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Fighting the good fight

Standing for MEP is just the latest adventure for economist Stelios Platis, keen to see the public use him to send a message of discontent. THEO PANAYIDES meets a whirlwind.

 

“You came in like a whirlwind, and you left like a whirlwind.” That was Kikis Lazarides, former chairman of now-defunct Laiki Bank, talking to Stelios Platis, the enfant terrible who became the bank’s Head of Strategy in 2001. Stelios, not yet 30, was a promising catch for Laiki; he had a PhD and an MPhil in Economics and Finance from Cambridge, had worked at KPMG and been a consultant for major banks in the UK. Six months later, he was out. “I told them Greece was dangerous, and they didn’t like it,” he recalls slyly, sitting in the Nicosia office of MAP S. Platis, the financial services consultancy firm he founded in 2003.

‘Whirlwind’ is a good word to describe Stelios. He rushes in, a few minutes late, having just come in from Limassol where the firm has its head office, then rushes off 50 minutes later, an agitated phone call from his secretary urging him on to his next appointment. If that phone hadn’t rung we might still be there now, talking. He’s a brilliant talker, candid and dramatic, talking with his hands and his whole body. He’ll talk about politics, the economy – and above all himself, often in the third person. One sometimes gets a sense that his life is a series of adventures that befell this other fellow ‘Stelios Platis’ – or sometimes just ‘Platis’ – a romantic figure, flamboyant and hard-done-by, “the stubborn, bull-headed and often self-destructive Stelios Platis,” as he puts it.

“Let’s say Platis is a candidate and only gets 3,000, 4,000 votes,” he hypothesises. “That’s not the true strength of Stelios Platis, if he’d stood with a party behind him. For some, however, it’ll count as a failure: ‘That’s all Platis has, so let’s not bother with Platis anymore’.” He’s talking of the risks inherent in his latest adventure, or hoped-for adventure – running for MEP in the upcoming Euro elections. It’s not entirely certain whether this will happen; he’s given himself a deadline of April 2 by which to decide – mostly because he’d be standing “in conjunction with various prominent persons”, and needs to confirm that they’ll join him. He mentions a few possibilities. All are familiar faces, like Stelios himself (he’s been a TV pundit for many years). All are also known for being independent and speaking their mind – and being independent is the essence of the thing, because Stelios the candidate wouldn’t be affiliated with any political party. That’s the point.

“I have proposals for co-operation from all the parties except one,” he assures me – which is plausible, since he’s not exactly obscure. After the stint at Laiki he spent eight years as economic advisor to now-President Anastasiades, not to mention his success in financial services. “I built the Forex sector in Cyprus, my dear Theo,” he tells me earnestly. “I built the binary options sector, through the battles I fought in Europe personally”. Stelios Platis the candidate would receive media coverage and undoubted TV time – but he’s got bigger fish to fry, which is why he’s turned down those party proposals.

“I don’t really plan to go to Europe as an MEP,” he admits – not because he doesn’t want to, but because he knows it’s near-impossible in a system that’s clamped so tightly in the maw of the parties. His plan is instead “to use any recognisability I have in order to push for a change of mentality and political culture”. What he’s basically telling voters is to send a message: “Use me to say what you want to say”. A message to the parties, expressing disapproval with the mess they’ve created – and even a message to the EU: “Cyprus, the land of the haircut, finally rebels for once!” he proclaims happily. “It’s what everyone keeps asking: ‘Why don’t you rebel?’. ‘We’re a civilised people,’ we’d reply, ‘we rebel democratically’. We rebel through the ballot box.”

Looks like many people are too defeatist for such rebellion, I point out.

“That’s exactly what I’m trying to achieve, my dear Theo. I’m laying myself down like a plank, for people to step on and pull themselves up. That’s what I’m trying for. I have nothing to gain, I can only lose – but if society wins, then I win too. We have to become more demanding,” he adds with feeling. “Our politicians aren’t bad. They’re not bad people, they didn’t go into politics to do crooked things. But nobody pushes them! Why should someone sit down and work when they’re not being pushed? Look at civil servants – why don’t civil servants do any work, are they bad people? How come they’re working two jobs, if they’re bad people? Don’t they have a work ethic? Of course they do. But nobody pushes them. It’s the same with the politicians”.

Stelios is on a rant now, body twisting, hands working overtime. Look at our politicians, he implores me: why do voters vote for them in the first place? “Because they’re good-natured people. They’re pleasant, they’re giving. So let’s just pressure them to work. How do we pressure them? By controlling them. How do we control them? By voting. Who do we vote for? Not the same people!” he practically shouts. “Different people, so they’ll get the message. Look,” he says, leaning forward, “I commit myself, I’m saying this in public: if the parties were to pass horizontal voting, then I’d pull out of the Euro-elections. Because then at least there’d be a way for the top people to get in, the best people.”

That’s the crux of it, not just for Stelios’ European bid but for Stelios himself. Horizontal voting (i.e. being able to vote for individuals, across party lines) means meritocracy, and those ideas – individualism, freedom to choose, being judged on merit – are central to his view of the world. He believes in self-determination, reaping what you sow for better or worse. He’s always been something of a stubborn cuss, he says. “Generally, as a person, I need to be persuaded of something. It’s very difficult to impose something on me, no matter how strong you are. But I don’t have ulterior motives. If you can persuade me I was wrong, then I’ll say ‘I was wrong’.”

