Keeping below the radar one woman is behind the finance minister, helping to steer the economy out of its current crisis. THEO PANAYIDES meets her
Irena Georgiadou is candid, straight-talking and what used to be known as ‘a man’s woman’. She’s a big APOEL fan, never misses a football game – or she didn’t, till things got busy this year – and sits in the South Stand with the feared and fabled ‘Orange’ fans, the ‘Portokalli’. She likes to eat, “I enjoy good food [but] not in the sense of big plates, small portions – I enjoy my souvlakia, my tashi, that sort of thing”. She drinks whisky with her food and doesn’t care what brand it is, or whether it’s a blend or a malt. She punctuates her speech with the Cypriot ‘re koumbare’. All in all, she seems like a fun person.
She’s also among the most influential women in local politics, potentially the most influential of them all – a former financial-services high-flyer who now works very closely with Finance Minister Haris Georgiades (no relation), her remit being “to bring some private-sector common sense” to the business of trying to wrench our economy out of crisis. “Sometimes solutions are easy,” she explains disarmingly, “and just following common sense is the right thing to do”.
Her official title is ‘Minister’s Associate’ but she works as a political advisor and all-purpose second-in-command; after our interview, for instance – on the top floor of the very imposing Ministry of Finance building – she’s due to discuss the shuttered Kofinou slaughterhouse with union representatives in lieu of Georgiades, who’s away on a business trip. She doesn’t have to accompany him on his frequent travels, and is also spared the politician’s duty of attending functions and memorials every weekend, but otherwise the two are inseparable. “I am with the Minister from morning until late night,” she confirms, calling herself “the logic in his day” – a day that tends to include more horse-trading and political alliance-building than good clean logic.
Their relationship goes back two decades. Like Constantinos Petrides – Undersecretary to the President, and another youthful member of the inner circle – Irena met Haris Georgiades in high school, though he was slightly older (the Minister is now 41, putting Irena in her late 30s). “He was never loud,” she recalls, “he was always like you see him now, down-to-earth. Haris has an infuriating calmness about him”. He was political, and so was she (she ended up being student president of NEDISY, the youth wing of our current governing party), and they ran in the same circles, “sharing our thoughts and ideas, while everyone else was going ‘Give us a break!’” – not because those ideas were radical, necessarily, just because everyone at school (and not just at school) was more concerned with going out and having fun. “We grew up during the so-called ‘good years’,” she recalls, “when nobody really cared about the economy. Now we’ve ended up paying the bill.”
The question, of course, is who’s going to pay it – a question likely to reverberate as we enter 2014, which the Minister has bluntly admitted may be “the most difficult year” for the Cyprus economy. Still, says Irena, the mood in the Ministry is generally optimistic. “The big difference is that now we have control of the situation, and we know what’s going on … We both feel that, as a country, at last we have a plan, and we’re determined to stick to it, that plan being the Memorandum”.
It wasn’t really our plan though, was it?
“It wasn’t our plan, but I think we’d never have managed to agree among ourselves to a plan,” she replies. “We need to change things. It’s not easy to change things, not easy at all. What I’ve come to realise in these 10 months here is that the government – I mean the Ministers and political positions – they never really govern the country. It’s the system that governs it, an undefined system that goes across governments. Now that it’s time for the government to govern, it’s very difficult … It’s a huge machine that’s rolling along, and now that you need to change the direction it’s really hard.”
Her mention of 10 months at the Ministry is significant – because Irena isn’t a career politician, much less a civil servant. When she talks about her job she seems to falter, like she doesn’t really see it as a job – partly because she has a free-ranging role, working for a boss who’s also a friend, but also because she “retired” (her word) from her actual job four years ago. That was when she worked as a chartered accountant, rising to become CFO (Chief Financial Officer) in some “big public companies” – but then she pulled out and became “a lady of leisure: you know, waking up, going to coffee mornings, in my jeans, going to the hairdresser’s”. She also, more importantly, became a mother, prompting a re-evaluation of her life and a shift of priorities from career to family. “When I work, I give all of myself to what I do,” she explains – but this job is more forgiving, allowing her to escape for a couple of hours over lunch and see her son. Despite the vital importance of what she’s doing, her life seems more balanced than it was in the old accountant days.
Her big green eyes gleam with amusement as she sits across the desk from me. Her look is neat, but by no means formal: her fingernails are painted black and she wears an improvised bracelet of black plastic strips, like a teenager. She seems relaxed, and why not? In truth, she has nothing to lose. She can walk away from this job whenever she likes, nor does she have to measure her words for public consumption; she’s not a politician, she’s the voice of logic. She and Georgiades kept in touch after high school and he asked her to manage his campaign when he was running for Parliament (this was soon after her ‘retirement’), which eventually led to the Finance Ministry.
