ELAM's leadership watching a video of the Cypriot police confronting the party's members
Turning off Nicosia's major arterial road and into the dark streets of the Cypriot capital, the atmosphere began to change. Sinister, black-shirted men with shaved heads and arms like lamp posts stood on street corners, peering in at the occupants of passing cars.
"This must be the place," George said, guiding his car toward the hotel that is hosting a conference to mark the 50th anniversary of Cyprus's ultra-nationalist Golden Dawn affiliate, ELAM. People were milling around in front of the building, most of them dressed in black, with more of the stern, towering ELAM henchmen close at hand to keep an eye on everyone.
I'd asked my friend Maria to accompany me to the conference to provide translations, and she insisted that George—her politically-apathetic boyfriend—came along as well, as he'd voted for ELAM at the previous Cypriot elections. Despite the fact he hadn't known too much about the party or their agenda, his vote clearly hadn't sat too well with Maria, who's not particularly fond of far-right political parties that have been accused of inciting racial violence.
After parking up, we made our way to a downstairs conference room, passing a bookstall selling flags and shirts emblazoned with ELAM's logo and the Golden Dawn's modified swastika. Laid out on the table were several books written by leaders of the Golden Dawn.
ELAM—or Ethniko Laiko Metopo (National People's Front)—were established in 2008, when Cypriot authorities forbid the group's founders from calling themselves Golden Dawn. But the name change did little to alter the attitudes of ELAM's members—since their inception, the party has mirrored the activities of their Greek counterparts, touting anti-immigration rhetoric, engaging in militaristic street demonstrations, and—if reports are true—attacking and intimidating political opponents and minority groups.
ELAM's professed love of their country doesn't just manifest itself in hatred towards outsiders. As the Cypriot economy worsens, the group have made a significant contribution to charitable efforts, and members donate blood regularly and assist in fighting forest fires in a bid to present the party as a strong protector of the nation. The problem is, charitable donations aren't awarded to the entire nation—food and school items are reserved for "Greek-only" Cypriots.
The conference, held on October 27, had been given extra significance by recent events in Greece—the murder of an anti-fascist rapper by an alleged Golden Dawn member, arrests of the party's leadership, and charges accusing of them being a "criminal organization"—so I'd got in touch with Stratos Karanikolaou, ELAM’s foreign relations representative, who invited me to attend.
When I arrived, he thanked me for coming, complaining that the Cypriot press rarely gives the party’s press releases a look in. "We would have had many more people, but a lot of our membership and supporters are afraid, following the terror of what happened in Greece," he said, adding that he'd usually expect a crowd double the number of the 200 people in attendance.
The first speaker is an elderly guy who fought in the 1950s guerrilla campaign against British occupation of the island. He urges the crowd to "keep up the fight", presumably referring to the immigrants who have made Cyprus their home, rather than the hordes of British teenagers who spend the summer months vomiting luminous fishbowls all over Ayia Napa.
Next up was the head of ELAM’s student wing—an important position, as the party focus much of their attention on disaffected Cypriot youth who are looking for an easy identity to conform to. ELAM are active in high schools and on university campuses, and in a country in the throes of Europe’s economic crisis—boasting nearly 40 percent youth unemployment—ELAM have fertile soil in which to plant their message.
The representative from ELAM's women's group
After the student address came a representative of ELAM's women’s group. She spoke about the role of women in ancient Sparta and their involvement through history in struggles and conflicts involving the Greek nation. It didn't seem to have much to do with anything.
Once all the opening acts were done, the party’s political leadership gets down to the kind of stuff you'd only really want to hear if you were part of the party's political leadership. A series of speakers gave talks on the organizational structure of the party and their strategy for achieving success in upcoming European and national elections, interspersing their speeches with nationalistic declarations designed to hype everybody up into an anti-immigration frenzy.
One of those declarations cames from central political council member Marios Vasileiou, a man who currently looks likely to become Cyprus's answer to Geoffrey Bloom, blurting stuff out before he's considered the damage his mouth might do to his party's reputation. "The values of the flag should overcome the need for human rights," said Marios, to cheers from the crowd. Behind him, an image of a happy Greek child was projected on to a screen, overlaid with the words: "It is up to you so that your child does not become a minority in its own country."
After Marios has finished casually brushing off the need for human rights, it was time for the main event. A five-minute video featuring photos and videos of ELAM's activities—accompanied by suitably dramatic music—was beamed up onto the big screen, before Christos Christou, the party's president, strolls onstage to a standing ovation. He seemed comfortable playing the role of frontman for an ultra-nationalist movement, powerfully built ,and containing the kind of rage that's pretty vital when your job is to convince people that every single immigrant with the cheek to live on your soil is the reason everything's gone to shit.
"We are left with an economic crisis and thousands of illegal immigrants, while our people leave because they cannot live with dignity," he raged, accusing Cyprus's political establishment of corruption and failing their people. "When we are called ‘terrorists,’ we will answer back that we are Greek nationalists and will do whatever it takes to help the country. Our ideas are like fire and will spread."
He denounced the Greek authorities’ arrest of Golden Dawn members, saying they were politically motivated. "These people are not in prison because of what they have done, but what they believe," he claimed. "They are honorable and generous Greeks, and the government has thrown into jail the only people who can liberate the country from the crisis."
The audience at ELAM's fifth anniversary conference
Afterward I talked to Panayiotis Stavrinides, a psychology lecturer at the University of Cyprus. He explained Christou's attitude toward the Golden Dawn arrests. "They love conspiracies to the point of paranoia," he said. "Conspiracies are self-confirming, and all the steps will confirm what you believe in the first place."
Simple messages are easily digestible to people looking for answers to complex problems. One of ELAM's central messages is opposition to any method that might end Turkish occupation in northern Cyprus and therefore result in a unified federation. Instead of addressing this complex issue with the kind of nuance it deserves, ELAM's language centers around liberation rather than reunification.
"ELAM and Golden Dawn offer simplicity: our country, our religion, our family," Stavrinides explained, before warning, "The leadership are intelligent people—psychopathic, but intelligent."
Following electoral success in Greece, the Golden Dawn established themselves as the third most popular political party in the country. Then everything fell apart, but despite the arrests and accusations made against their members, the party maintain significant popularity—earning 8 percent support in October's opinion polls.
ELAM achieved just over 1 percent of the popular vote in the 2011 Cypriot parliamentary elections. But this is a country where little more than 2 percent can see a party gain a seat and recent polls gave ELAM 1.9 percent. As such, they have a strong chance of picking up representation in 2016.
With unemployment tipped to rise to almost 20 percent next year, and the economy expected to contract further over the coming two years, all the conditions point to a growth in support for ELAM and their policies. (In regards to the economy, ELAM said—without elaborating—that Cyprus should mirror Iceland’s nationalization of the banking system and begin turning profit from the country’s recently discovered deposits of natural gas.) The party already boast offices in each of Cyprus's major cities, and next year’s elections for the EU parliament will offer a chance to test the mood for their message—perhaps making them the next European far-right group to pick up significant support.
ELAM supporters singing their national anthem
As the conference draws to a close, the audience stand straight-backed with pride as they belt out the national anthem.
After the rousing tribute to the island of Cyprus has concluded, we made our way out of the hotel and into the car. Driving away from the hotel, I asked George and Maria what they have taken away from the event. "I just feel more conviction in what I already thought," Maria said. "These people are dangerous."
George kept quiet as he drove, letting the silence linger before anxiously muttering, "I don’t want to say anything, because I don’t want to get in trouble with Maria."
Follow Nigel on Twitter: @nigel_oconnor
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