NICOSIA, Cyprus (AP) — Former President Glafcos Clerides, who guided Cyprus into European Union membership and dedicated most of his 50 years in politics to trying to reunify the ethnically split island, has died. He was 94.
Joseph Kasios, Clerides' personal physician for over a quarter century, said he died at a private clinic early Friday evening. The fourth president of Cyprus, Clerides also played a part in negotiations leading to independence from Britain. Over a half-century, he was widely respected for deftly navigating his country's often treacherous politics.
After losing in two presidential elections in 1983 and 1988, Clerides won the powerful office in 1993 and a second five-year term in 1998. During that time he oversaw the completion of negotiations for entering the EU, though he left office before the country formally joined in 2004.
But the Cyprus problem was Clerides' passion. The island was split into an internationally recognized Greek Cypriot south and a breakaway Turkish Cypriot north in 1974 when Turkey invaded after a coup by supporters of union with Greece.
Turkish Cypriots declared independence in 1983, but only Turkey — which maintains 35,000 troops there — recognizes it. In 2003, Clerides unsuccessfully sought re-election for a limited third term to continue handling the delicate reunification negotiations. He lost to Tassos Papadopoulos, who had accused Clerides of giving too much away during reunification talks.
Clerides supported a U.N. reunification plan, warning that rejection would mean "burying the land of our fathers," but it was overwhelmingly rejected by Greek Cypriots, though approved by Turkish Cypriots in separate referenda in April 2004. He nonetheless remained steadfast in his support for the U.N. plan.
A few dozen supporters milled around in silence outside the clinic where Clerides died, while some erected an impromptu shrine with a large photograph of the ex-president. Within minutes of his death, tributes started to pour in from Cyprus and Europe.
President Nicos Anastasiades said he was "devastated" because he "was something more than a political father to me." "Glafcos Clerides has left a political legacy that no one can ignore," Anastasiades told state broadcaster CyBC by telephone from Sri Lanka where he's attending a Commonwealth summit.
Born in Nicosia on April 24, 1919, Clerides was a soldier, a prisoner of war, a lawyer before he became a politician. During World War II, he was among an estimated 30,000 Cypriot volunteers who fought for the allies. Clerides served as a gunner and wireless operator in Britain's Royal Air Force and was shot down over Germany in 1942. He spent the rest of the war as prisoner, foiled in two escape attempts.
He was a member of the EOKA, the underground independence movement that waged a guerrilla campaign against British colonial rule between 1955 and 1959. Trained as a lawyer in Britain, Clerides defended arrested EOKA fighters in court.
Between 1968 and 1976 he was negotiator for the Greek Cypriot side in talks with the Turkish Cypriots. His counterpart was former Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash. The two battled it out in court in the 1950s, developing mutual respect for each other. Their relationship was friendly — Clerides drove into the Turkish sector in 1964 to drive Denktash's family to the airport — but failed to translate into anything at the negotiating table.
"If I had someone else instead of Denktash, the Cyprus problem would have been solved long ago," Clerides once said. Clerides was involved in the negotiations that led to the island's independence from Britain in 1960 and was elected as the first speaker of Parliament, a position he held until 1976.
When his father, Ioannis Clerides, was a candidate In the country's first presidential election, Clerides broke ranks and instead supported Archbishop Makarios, who won. As speaker, Clerides he temporarily assumed the duties of president in the turmoil that followed the coup and Turkish invasion. When Makarios returned in late 1974, Clerides stepped down and did not hold political office again until winning the presidency in 1993.
Despite his successful handling of Cyprus' EU course, Clerides' presidency was not trouble-free. Late in his first term a major crisis erupted when Cyprus decided to deploy a long-range anti-aircraft missile system, as part of a wider program, to bolster the island's defenses. Turkey threatened a military strike while the international community pressured Clerides not to cancel the deployment.
The missiles ended up in the southern Greek island of Crete, and Clerides shouldered the responsibility alone amid accusations of playing on defense issues to win votes Clerides is survived by his daughter Kate. His wife, Lila-Irene, died in 2007.