President of Cyprus discusses his divided nation

Cyprus may be a small ethnically divided island in the eastern Mediterranean, but it’s at the center of a potentially explosive situation over recently discovered offshore natural gas fields.

As the issue heated up the General Assembly of the United Nations and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened to send war ships to the region, Demetris Christofias, president of the Republic of Cyprus, addressed a broad range of matters affecting his nation in the peaceful setting of Greenberg Lounge during NYU School of Law’s Eighth Annual Emile Noel Lecture on September 22.

In response to a question by University Professor J.H.H. Weiler, director of the Jean Monnet Center for International and Regional Economic Law & Justice, Christofias defended Cyprus’ sovereign right to exploit its natural resources under international law and said he was not afraid of Turkish threats because he had faith in the international community to do the right thing.

“It’s a matter of justice,” Christofias told Weiler as both men sat in comfortable leather armchairs in front of a blazing fire.
In conversational style, Weiler asked the Cypriot president about everything from his view on the state of negotiations to solve the Cyprus problem to personal inquiries about his favorite authors (author Nikos Kazantzakis), music (leftist composer Mikis Theodorakis) and food (dolamades, or stuffed grape leaves).

In a seemingly jovial mood, Christofias, the leader of the Progressive Party of Working People, the island’s communist party, responded to every question with candor and humor.  “I felt like a fly in milk,” he chuckled, referring to what it was like when Cyprus first joined the European Union.

Since 1974, nearly 40 percent of the island has been occupied by Turkish troops—and the problem that has divided the island ever since took center stage for most of the evening’s discussion. Christofias blamed both the Turkish and Greek Cypriot communities for the tensions that came to a head in 1974.

“The Greek Cypriots and the Turkish Cypriots committed mistakes,” he said, admitting that he often came under fire for saying that. “I was, and am, of the opinion that both communities must say to each other, ‘Mea culpa.’”

But it was clear that finding a solution to the island’s division is at the top of the  president’s to-do list, not the dispute over the island’s natural resources.

“The real danger is the occupation of Cyprus by Turkey,” said Christofias. “For Cypriots, a solution must be viable, a solution must be functional. It must be a lasting solution.”

Watch the full video (1 hr, 24 min):