Well-positioned in her eyrie, THEO PANAYIDES meets a lifelong diplomat and former minister who has lived somewhat above the fray but is now enjoying her freedom and looking forward to publishing a book of poems
The solitary elevator – like the building – is rather old, creaking and shuddering its way to the 12th floor. It’s a bit inconvenient, admits Erato Kozakou-Marcoullis, but she and her husband wouldn’t change their current abode for anything. (They’ve lived here since coming back to Cyprus from the US in the late 80s.) The penthouse flat occupies an entire floor, furnished in old-fashioned style – overstuffed armchairs, fringed curtains, glass-display cabinets piled high with china, a large unwieldy beast of an air-conditioning unit – but the main attraction is undoubtedly the view. Standing at her window she can see the sprawl of Nicosia stretching out in every direction, from the roofs of distant suburbs to the Pentadaktylos in the north.
Erato in her eyrie, looking down on crowded streets and traffic jams: it’s a fitting image for this polished, rather patrician 69-year-old woman, scion of a well-known Limassol family (her dad, a cardiologist, was among the pioneers of medicine in Cyprus) who rose to the top as a lifelong diplomat and late-in-life politician. She served as Ambassador to Sweden (1996-98), then Ambassador to the United States (1998-2003) and Ambassador to Lebanon and Jordan (2005-07) – then was selected by two wildly different presidents, Tassos Papadopoulos and Demetris Christofias, to be Minister of Foreign Affairs (in 2007-08, then again in 2011-13), with a stint as Minister of Communications and Works in between. Through it all she’s remained above the fray, never joining any political party – “My political party is my country” – or getting involved in factional dogfights, as serenely composed and confident as I assume she must feel looking down on Nicosia from her 12th-floor apartment.
“We always had dreams to pursue higher things,” she muses. “Both me and my husband”. Like a lot of successful people, it’s helped that her personal life – especially her marriage – has been so stable. She and her husband George (a specialist in oncology and haematology, currently Professor of Medicine at the University of Nicosia) met in high school, as fifth-formers, then studied together in Athens; they got married in 1970, just a few weeks after Erato’s 21st birthday. (They now have a son, and three grandkids.) Note, incidentally, that she and George weren’t at the same high school, the sexes being still somewhat separate in the 60s: Erato was at the Lanitio High School for Girls, from which she graduated as the school’s top student. “This was my objective from the beginning, to set high standards – here! – high standards of achievement in my school, and later at university”. That ‘here!’ in the middle is addressed to the maid, instructing her where to set down our coffees. Erato takes a double skettos in an oversized cup.
It’s worth dwelling a little more on those early years, if only because she was so set on having a career at a time when it wasn’t common for women in Cyprus (and not just in Cyprus). This reflects the influence of her late mother, a singular woman whose memoirs – originally written in Russian – Erato is now in the process of translating and publishing. Mum was a Pontian Greek from Georgia who’d fled the Soviet Union under Stalin, met her future husband in Greece, and wound up in Cyprus; she was highly educated, having studied Civil Engineering in Odessa – but respectable women didn’t work as civil engineers in the 40s, so instead she stayed home and raised two daughters. Erato doesn’t say so explicitly, but it seems clear her mother channelled some of her frustrations through her girls, imbuing them with a hunger to make their mark on the world (“That was, for her, the most important tool in life: to be a professional”). Once again there’s a hint of life on an emblematic 12th floor, part of the common run of things yet also subtly separate.
The Kozakou household was progressive, and their politics – like hers, even if she’s not actually affiliated with any political party – veered much closer to Left than Right, with an emphasis on social justice. Life in Greece under the junta shaped her even more dramatically, and four years in Helsinki in the late 70s (where she did a PhD, as well as giving birth to her son) completed the process. Athens was a riot, both literally and metaphorically. George spent a week in police custody after rushing to help wounded students during the Polytechnic uprising of 1973; Erato collected money for refugees after the invasion and, around the same time, staged a hunger strike outside the American Embassy during which she ate nothing for six days, “just water”. (How did she feel? “It was fine,” she shrugs, “but I was young. If I [did it] now, I wouldn’t survive!”) Then came Finland, where “we were able to acquaint ourselves with a very progressive society, especially in the area of gender equality, and a social welfare state. So it was an eye-opener for both of us”.
Those remain, even now, her basic principles: “I believe very strongly in a social welfare state, like Finland or Sweden – and I wish we could introduce this concept here in Cyprus”. Gender equality is her particular hobby-horse; she believes in quotas to secure more female MPs (though only by achieving parity on electoral lists, not reserving seats for women in Parliament itself) – but it’s not just gender equality, “I believe we could do much more in all spheres. Cyprus could really be a pioneering country in many areas, and we are not doing it. On the environment, for instance, we’re doing very badly. Very badly”. We could easily be getting 80 per cent of our energy from renewable sources, instead we’re paying fines to the EU for not even doing the bare minimum. We remain without a health system, and boast an education sector whose most conspicuous feature is parents paying a fortune for private lessons. “So many things that need to change, really…”
All true, no doubt – and that’s not even counting the permanently-stalled ‘Cyprus problem’. But it also raises a slightly awkward question – since Erato, after all, isn’t just an ordinary citizen who might rant about these things in a coffee shop. She’s been in public life for decades, including four years in the innermost circles of government. Does she ever blame herself for all this public dysfunction? Does she feel she could’ve done more?