She likes the challenge; she likes a challenge, in general. “I get bored,” she explains. There’s a bit of a rogue streak in Irena. She finished high school with straight As, then failed her first year of university (at Bristol, doing Economics and Politics) – not because it was hard, but because she’d turned her attention to “the student life”. I get a sense of someone who’ll follow her whims, someone with a strong sense of self – a belief reinforced by her childhood as the only child of a middle-class family (her parents were also “involved” in DISY). “I was spoiled, in a bad sense,” she says, smiling but not quite joking. “I did everything I wanted. The TV was always on the channel I wanted, at the volume that I wanted”. It was almost a shock to get married, and have someone else wanting to watch a different channel.
She’s never been a wallflower, or a shrinking violet. At school she wasn’t just a youth politician but a popular girl who went out a lot and sometimes skipped school when it suited her. What’s she like today, when she’s with her friends? Is she loud, or in the background? “No, I’m one of the loud people. I’m always at the centre.”
So would she be the one to say ‘Let’s go to that place’ or ‘Let’s go somewhere else’?
“Yes!” she laughs. “Always! Always, that’s a given. Everybody waits for a command from me to do something! And it’s the same with the children – my friends all have kids the same age as my child, and it’s the same with the children, all the mothers say ‘Yell at them, so they’ll pipe down’ and I’m like [imposing voice] ‘Kids!’.”
She doesn’t look that scary, I point out.
She shrugs amiably: “The way I grew up, I’m a little over-confident. And I often use that confidence to be a bit assertive.”
Is it a façade, or is she genuinely self-confident?
“No, I am. I actually am.” She has firm ideas, she explains. She’s a strong character, notably good in a crisis. “I know what I want.”
Needless to say, those are useful traits in someone trying to change a deeply-entrenched system – and maybe they explain why Irena’s so sanguine about her (and the Minister’s) prospects. Admittedly, things are going well: fiscal figures are improving, we’ve had two positive assessments by the troika, rating agencies have begun to upgrade us. “The Minister always picks his fights,” says Irena. “Now, he is able to pick more fights. Now we can tell the troika ‘Trust me, and I’ll do it’.”
In short, our credibility’s gone up – and meanwhile public anger has been measured, at least so far. We talk just a few days before the mid-December protest that was billed as the biggest yet, but Irena seems unconcerned (“It’s sort of their job to do it,” she says, meaning presumably the unions). What about ordinary people, though? Surely she knows they’re suffering. What do they say, when she happens to talk to them?
“OK, people don’t have a lot of patience,” she replies with a sigh. “They expect things to get done today. Of course unemployment is very, very high, and that’s the biggest challenge. But, you know, unemployment has a time-lag from the rest of the economy. I mean, the economy started deteriorating in 2009 and unemployment only shot up in 2013 – and, in the same way, now the economy’s going to start improving but unemployment will only start going down … well, it’ll take a long time.”
Yes, she acknowledges, Cypriots are mostly at the end of their tether. “People are in despair, and they expect the government to do something – but that undefined something, it might not be something the government can do.”
So who else, then?
“One of our challenges,” she replies carefully, “is to change the role of the government as well, the role of the state. The state must allow the wealth-creating sector of the economy – which is the private sector – to work, to create jobs and wealth.
“You know,” adds Irena with the touching enthusiasm of an APOEL fanatic, “sometimes I say that the economy is like a football game, and politicians are the referees. The best referee is the one who, when the game is over, you can’t even remember who he was – [but] when he’s there blowing his whistle all the time, stopping the game, being in the spotlight, then you only remember the referee and not the game. At the moment, unfortunately, we’re the bad referee. We’re in the spotlight all day. We have to leave the economy alone to work.”
Fair enough – but we seem to have a problem with inertia in Cyprus. Many people (to use her analogy) don’t even want to play football, they want to sit around and get paid for doing nothing.
“Yes, it’s true. But maybe it’s society – the state – that created this. In other words, the state has to stop telling people what aspirations to have. Let people decide for themselves.”
What aspirations does Irena Georgiadou have? Having flown high, come down to earth of her own accord, then made a sly comeback as a high-ranking outsider in the corridors of power, what’s left to explore? Does she plan to go into politics – maybe in a few years, if and when the crisis is resolved? “At the front line?” she asks, then shakes her head: “I think no. I’m not a front-liner”. What makes her happiest? She pauses: “When I go back home and my son says ‘I missed you’,” she replies. “That moment there.”
“I feel I am full now,” says Irena simply. “I have my friends, my family, my – sort of job here, whatever you call it. I have a very nice balance, I think, in my life.”
And what about the New Year? Any message for 2014? She lifts up her arms, as if to say ‘what can I tell you?’. “Be patient,” she replies. “Patience. Things are changing – but patience, re koumbare!”. We’ll do our best.