As a teenage rebel, “I got all the schools in Limassol to go on strike at one point. I was generally a disruptive influence”. As an economist (and Laiki Bank customer), he was invited to a meeting with other economists and Laiki officials who claimed that the bank was in good shape – and the others (he says) were happy to parrot the party line but he asked awkward questions, and withdrew his money soon afterwards. I never said Laiki would go bust, he says now, but there was clear “technocratic evidence” of dangers – “and when they said ‘We have it covered’, and I said ‘How?’ and they said ‘We’re not telling you’ … well, what can you say. Doesn’t mean I didn’t believe them, I just wasn’t going to leave my money there”.

Stelios Platis (or perhaps ‘Stelios Platis’) has a high regard for Stelios Platis. Most of his stories involve him fighting a good fight, or having to withstand malicious mud-slinging, or being ignored only to be proved right later. He may have a bit of a martyr complex. But he’s also funny and charismatic, with a quick wit and a colourful way of speaking (he likes to act things out, playing both parts) – and he’s also, unabashedly, himself, trying to live his life beholden to no-one.

Platis had warned about the dangers of Laiki
Platis had warned about the dangers of Laiki

His stubborn individualism goes well with free-market capitalism, which (I suspect) underlies his belief that the first Eurogroup haircut – rejected by our ‘heroic’ politicians – was actually worse than what we ended up getting; after all, that first proposal (which involved every bank depositor being proportionately ‘bailed in’) came close to socialism. Stelios’ own solution would’ve been not to have a haircut at all, but instead a compulsory loan from banks to government. The catch, he admits, is that the public debt would’ve shot up, and the troika disapproved – but “fine, let’s sit down and discuss it,” he says hotly. “And if my proposals were so wrong, why didn’t they invite me [to defend them]? I was Anastasiades’ advisor for eight years, why didn’t they invite me? … All they did was sling mud that Platis has Russian clients, and Platis’ Russian clients lost money and that’s why Platis is whining – and I give you my word, I challenge anyone to find a single one of my clients who lost money. And you know why they didn’t lose money? Because Platis told them to take their money out! And I say that publicly.”

That’s a big part of his life, of course: the work, the clients. The waiting-room outside his office is studded with little plaques – “Licences obtained by MAP S. Platis” – with a company name on each one. 70 per cent of companies in the booming Forex sector are his clients, he says; “We’re the best in the world”. That’s his cue for another tale of fighting the good fight, in this case battling lazy civil servants who didn’t want to open the door to “retail-based” markets like Forex and binary options because it meant more work – but finally, after much wrangling, did the right thing. “Do you know what this means for Cyprus?” he asks rhetorically. “If I had the power, this could turn Cyprus into Luxembourg!” He shakes his head at the clear-eyed vision of ‘Platis’ and the blindness of everyone else. “Cyprus needs to find clever ways to bring in business,” he says firmly. “Legal business – not the kind some people used to do, and are still doing now.”

How would Platis describe Platis? “I’m impatient,” he admits. “A very impatient man. I chase after success. I’m easily hurt, unfortunately – I take things personally when I shouldn’t. But I’m improving. I keep myself very disciplined. I decided to quit smoking – and I quit, just like that. I was fat, then I decided to lose weight and I did”. (He’s 76 kilos, down from a high of 90.) He’s scrupulously honest, he insists; he commutes every day between Nicosia and Limassol, yet doesn’t have a single speeding ticket. “I don’t go down one-way streets, I don’t park on double yellow lines. I like law and order”. He’ll often call the cops to report illegal parking – or at least he used to, “then I realised they don’t care so I stopped”.

He’s up at 6, in bed by 10.30. He’s a family man. “Weekends I’m always with my wife and child, without exception. I don’t go to pubs, I don’t go to football games, nothing”. They’ll go to the Castle in Limassol and hang out with other young parents – allowing Stelios to indulge his favourite pastime, which is talking. He’ll rant about anything, and won’t even give me his age (he’s 40) without a short tirade about reverse ageism in Cyprus – but he’s happiest of all when arguing about politics, engaging in debates and getting things off his chest. “I feel like if I don’t talk, I’ll burst”.

He doesn’t seem weighed down by the depression that’s settled over crisis-hit Cyprus. Partly it’s a Limassol thing, the second city being much more buoyant than the capital; there are three sectors doing well at the moment – financial services, shipping and tourism – and they’re all in Limassol. “Let me guarantee that we’ll get out of this mess,” he asserts at one point, “even if we don’t do anything. People come to Cyprus to invest,” shrugs Stelios, as if unable to explain it himself. “They do, they do. They do! We could beat them up, and they’d still come. I promise you”. His own business has recovered from the haircut; salaries are back where they used to be. After all, he says, “you’ll always find good Cypriots who’ll run and find customers. We’re a good people, we’re just a little bit…”

Self-destructive?

“No, not self-destructive. The Greeks, in Greece, are self-destructive. We just don’t demand enough. We were subservient for too long, and it hasn’t sunk in that a politician isn’t our master, he’s our servant. He works for us!” The phone rings, the whirlwind prepares to move on. I wish him luck with his Euro-project – even though, if that’s the definition of a politician, it’s hard to see him settling comfortably in the world of politics. ‘Stelios Platis’ is nobody’s servant, and neither is Stelios Platis.

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