THEO PANAYIDES meets the president’s right hand man, who is charged with a vision for a new Cyprus in the future
The youngish man with forceful, lupine features walks to the bar at Babylon Pub in Nicosia and orders a beer. ‘Which beer would you like?’ asks the barmaid. He leans in with an easy, wolfish grin: “Whichever’s the coldest”.
Does she know that the young man (he’s just turned 39) holds one of the most important jobs in Cyprus? If she does, she gives no inkling of the fact, pouring out the pint as she would for any other customer. A few minutes later I’m sitting outside in the garden, sharing a table with Constantinos Petrides and some of his friends. It’s 9.30, the pub filling up. I need to eat, he says, looking around for a waiter; I haven’t eaten all day. He takes great gulps of beer, like a man craving sustenance. Then we start to talk about the troika and the crisis, and the big challenges facing the government, and food is forgotten. Instead, he orders another beer.
This is his life, and has been for the past few months – because Constantinos is Under Secretary to the President, meaning the President of the Republic, Nicos Anastasiades. What exactly does the job entail? It’s a wide range of responsibilities, he replies, taking a big gulp of beer as if knowing he won’t get another chance for a while: “First of all, you have the role of co-ordinating the work of the government, you deal with various matters related to that, you follow them up together with the relevant ministers. Also of course, due to the situation, we have the Memorandum” – meaning the roadmap laid down by the so-called troika (the EU, IMF and European Central Bank) for Cyprus to exit the crisis.
“I talk to the troika,” he says. “I’m on the Monitoring Committee for the Memorandum. So there’s that – but there’s also all the other things to do with the President, having to prepare him for all sorts of things. I usually accompany him to the European meetings. I meet with various people that he passes on to me, on all kinds of matters”. He’s a lynchpin, a jack of all trades and man for all seasons. He’s a combination of factotum, one-man brain trust, all-purpose dogsbody and right-hand man.
How does someone rise to such a vital behind-the-scenes job before the age of 40, especially in the cosy gerontocracy of Cyprus politics? On the one hand, Constantinos’ credentials are excellent: he’s been heavily involved with ruling party DISY since his teenage years, holding top positions in their youth organisations both at high school and university (he studied Economics in the UK). On the other, he’s something of an outsider – the son of secondary-school teachers (now retired) who took a job with the European Commission in 2006, worked as an economist for five years, and never even met the man with whom he now works so closely till a couple of years ago. The turning point seems to have been the election to Parliament of his near-contemporary Harris Georgiades (now Minister of Finance), after which presumably his name started to be mentioned more frequently; he headed Anastasiades’ office in the pre-election period, then stepped into his current post when DISY became the new government.
Does he find it easy to operate in politics as a relative novice? What kind of person is he, anyway? – but here we hit a snag, because Constantinos isn’t really comfortable with the concept of a Profile. It’s a tricky situation, he explains: “Whatever I say reflects on the President”.
Fair enough – but surely he can tell us what kind of person he is?
“Just a normal person…” he shrugs helplessly. He sighs, looking for answers in the half-empty beer glass. “In such a difficult period,” he replies at last, “with people losing their jobs, am I really going to talk about myself?”
Well OK, let’s talk about the crisis. Why, for instance, has President Anastasiades not taken most of the hard decisions that need to be taken – especially now, when the country’s in dire straits and any political cost would be relatively low? Constantinos looks slightly pained. It’s only been four months since the elections, he reminds me, two of which were spent rescuing the economy from total collapse: “We now have money to pay salaries and pensions, which we wouldn’t otherwise have had. We have money to buy medicines, which we wouldn’t have had”. Besides, measures have been passed: “There were pre-election pledges which are now being enforced. Certain organisations which are no longer necessary have begun to close down, savings have been made. The restructuring of the civil service – which is a very urgent matter – has begun”.
It’s still at a very early stage, I point out.
“A major restructuring that will change the system of the past 40 years can’t take place from one day to the next,” he insists. Studies must be carried out, even the troika says so.
But commissioning studies is the easy part.
“It’s important to ensure the greatest possible social cohesion,” he replies. “Which doesn’t mean you’re not going to clash with vested interests which are no longer justified, or those who live off other people’s backs. A correction will be made – but we hope it can be made as painlessly as possible”.
And what if a clash becomes necessary? Will the President have the political will for a showdown?
Look, he replies, leaning in towards me – his eyes are unblinking, lending the face an emphatic intensity – “he’s probably the first-ever president who sees people constantly. He leaves the office at 10 o’clock, 11 o’clock, he talks to all major players, this person, that person – to try and ensure that everyone understands government policy, so we can all come together in a social consensus”. If that isn’t possible, he shrugs, then decisions will be taken – but every effort is being made to prevent that. “The President himself works incredible hours at the Palace. No previous President of the Republic has worked such hours”.
