Nicosia, Cyprus – Christos Christou sits at his desk in Nicosia sipping iced coffee, a motorcycle jacket slung over the back of his chair.
The modest headquarters of Golden Dawn’s Cypriot branch are located on the third floor of an office building amid the vacant commercial real estate of the capital. Three small flags stand on the corner of his desk – a Greek flag in the centre, Golden Dawn’s black-and-gold faux-swastika on the right and that of his own party, ELAM, on the left.
Christou, a radiologist, joined the far-right Golden Dawn party while studying in Athens, and after becoming a member of the party’s political council was sent by its leader Nikolaos Michaloliakos to assume leadership of ELAM – the party’s full name is the National Popular Front – in 2011.
“There is a strict cooperation between Golden Dawn and ELAM,” he says. “A lot of our members were in Golden Dawn and they came back. Golden Dawn participates in our events, and we go there for their events.”
Following the September murder of anti-fascist Greek rapper Pavlos Fyssas, authorities in Greece have cracked down on Golden Dawn, investigating the party as a criminal organisation and arresting its political leadership on a number of charges. Those arrested include Michaloliakos himself, on charges of leading a criminal organisation, and five other members of parliament.
Christou is quick to denounce the arrests as politically motivated and “illegitimate.”
“The Greek government is in panic because of the strengthening of Golden Dawn. The Greek people embrace Golden Dawn and the government is afraid,” he said.
|Cypriots cope with broken economy|
Modelled on Golden Dawn
ELAM seeks to boost its popularity by mirroring the methods that made Golden Dawn the third-most popular political force in Greece: charging the political system with corruption, hosting charity events exclusively for Greek citizens facing hardship, and offering an image of military discipline and nationalistic solutions for a country wracked by economic crisis. Meanwhile, charges that party members have intimidated and attacked migrants and political opponents have dogged ELAM since it was founded in 2008.
On October 27, the party held a conference at a hotel in central Nicosia marking the fifth anniversary of its establishment. In the surrounding streets pairs of men, with the party‘s logo emblazoned on their black shirts, stood watching the arrivals. In a fiery speech delivered to 200 members Christou spoke of the need to oppose the group‘s critics.
“When we are called ‘terrorists,’ we answer back that we are Greek nationalists and will do whatever it takes to help our country,” he declared in statement rousing the audience to cheers and applause. “Our ideas are like a fire, and will spread.”
Turnout to the event was lower than at previous conferences, according to the party’s foreign relations spokesperson, Stratos Karanikolau. “Our supporters are afraid following the terror of what happened in Greece,“ Karanikolau said. “Normally we would have around 400 people at an event like this.“
While Cypriots of all ages filled the audience, many of the seats were occupied by young adults and teenagers young enough to be high school students. “The heart of a 17-year-old youth is more pure than that of a corrupted politician,“ Christou told his audience.
The appeal of such groups to the younger generation is symptomatic of the political establishment’s inability to provide economic opportunities and a vision of a positive future, according to George Pittas, a media commentator in Cyprus and Greece. “It offers a social and political identity to people looking for something not offered by the major political parties,“ Pittas said. “The seed is here, and it is dangerous.“
In a country where youth unemployment stands at nearly 40 percent, Pittas sees fertile ground for ELAM’s message. “Today, a young person of 16 or 17 sees the EU collapsing and their dreams failing,“ he said. “The political parties of the left and right are part of the established order, whereas ELAM are anti-everything.“
In 2008 Pittas was subjected to threats and intimidation in what he suspects was a reaction to his anti-fascist journalism. “The back window of my car was smashed, and a message read that next time it would be my head,“ he recalled. “It was probably the very anti-nationalist tone to my articles. I despise nationalism.“
The economic crisis in Cyprus is becoming more acute – particularly since March, when the International Monetary Fund, European Central Bank and EU agreed to a 10bn euro ($13.5bn) bailout of the country’s banking system in return for the seizure of a portion of deposits and an approved austerity programme. Unemployment has risen to 17 percent and the country’s economy contracted by more than five percent since March.
With more people dependent on austerity-depleted welfare payments, the issue of migration has become an easy one for ELAM to focus its attention on.
In an interview with Al Jazeera, Christou blamed “illegal migration” for exacerbating the hardship felt by many Cypriots. “Thousands of illegal immigrants come to Cyprus, and they get a lot of financial aid when at the same time our people are suffering hunger,” he said.
But Doros Polykarpou, the executive director of KISA – a refugee and migrant advocacy body – is sceptical of this argument. “Where is the illegal migration?” Polykarpou asks. “According to the police, we have had 230 people who entered from the north and applied for asylum this year.” Cypriot law does not consider it illegal to enter the country for the purpose of seeking asylum.
In 2010 Polykarpou was injured when an anti-racism festival in the coastal city of Larnaca descended into violence when participants in a nationalist demonstration, including members of ELAM, cut power to the event and attacked festivalgoers. A Turkish Cypriot singer was stabbed and 13 people were hospitalised.
Charges of rioting were directed at Polykarpou by Cypriot authorities and dismissed by the Larnaca District Court in June 2012. “I had things thrown at me, I was kicked in the head and had paint thrown on my body and the next day the police filed charges against me and KISA,” he said with a smile.
A split island
Central to ELAM’s platform is its rejection of any federal solution to reunifying the island and ending the nearly four-decade-long Turkish occupation of Cyprus’ north.
to help the Hellenic nation survive.”]
While Christou says Turkish Cypriots “respecting the law” are welcome in a reunified Cyprus, he does little to hide views of racial superiority over the cultural origins of the island’s non-Greek inhabitants. “We believe there are people making enduring civilisations – like the Greeks, Chinese and the Indians – and there are those who deteriorate civilsations, like the Turkish and their expansionism,” he said.
Underpinning such a worldview are the ideals of political Hellenism and the creation of a greater Greek state, largely dormant since the defeat of Greek forces in Anatolia by Kamal Ataturk’s Turkish republican army in 1922.
In Cyprus, a campaign for enosis – political union with Greece – was featured in the 1950s guerilla campaign against British rule, which led to its independence in 1960. In 1974, a pro-enosis coup in Cyprus led in part to the Turkish army’s invasion – and division – of the island.
For some Cypriots, the idea of union with Greece continues to resonate. “To say that we want enosis now might sound like a utopia, but in the future when – and if – in Greece Golden Dawn will be in government and ELAM in Cyprus, then we will make enosis to help the Hellenic nation survive,” Christou declared.
ELAM’s leadership appears confident of future success, despite receiving a little less than one percent of the popular vote in the 2011 parliamentary elections. A recent opinion poll conducted by local daily Phileleftheros found that ELAM’s popularity had increased to 1.9 percent – just shy of the 2 percent needed to win seats in parliament. Elections for the European Parliament take place next year and parliamentary elections are due in 2016.
Meanwhile, Polykarpou fears the worsening economic climate may help ELAM realise electoral success. “Cyprus will go into a deeper crisis in the next two years,” he said. “There will be more unemployment and less money to protect people. More people will be on the streets depending on charity. And if ELAM show they are protecting people, they will get elected.”