THEO PANAYIDES meets an emotional woman, always a quasi-public figure, whose latest role saw her slowed down by procedure and bureaucracy
‘Emotional’ isn’t really a word you’d associate with a lifelong civil servant and former transport minister – yet it crops up a lot in my conversation with Vasiliki Anastasiadou, sitting in her Nicosia home just a couple of days after the end of her tenure.
There’s her time at the ministry, of course, an intense 21 months that’s still fresh in her mind; “I think I’m about to get emotional,” she admits when talking of her colleagues, with whom she spent many long hours (8am till late at night, once you include the social obligations) trying to juggle the manifold sectors – roads, ports, buses, antiquities, civil aviation – under her jurisdiction. Then again, there’s also her voice (about which she’s a little self-conscious), which makes her sound emotional; she suffers from spasmodic dysphonia, a rare disorder of the vocal cords that makes her voice shake a bit. “People think I’m constantly tense,” she sighs. “Or emotional.”
It’s a bit ironic, since Vasiliki used to be a singer in her teens. (I assumed the singing may have contributed to straining her vocal cords, but the two are unconnected: the dysphonia only appeared in her 30s – she’s now 61 – and entirely coincidentally.) She sang in choirs, represented Cyprus at the 1978 Commonwealth Games in Canada (the Games had a cultural component in those days), and, after the invasion, joined in the patriotic climate by lending her mezzo soprano to defiant anthems like the famous ‘Den Xehno’ (‘I Don’t Forget’) by Nasos Panayiotou; even now, if you go to YouTube and find the song (type ‘Den Xehno’ in Greek letters), the voice you’ll hear is Vasiliki’s. She thought briefly about going pro, but instead studied Law in Athens – though, on returning to Cyprus, decided she didn’t like courtrooms and didn’t want to practise. Surely a singer who’d performed onstage would also enjoy holding forth in court, I venture – but she shakes her head. “In court, you have to use your mind and your logic,” she replies. “On stage, you let emotion take over.”
So let’s get this straight, once and for all: Is she quite an emotional person?
“Yes, I am, and I don’t try to hide it. I don’t know if that’s good or bad, but…” She shrugs. “Though I’m also very cool under pressure,” she adds quickly.
Even her speech, on stepping down from her job as minister last week (part of a wider government reshuffle), was relatively emotional – not the usual dry collection of platitudes but surprisingly spiky in parts. She hit out at the months of rumour-mongering that preceded the reshuffle – which she felt had undermined her position – and also thanked the media for having been patient with her dysphonia during her year and a half in office, an unexpectedly personal note. Most politicians wouldn’t have dared make themselves look vulnerable like that – but Vasiliki Anastasiadou isn’t most politicians, for a very simple reason: she’s not really a politician at all.
You can sense it in her style, which is candid and straightforward, with an easy confidence borne of a lifetime in the upper echelons of ‘respectable’ society. Both her parents were doctors, her mum a paediatrician, her late father a gynaecologist who “delivered half of Cyprus”. She was popular in school (being a singer obviously helped), got good grades, acted in the school play. Her childhood home was right in the centre of Nicosia (where the big Jean Nouvel tower is now), her current abode large and tasteful, done up in gentle pastels. A Filipina helper brings us green tea and slices of fragrant pound cake, fresh from the oven. Vasiliki’s husband Stelios is Managing Director of Telia & Pavla, one of the island’s biggest advertising agencies (he also shares her talent for music, playing jazz guitar in his spare time); her son and daughter work with their dad. It’s a life that doesn’t require politics in order to complete it – and indeed she was very clear in her speech last week: “Let me add that I’ve never had, nor do I have, any political ambitions”.
She’s been working solidly since the age of 24, but the transport ministry was her first and only explicitly political role. Instead she’s been something of a “quasi-public figure”, as she puts it, having joined the staff of the House of Representatives in 1983 and risen to become its Secretary General in 2013: she’s worked with media, appeared in front of TV cameras, known politicians better than they know themselves – but her job was always purely administrative, which is not to say it was simple. Parliament employs around 150 people (not counting MPs’ personal assistants) and she was in charge of them all, as well as checking that parliamentary bills were correctly drafted (not the substance, just procedural correctness), accompanying the president of the House on trips, organising his weekly meetings with party leaders, facilitating the back-and-forth of questions and answers between MPs and the government, and so on and so forth. Vasiliki was a technocrat of 35 years’ standing when President Anastasiades (no relation) called her in February 2018 to offer the ministry job, which is why it’s intriguing to talk to her. Career politicians tend to get jaded about what their work entails – but for her, it was new and exciting. “I had many dreams,” she admits, then pauses. “Some got tangled up in procedure. Some did manage to progress, though.”
Ah, procedure. Procedure and bureaucracy, the Scylla and Charybdis waiting to devour any attempt to move forward. It’s especially galling at the transport ministry, because it’s responsible for so many things that impinge on people’s daily lives, “which makes criticism a bit more intense. Because, when someone gets in their car and finds themselves stuck in traffic – well, they’re going to fire off a text, or else go on Twitter and start ranting”.
