He’s been described as a reckless whistleblower, but Paphos mayor Phedonas Phedonos remains determined to stamp out corruption in his ‘beautiful’ city. By Theo Panayides
The mayor of Paphos doesn’t want to talk about hobbies. It’s the kind of fluffy gossip he dislikes, he says – and besides, he doesn’t have any. “Right now, no. It’s all work and meetings and so on. I don’t have something else in the sense of, y’know, ‘I play tennis’ – I don’t play tennis. ‘I play basketball’ – I don’t play basketball. ‘I go swimming every day’ – I don’t go swimming every day. Uh, ‘I go hunting’ – I don’t go hunting, I don’t like it. ‘I go to the gym every day’ – I don’t go to the gym every day.”
That’s how he talks, more or less: giving five examples where one would do, going in for oratory (his Greek is famously eloquent) and occasional circumlocution, stopping himself in mid-sentence to append some necessary caveat before picking up where he left off. At this point, Phedonas Phedonos is so well-known (and not just in Paphos) that only two questions really remain for the interviewer. First, what’s he like in person? Second, what motivates him to be such a reckless whistleblower, exposing scandals and blurting out allegations which a more cautious person would surely keep to themselves?
He’s bigger than expected, a tall 41-year-old with a receding hairline, lively brown eyes and a slightly creaky, very penetrating voice – the kind of voice that can cut through the hubbub of a council meeting, back in the days (actually just five years ago) when he was a municipal councillor speaking out against corruption. The story is well-known, the story of the Paphos sewerage board (Sapa) whose members took bribes in return for handing out waste-management contracts – a scandal that ended up putting two of his predecessors (former mayors Fidias Sarikas and Savvas Vergas) in prison, incidentally forcing a by-election which Phedonas won in January 2015. He’s been mayor ever since (despite belonging to Disy, never the biggest party in Paphos), winning re-election with 55 per cent of the vote in 2016.
Some might say it turned out very nicely for him, I point out. Was there perhaps an element of personal ambition in his crusading?
“I’ve been asked that a lot. ‘Is Phedonas doing these things for publicity?’ I don’t need publicity,” he replies, gearing up for one of many verbal broadsides. He’s been agitating for 15 years, long before the media took notice, yet people still ascribe ulterior motives; “I’ve been accused of populism. I’ve been isolated.” This, he laments, warming to his theme, is the problem in Cyprus: we’ve become accustomed to a culture where nothing is done without some hidden self-interest. “You’re talking to me now? You must have an agenda. You’ve come to interview me? Someone must’ve sent you, so they can ask me for a favour later.” Phedonas shakes his head: “There are no motives! There are no ambitions! Ask the people who know me, four months before I ran for mayor I had absolutely no thought of running for mayor. Three months before, same thing. If you’d asked me three months before I became mayor: ‘What’s your political ambition?’ I’d have said: ‘To stand for Parliament again’ – I stood as a candidate in 2011, I was going to do the same in 2016.
“Everything I did regarding Sapa, regarding Xyta [the Paphos waste management board, another big scandal], regarding corruption, I didn’t do those things because I wanted the mayor to go to jail so I could become mayor. When things happened as they did, though – well, I have reflexes, so I reacted”.
‘Well,’ you might scoff, ‘of course he’d say that’ – yet it’s not so implausible that he’d change course in mid-stream. Even on our limited acquaintance, he strikes me as a man who thinks on his feet. He rushes past as I sit in the waiting room at Paphos Municipality, shakes hands briefly and asks me to wait in his office: “Give me a sec, I’ll just pop to the loo” – then doesn’t reappear for a good 15 minutes, though I can hear his penetrating voice issuing instructions outside. While waiting, I check with the secretary and confirm that we only have half an hour – but he’s clearly enjoying himself (I suspect he likes to talk to the press), because he postpones his next engagement and stays chatting for over an hour. I imagine he must be challenging to work for, the kind of whirlwind who responds to situations as they happen (like he says, “I have reflexes”) and doesn’t always stick to the plan.
There’s something else too, a kind of compulsively argumentative side; he can’t resist engaging, even when it might be to his detriment. Like many others, including, I assume, Phedonas himself – though he was born in the nearby village of Kelokedara, and didn’t move to the city till the age of 11 – I have fond memories of Paphos as it used to be, before the big construction boom. We talk about the old days, and he claims that “Paphos has a special characteristic which it retains even now: Paphos is a city with a sense of proportion. In other words – despite all the development, the mall, the supermarkets – it’s managed to maintain a sense of proportion. In the housing, in the height of its buildings, in the intensity of its development, it remains a beautiful city, a picturesque city”.
Hang on a minute, though: they’ve built villas right on top of the sea caves in Peyia! You call that a sense of proportion?
“I’m speaking only of the city of Paphos,” he replies shortly. It’s a bit of a cop-out answer, but most politicians would’ve left it at that – yet he can’t resist wading in, even though it weakens his argument. In Paphos, too, houses have been built over ancient tombs, he admits, unprompted. “If you want to open that discussion, we can talk for two hours. They built, and they committed crimes, and they pulled strings, and there was corruption, and they gave money, and they handed out bribes in order to do it! But, if we can get all that stuff out of our heads for five minutes, the fact remains that Paphos – if you’re a tourist walking around, who doesn’t know that there used to be a tomb here, and someone built on top of it because he happened to be the Minister’s nephew and so on and so forth – has a sense of proportion.”