Tell me something about Anastasiades that people don’t know.
Long pause. Constantinos shakes his head. “I’m blocked…” he mumbles. “It’s weird to be with someone for so many hours and not be able to answer that”.
“He doesn’t throw ashtrays. That’s just a myth!” laughs one of the cronies around the table.
“No, no, come on…” chides Constantinos disapprovingly. “I think the President is open to ideas,” he says after a pause. “He knows that he doesn’t know everything, and he listens to advice”. (Reagan, another successful president who didn’t know everything, is apparently a role model in this respect.) He also has incredible stamina: “I’m 30 years younger and I couldn’t easily follow the schedule he has. It’s just amazing. I think people may not know how tough that schedule is, and the intensity of his mind when he’s working 15-hour days”.
Needless to say, the Under Secretary’s schedule is only slightly less exhausting than the President’s. What’s Constantinos’ own lifestyle these days? “My lifestyle is the work,” he says simply.
So how does he let off steam?
Another pause – then the face unfolds in a mischievous wolfish grin. “I don’t think I’m allowed to say what I do to let off steam,” he beams, and the friends erupt in laughter. He shakes his head in ‘only kidding’ fashion: “I drink beers at Babylon,” he shrugs, “with the friends I’ve had for the past 20 years”.
How much longer can he do it without burning out, all these high-pressure days and nightly decompressions over pints of beer? I note he hasn’t actually quit his EU job, merely taken a sabbatical. How much longer does he even plan to stay in Cyprus?
“I don’t have long-term goals,” he replies. “Because, in the modern age, anyone who has long-term goals usually ends up failing”.
Maybe so. But anyone who wants a political career has to think long-term.
“I don’t want a political career.”
Really? But he’s always been so politicised.
“Being politicised doesn’t mean you want a political career – or a party-political career. I have an important political post now. I hope we do well. But things are so fluid, life is so fluid – especially in the current circumstances – that setting long-term goals is a bit pointless”. He’s never had a plan in his life, he insists: “I’m not in favour of plans, I’m in favour of liberty. From the liberty to do things, to liberty of thought. When you have a liberal mind you can’t make long-range plans, because they place you in a larger framework. If you ask me what I’ll be doing four years from now, I don’t know. I really don’t.
“But right now the challenge is so great,” he adds with feeling. “So great. I mean, we’re seeing History in the making. How can I think about four years from now – I’m thinking about what’ll happen tomorrow. You don’t even know what you’re going to be faced with, you just try and do your best. Someone who sits back and has a daily routine can think long-term, but it’s so intense what we’re living through now – as a country, as well – that when you’re in policy-making you can’t think long-term. You just follow your vision”.
It’s refreshing to hear Constantinos wax rhapsodic about the possibility of change – because his is the generation who set their whole lives against that possibility: “A large part of my generation made it the ‘Cyprus Dream’ to become a civil servant,” he admits. Born two weeks before the Turkish invasion, he missed the years of struggle and came full-blown to economic growth and good times for all – yet his “liberal mind” disowns the introverted, paternalistic mentality of those years. “I believe in the free market,” he says, quoting Thatcher’s dictum of capitalism as a rising tide that lifts all boats. “The Left in Cyprus, though it likes to call itself progressive, is the institution that resists all change,” he adds scathingly. “When you resist all change, that’s the very definition of conservatism”.
Bottom line? He’s not just some young guy with good political connections; Constantinos Petrides is a sign of something more – a philosophy that’s struggled to take root in Cyprus in recent decades, and whose time may finally have come. He pinpoints three main challenges at the moment (albeit with a shrug that says ‘Everything’s a challenge’). One, of course, is restructuring the civil service; the second is health, and shedding the dubious honour of being the only EU country without a national health service – but the third, seldom-mentioned priority is for Cyprus to become more business-friendly. Ireland, he points out, managed to attract 600 American companies in the 80s and 90s; they set up shop in Ireland, created jobs, invested in technology – and changed Ireland into an export economy, which is one big reason why they’re now rebounding. Red tape, bureaucracy, pointless regulations: these things – incursions on the free market – are what’s really strangling Cyprus.
Can he help cure these ills? Will he ever thrive in a place where so many people – those who’ve spent decades being ‘comfortably settled’ – are opposed to his philosophy? Once again, Constantinos draws back. “It’s not a personal matter,” he replies shortly. “It’s a matter of this government facing more challenges than any other government since 1974. Times were easy before. It was very easy to follow a broad fiscal policy that satisfied everyone”. He takes another gulp of beer: “We have a plan, and I believe we will succeed”.
What’s going to happen, though? What about Bank of Cyprus? Many talk of imminent bankruptcy. He purses his lips, saying nothing. “Let’s wait for the first review,” he suggests, “when the troika leaves at the end of this month. I think we’ll have clearer indications then – and I personally believe they will be positive”. I’ll drink to that.