NICOSIA, Cyprus –Politicians in Cyprus were racing Saturday to complete an alternative plan raising funds necessary for the country to qualify for an international bailout, with a potential bankruptcy just three days away.
Finance Minister Michalis Sarris said “significant progress” had been made, and that new legislation raising funds could be completed and debated in Parliament as early as Saturday evening, although the timing was not certain.
Cyprus has been told it must raise 5.8 billion euros ($7.5 billion) in order to secure 10 billion euros in rescue loans from other European countries that use the single currency, and from the International Monetary Fund. The country’s lawmakers soundly rejected an unpopular initial plan that would have seized up to 10 percent of people’s bank accounts, and is now seeking a way to raise the desperately needed money.
But the idea of a deposit grab returned to the fore after Cyprus’ talks with longtime ally Russia for help broke down. According to a finance ministry official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he’s not authorized to speak about the negotiations, new laws may not be needed if Cyprus’ prospective creditors opt for a “voluntary contribution” from large depositors of as much as a quarter of their savings at the country’s largest lender, Bank of Cyprus. Another option being considered is a tax of some 10 percent on all bank deposits above 100,000 euros.
Time is running out fast. The European Central Bank has said it will stop providing emergency funding to Cyprus’ banks after Monday if no new plan is in place. Without ECB’s support, Cypriot banks would collapse Tuesday, pushing the country toward bankruptcy and a potential exit from the 17-nation eurozone.
Banks have been shut all week while the plan is worked out, and are not due to reopen until next Tuesday. Cash has been available through ATMs, but many run out quickly, and those machines for the troubled Laiki Bank are only dispensing 260 euros a day.
Nicosia made a significant step towards cementing a new plan Friday night, when its lawmakers approved nine bills, including three crucial ones that will restructure ailing banks, restrict financial transactions in emergencies and set up a “solidarity fund” that will act as the vehicle for raising funds from investments and contributions.
The bank restructuring will include the country’s troubled second largest lender, Laiki, which suffered heavy losses after being exposed to toxic Greek debt.
Thousands of angry bank employees afraid of losing their jobs marched through the center of Nicosia to the Finance Ministry and Parliament, some with placards around their necks reading: “No to the bankruptcy of Cyprus.” They marched up to the front of the ministry, calling on President Nicos Anastasiades to resign and chanting, “Anastasiades, you took our homes away from us.”
“We are protesting for our jobs, and jobs of all in Cyprus,” said bank employee Zoei Koiachi.
Worried about her job after 36 years at Laiki, Eleni Koutsourdou said lawmakers should have approved the initial plan for the deposit grab for the sake of protecting the financial sector that makes almost half of the country’s euro economy.
“It’s unfair, they pocketed everything and we end up paying for it,” she said.
The restructuring of Laiki and the sale of the toxic-asset laden Greek branches of Cypriot banks is expected to cut the amount the country needs to raise to about 3 billion euros instead of 5.8 billion euros, officials have said.
Other banks may also be included in the restructuring, such as the country’s largest lender, Bank of Cyprus, which was also exposed to Greek debt.
“We have to be clear to protect the financial system and for banks to open Tuesday with a clear picture,” Sarris said.
Representatives of the IMF, ECB and European Commission – collectively known as the troika – met with Sarris and other officials in the Finance Ministry in the morning, negotiating several new proposals, including a crucial bill that would impose some form of a tax on bank deposits.
The details were still being worked out, but officials have said that the tax could apply to deposits in the country’s top two lenders, which were most exposed to bad Greek debt, or even all banks.
Troika consent is essential as they will determine whether the plan that the Cypriots come up with would meet the requirements for the bailout before it is presented to the eurozone finance ministers for final approval.
A eurogroup meeting of the finance ministers will be held in Brussels Sunday evening. Anastasiades was also expected to fly there, though details of the timing was unclear.
Anastasiades was to meet party leaders later Saturday at the presidential palace in the Cypriot capital to brief them on where negotiations with troika stand.
“Significant progress has been made toward an agreement at least with the troika which will report to the Eurogroup,” Sarris said earlier in the day after the initial morning meeting at his ministry.
“Two or three issues need further work, issues on banks, there are different calculations,” Sarris said.
“We have a number of experts that are working from the private sector, at the Central Bank, at the Ministry of Finance trying to iron out these details so that when we do reach an agreement there will be no room for different understanding or misrepresentation.”