Take the entrance to Nicosia, for instance, the stifling congestion every single day, and the ring road that’s been promised for literally years. What’s taking so long? ask the man and woman in the street. Surely it’s obvious to any sentient being that something must be done asap? Why does every project take so long even to start, let alone finish?
“First of all, you need political will,” she explains, “for the decision to be taken, then you have to go through a lot of other stages – which could be simpler, for sure, there’s a bureaucracy we need to fight against… Take the decision, make a plan, arrange funding, carry out expropriations, make construction plans. There’s also a procedure that’s required by the EU, where a project note has to be prepared for every project and sent to the finance ministry.” Not only are all these stages time-consuming (and we haven’t even mentioned public tenders, or the endless appeals by affected parties), but any one of them can bring the whole project to an indefinite standstill; everyone lags, everyone claims to be understaffed. The most frustrating aspect of the job, recalls Vasiliki, is waiting for an opinion or approval – even if it’s just a formality – from this or that department, and being paralysed until it arrives. “For the Paphos-Polis road, for instance, you can’t imagine how many phone calls I had to make to various services, departments, the department of the environment – me personally, the minister – just to try and get things moving.”
Talk of the Paphos-Polis road, and the department of the environment, opens another can of worms – because the transport ministry doesn’t just affect our everyday lives, it also has a huge role to play in saving our poor battered environment. “It can make a big contribution,” agrees Vasiliki, naming public transport – the fight to wean Cypriots off their cars – as one leading area.
Buses were actually one of her triumphs, viewed overall. She started badly, plunged into a bus crisis – drivers on strike, her Permanent Secretary engaged in a very public spat with the Auditor-General – during her first week on the job, but ended her tenure by announcing new public-transport contracts which, she assures me, will be a vast improvement on the old ones: more frequent journeys, sheltered bus stops, eco-friendly vehicles (the operating company gets rewarded for making them eco-friendly), a phone app to provide information. Isn’t it more about changing the mentality, though? It’s a vicious circle, she replies: “People’s mentality won’t change unless the product is attractive”.
On the one hand, Vasiliki really seems to have tried hard – and often succeeded, let’s not be condescending! She tells me proudly of one of her initiatives, sending questionnaires to her counterparts at Finance and Defence – she shows me the letters, mailed in mid-November, though she hadn’t yet received a reply when she stepped down – aiming to gather information on how civil servants travel to work, her plan being to bus them in from agreed collection points and minimise the use of private cars. She mentions other ideas, like the possibility of schoolkids walking to local schools in a group, escorted by an adult, rather than being driven individually by parents. These are concrete proposals, not the usual ‘Something must be done’ political waffling. I’m impressed.
On the other hand, there’s only so much a minister can do. I ask about the Paphos-Polis highway, since she brought it up. Surely that project – which will ravage a protected Natura 2000 site – is unnecessary? Surely the existing road can simply be improved, maybe with an extra lane at the (relatively few) sections which might be considered unsafe? Her reply is unequivocal: “I was told by the experts at Public Works that this is impossible. There can’t be a partial improvement of the road. The only solution was to redesign the whole thing. OK, this was a political decision from before I took over,” adds Vasiliki, almost with a note of apology. “I tried to make it happen, because local people really want it… Every step will be taken to ensure the environment is affected as little as possible,” she assures me, sounding like a politician for the first time.
There it is, in a nutshell. At the end of the day, the civil servants – the technocrats, “the experts at Public Works” – call the shots, unless a minister has “a serious reason” to depart from their decision and is able to convince his or her Cabinet colleagues to go along with it. In the end, it’s extremely difficult for any one person to make a significant difference. Talking to Vasiliki – this one-off politician, this self-confessed emotional type tasked with handling our collective mess for a year and a half – is instructive, not because she’s bitter but because she’s largely satisfied; she did her best, within the limits imposed by the system (and her premature departure). “I think we’re in a fairly good position,” she replies mildly when I ask about the bigger picture. “But we need to get away from bureaucracy, certainly. And some laws should be simplified, and we need to become more flexible”. Drivers stuck in traffic at the entrance to Nicosia might disagree – but no-one can say she was jaded, or indifferent. In a world of ambitious opportunists, Vasiliki was a best-case scenario.
And now? She’s never been much good at doing nothing. She’s never sat for hours in cafés drinking coffee; working non-stop without a lunch break – wolfing down handfuls of nuts to keep going – is more her style, she admits wryly. She can’t go back to Parliament, but something will turn up (there may also be a slight existential crisis along the way; it’s not easy to stop working after 36 years) – but first she’ll pause and get her head together, and recover from her year in the trenches.
Being a politician was rewarding but tough, just in practical terms. She stopped reading books for 21 months. She stopped exercising, apart from an early-morning walk. Her kids couldn’t come round for Sunday lunch (“We’re very family-oriented”), or not as often. “I’ve missed that,” she admits. “But I’ll make up for it”. Maybe she’ll even start asking herself if it was worth it, so much energy expended for no real return – or maybe she knows she gave her all, adding her name to the other brave souls who’ve tried to make things happen in the face of a dysfunctional system. It’s enough to make a person get emotional.