The question, admittedly, is slightly unfair. She was never in a position to influence domestic issues like health or the environment; indeed, as a diplomat, she was forced to keep her mouth shut – to remain ‘above the fray’ – even more than the ordinary citizen. Yet it’s also true (at least, with regard to the Cyprus problem) that her big jobs, as ambassador and foreign minister of a small country in a tricky situation, operated on a kind of wishful thinking, pushing the pretence that progress could be fuelled by good impressions and the bonds of international friendship – when everyone, including Erato, must’ve known that the world is cynical, and a small country’s power to decide its own fate is sadly limited.
She bristles at the words ‘public relations’ – yet what else was she doing, even when she went on “full-fledged” official visits to 30 American states and spent an hour chatting with George W Bush in his days as Governor of Texas? Erato looks back to her first term as foreign minister, “at a moment that was very crucial. It was just three years after the Annan Plan, we were under attack from many quarters, especially from the EU – so there was a lot of work that needed to be done, to project our views around the world and especially within the EU”. (Isn’t ‘projecting our views’ just a form of selling the Cyprus brand, though?) “What I tried to do,” she adds a little later, “during both of my tenures, was to project the image of Cyprus in general. That’s why I always believed in cultural diplomacy, economic diplomacy – you know, that we shouldn’t project ourselves as a problem country”. Her second term also coincided with Cyprus’ EU presidency, during the second half of 2012; she and her team spent months preparing and organising, and – by all accounts – did an outstanding job. “It was really very successful. It was our first presidency, and we did extremely well.”
Sure, I note – but then, three months later, those same EU partners didn’t exactly stand up for us when the haircut was imposed.
“Yeah,” she agrees, and laughs. “That’s politics!”
Some may wonder how much of an impact Erato Kozakou-Marcoullis ultimately managed to have, despite her brilliant career; but the question is misleading, for two reasons. The first is that, whatever the specifics of her various tenures, the world of high politics and great international fora – including the UN, which she tried to join during her years in New York – is where she’s always belonged, and always saw herself. She studied Law in Athens (followed by a second degree in Political Science), but knew from the start that she wouldn’t practise: “I could never imagine myself – you know, just being a lawyer”. The lofty pursuit of ‘higher things’ has always been more her speed.
But there’s also a second reason why the question is premature – viz. that her career isn’t over yet, nor is her chance to make an impact. Her life at the moment seems ruled by opposing forces. On the one hand, she’s taking a step back, mostly because “I’m trying to finish at least three books”. One is a collection of her articles from the past five years, another is her mum’s autobiography (it’s now been translated, but she also wants to place it in the “wider context” of the Pontian Greek diaspora). The third is a book of Erato’s own poetry, which she’s been writing since girlhood; she published a collection in 1977 – but 500 more poems have piled up since then, and she’s trying to sort out the best ones. ‘What kind of poems?’ I ask, slightly surprised to find a poetic streak in such a worldly woman. “Mostly they’re about social issues,” she explains. “The Cyprus question – or rather, the pain and suffering of the division”. No surprise that she’s staunchly bicommunal, with friends on both sides and a deep-seated horror of the growing threat of partition.
In other words, we’re back to politics again – and, despite the books and the impulse to take a breather, she’s actually busier than ever. She has two supervisory roles (at RCB Bank and the Cyprus Institute), both of which she takes seriously – but she’s also become “very active and very outspoken on a number of issues, especially gender equality [and] the social issues that pertain to a social welfare state”. She’s forever writing articles and making TV appearances – and she’s even half-thinking of joining a party and actually going into ‘low’ politics (wading into the fray, you might say), though she’s also hesitant. “Especially after 2013,” explains Erato – that being the year when she stepped down as Foreign Minister – “I’ve started to feel very free, for the first time in my life. I don’t want to become part of another circle, where I have to obey instructions and do things other people decide… I kept my mouth shut for many years,” she admits with a laugh. “But now, as I said, I’m free.”
Not that she’s likely to abuse that freedom, being a clubbable type who likes to get on with people: “I hate conflict, generally speaking”. Becoming a diplomat was clearly a good fit, despite those early years staging hunger strikes. “In my interpersonal relations, I try always to solve problems. I’m a problem-solver, I believe very much in conflict resolution”. Writing poems seems to be her only solitary pastime, life outside work being otherwise full of friends and family – and of course her husband, high-school Romeo and mature companion of the past 53 years. What’s the secret to such a long relationship?
“Very simple,” replies Erato, sipping at the dregs of her near-empty coffee cup, then gives me her No. 1 rule: “Compromise. And not general compromise, ‘I’ll do this and you’ll do that’ – it’s the small daily compromises. That’s the key… And listening. We don’t listen, unfortunately,” she goes on, all too aware that what she’s saying applies not just to marriages but also politics, and life in general. “One of the problems in our problem, the Cyprus problem, is that we don’t listen to the other side. We have our narrative, they have theirs. We have completely separate worlds”. I leave her in her own slightly separate world – a humane, gracious, idealistic woman in a room with a view – and take the ramshackle old lift back down to the ground floor.