By Angelos Anastasiou
THE Paphos Sewerage Board police investigation this week is the latest in a string of scandals unearthed in recent months but public opinion increasingly appears less outraged than bored; scandal fatigue seems to be settling in on the disillusioned Cyprus public.
Scandal fatigue is hardly a new term, and since news about current events now circulates at the speed of light, people are constantly bombarded with communications so have adapted by learning to filter out nonsense.
As usual, in Cyprus this took a little longer. An exceptionally close-knit society of relatives and acquaintances where the most common address to male strangers is ‘koumbare’ (literally: ‘my best man’) couldn’t help but fight for its traditions. Besides the locals’ famous hospitality, these include a fair amount of back-rubbing, shortcut-taking and looking the other way.
A February 2014 study by the European Commission indicated that 92 per cent of Cypriots believe that ‘rusfeti’ – various forms of patronage – is the fastest and most effective way to deal with the government. Not surprisingly, very few complain of this practice.
It was perhaps this reflexive, almost innate, secret-keeping that enabled the system to function so smoothly for so long – and shocked Cypriot society out of its wits on those rare occasions it was faced with wrongful acts. Since 1960, the young democracy has seen its fair share of scandal in public life – whether it was embezzlement of taxpayer money, or money laundering by public officials, or abuse of power in favour of party loyalists – but the elite knew it had to follow the golden rule: such issues do not enter the public debate.
But in recent years a transformation seems to have occurred. Probably triggered by an unprecedented financial meltdown early in 2013, the complacent public suddenly threatened to demand punishment. It has yet to do so in any meaningful way, but the fear of a rising public has driven a few points home – chief among them: you can’t fool everyone forever.
And so it was that a barrage of scandals has started coming to light, one seamlessly segueing into the next. Just this year, Cyprus has seen the Dromolaxia case go to court, the Central Prisons shenanigans, millions of suspicious money funnelled to political parties, the First Lady making a great land deal with the Church, the ongoing Cyprus Tourism Organisation saga, and a handful of scandals relating to the Paphos municipality.
A man responsible for uncovering some of these, and certainly many of the rest, appears to have been blessed with right-place-at-the-right-time destiny. Auditor General Odysseas Michaelides seems to have taken it upon himself not just to unearth but clean up whatever dirt he can get his hands on, no matter how big or small. Faced with criticism that his service concerns itself with minor cases, he was dismissive. “We will go after the big along with the small,” he has said. “We can’t receive reports of wrongdoing, however small, and not investigate them so that people won’t say we concern ourselves with minor issues.”
Nonetheless, a sense of weariness appears to be setting in, according to former DISY MP – turned corruption vigilante – Christos Pourgourides.
“Indeed, people increasingly follow public scandals with apathy,” he told the Cyprus Mail. “It has been instilled into people’s minds that things can’t change, and many increasingly give up hope.”
Pourgourides appeared convinced that this is the direct result of the huge financial blow Cypriots suffered in March 2013, when many lost a lifetime’s savings, others lost jobs, and some lost both.
“After the kick in the head a couple of years ago with the economy, people have pulled away from public life. It has only reinforced the view that nothing can change,” Pourgourides explained.
The view that a monumentally calamitous occurrence, such as a national financial disaster, could conceivably lead people to focus more on the predicament they find themselves in and less on issues that affect them only tangentially, has nominal merit. It would certainly fit with the circumstances Cypriots have been faced with – the times are most decidedly not ordinary.
Not so, claimed AKEL’s former government spokesman Stefanos Stefanou, arguing the problem is systemic and not circumstantial.
“The assumption that public apathy is on the rise is false,” he told the Cyprus Mail. “Polls systematically indicate strong disapproval ratings against public officials embroiled in scandals. Unfortunately, however, this projects into public criticism and contempt towards institutions, politics and politicians.”
While subtle, the distinction is there: Stefanou argues that people don’t respond to the mounting scandals with indifference by choice, but rather are driven to political apathy by ineffectual and untrustworthy governance.
“That said, it falls to institutions and politicians to win back society’s trust by proving they can, and are willing to, function properly in the people’s best interest.”
But whether the public has actively chosen to withdraw or disengaged because state institutions failed its expectations, never before has Cyprus seen such range – and extent – of corruption in its public domain. And the suspicion, of course, is that it had always been there, neatly tucked under the rug.
Now, the rug has been violently pulled and society at large needs to deal with what’s there. It could well be that what is being diagnosed as public apathy or systemic failure isn’t scandal fatigue at all, but rather the aftershock of an ugly truth revealed – and the precursor to learning how to deal with it.