Why so candid? He is, after all, the mayor of Paphos; no-one would think it odd if he just spent an hour singing the praises of his city, without even mentioning the bad stuff. Is it a kind of intellectual OCD, unable to leave a discussion alone till all sides have been aired? Is he trying to make himself look good, as his critics claim? (He denies this.) Does he just enjoy blowing the whistle? At one point – again, largely unprompted – he tells me of the situation in the Central Prison, where (he claims) “much of the drug-dealing between our criminal underworld and the one in the occupied areas” is now being coordinated, using mobile phones with pay-as-you-go cards smuggled in by corrupt prison officers. Isn’t he nervous, making such wild claims in public? After all, he’s already had threats – and why even mention the Prison, anyway? It’s not directly relevant to Paphos.
“But it is relevant to Paphos,” he replies emphatically. “That’s the mistake. You see, now you’re a citizen making the usual mistake. Now you’re a typical Cypriot! What did you just say to me? ‘Krypse na perasoume’!” he translates triumphantly, using the Cypriot phrase meaning roughly ‘Keep your head down’. “That’s what you said just now. What did you say? That it’s ‘not directly relevant to Paphos’. So what did you implicitly advise me, just now? ‘Don’t get involved’.”
For better or worse, he does get involved – motivated, he affirms, by a sense of duty, simple as that. “I had two choices,” muses Phedonas, whether to remain in the private sector (he worked in the services and property development sector for several years; he met his wife Louisa in Limassol in 2011) or become a public official, with all that it entails.
Most such officials don’t seem to share his high ideals, I note.
“I don’t know. No comment. I can only speak for myself. And I wouldn’t want to be mayor here just to help perpetuate the System”. Take the example of a bar where everyone knows drugs are being sold. It’s entirely possible to do the minimum, give the place a drinks licence and stay within the letter of the law – but then you’re just gilding the crime with a seal of approval. He, on the other hand, will call the cops on drug sellers, and even confront them personally if he sees them in public; just a few nights ago, he tells me, he ran into one such person, so “I called him over, in front of everyone, and said to him: ‘Stop dealing drugs’”. His relationship with his fellow Paphians is surprisingly intimate. Sometimes he’ll get a call at 11pm from some random citizen “because he heard something, that Phedonas is in danger… [so] he calls you up and says: ‘Where are you, I’ll come if you need me’”. It’s easy to forget that Paphos is a small place, and everyone knows what he’s up against – just as they previously knew how corrupt the place was.
There are actually two facets to Phedonas Phedonos: the media darling whose cries of ‘J’accuse’ make headlines all over Cyprus, but also the mayor of Paphos dealing solely with local matters – and of course there’s a third facet too, the private man who unwinds by watching documentaries on YouTube (no time for hobbies!) and listening to classical music on the go, “in the morning when I’m shaving, while the kids are getting ready for school”. Phedonas the whistleblower has been relatively quiet lately – mostly, he says, because no new scandals have arisen on the scale of Sapa and Xyta – but Phedonas the mayor has been super-busy, building roads, tearing down illegal structures, above all trying to shape “a new culture”, as he puts it.
‘The System’ lurks, unvanquished; it comes up again and again in our conversation. “The System is guilty. But the System has found an equilibrium,” he intones, speaking of the symbiosis between mainstream politics/society and endemic corruption. Sometimes they even come in contact, he says, “the underworld with the white-collar world… And neither side wants to bother the other”. The System is his nemesis – but not because he’s an anarchist, quite the opposite. No-one’s a bigger believer in systems than Phedonas; that’s why he’s so outraged by a bad, corrupt one. He talks proudly and at length of his own local exploits over the past four years, slowly – one might say systematically – wiping out favouritism and shaping a new civic culture in the only way possible, “by example and by punishment”. (He also accepts that problems remain, notably drugs and property crime.) Paphos has the most efficient ‘Green Points’ of any town in Cyprus; his explanation of how this was done – too long to describe in detail, but a canny application of various sticks and carrots – is impressive indeed.
Almost time to go. I turn off my tape recorder and Phedonas lounges for a moment, becalmed; he reminds me of a tennis player resting on the sidelines between games, taking a breath without really dropping his guard. One should never take a politician’s words at face value, of course (you do have to wonder if Paphians are really as united as he claims in their approval of the new regime) – but he’s still an impressive character: he talks well, he gets stuck in, he likes to argue. What would he say is his biggest flaw? “In the turmoil of life,” he begins, waxing oratorical again, “when you have all this pressure, it’s easy to become a little brusque”. He’s not exactly easy-going, and can often be a hard taskmaster. Do his staff understand that it’s all in a good cause? “Some understand,” he replies with his usual frankness; “Others preferred the quiet life”. Clearly, that ship has sailed.