Demetriades says, his most pressing task was for the city to survive after the 1974 invasion sliced it into Turkish and Greek sections marked by barbed wire, minefields, abandoned properties, blocked streets and military posts. We had to survive and we had to be creative. And we had to get advisers to tell us what to do. We had to become the cultural center of the island and preserve the old city, he said. For the benefit of the entire city, Mayor Demetriades worked with Turkish Cypriots under UN auspices and without recognizing the other side. He negotiated a master development plan for the city that was signed in 1985, and he and the Turkish-Cypriot side completed a sewage treatment plant for the entire city. The conclusion of accession negotiations with a wave of former communist states should seal the peaceful reunification of Europe more than a decade after the end of the Cold War.