Cyprus shuts banks till next week, rushes to secure bailout

AFP , Wednesday 20 Mar 2013

Banks in Cyprus close as government officials try to find a new plan to secure bailout after controversial tax on savings is scrapped by parliament

Cyprus on Tuesday ordered banks to stay shut for another five days as ministers scrambled to draw up a Plan B aimed at securing a bailout after parliament rejected a controversial tax on savings.

In an early setback, however, Finance Minister Michalis Sarris failed to reach progress after two rounds of talks in Moscow on assistance from Russia, one of the key planks of Plan B.

The cabinet went into a crisis session to weigh the alternative plan and to look at bills designed to limit capital outflows and restructure the troubled banking sector, media reported.

The acting leader of the ruling Disy party, Averof Neophytou, said ministers planned to meet late into the night.

"We will not sleep tonight until we find a solution... I am confident we will find a solution so we do not go bankrupt," he said.

The finance ministry said banks, which last opened their doors on Friday, would remain closed again on Thursday and Friday "on grounds of public interest in order to ensure financial stability".

With Monday a scheduled public holiday, there is no prospect of any banking transactions before Tuesday, amid fears of a run on accounts by spooked foreign and domestic deposit holders.

State radio said bills had been drafted to restrict the outflow of cash from the island once the banks reopen. These would need to be passed by the cabinet and by parliament.

The legislation would also split the sector into "good banks" and "bad banks", it said.

The authorities spent Wednesday in frantic talks, including with political party leaders and central bank officials, to hammer out their Plan B, which an MP said was not likely to be finalised before the weekend.

The scramble began after MPs Tuesday night flatly rejected a measure that would have slapped a one-time levy of up to 9.9 percent on bank deposits as a condition for an EU-led 10-billion-euro ($13-billion) loan.

The troika of the European Union, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund agreed on Saturday to provide Cyprus with the bailout on condition Nicosia raised another 5.8 billion euros through a levy on bank deposits.

They refused to offer more than 10 billion euros because that would increase the country's debt burden to unsustainable levels way above the IMF benchmark of 100 percent of gross domestic product.

IMF statutes do not allow the fund to lend money to countries that might not be in a position to pay it back.

Media said options Cyprus was considering in order to meet the shortfall include raising money from domestic sources including provident funds, and restructuring the teetering banking sector.

While money is still available from ATM cashpoints, the dwindling liquidity has seen petrol stations close their credit card facilities and many stores are refusing cheques.

Amid the uncertainty, the head of the powerful Orthodox Church in Cyprus, Archbishop Chrysostomos II, offered to help by putting church assets at the government's disposal.

The church is the largest landowner in Cyprus and also has stakes in businesses including the island's Hellenic Bank, with estimated total assets of tens of millions of euros.

President Nicos Anastasiades' office said he had called another meeting of parliamentary leaders for Thursday at 0730 GMT.

Following the parliamentary "No" vote, in which ruling party MPs abstained, Cyprus turned to Russia, with Anastasiades sending Sarris to Moscow to woo new assistance and to seek an easing of the terms of a 2.5-billion-euro loan Moscow afforded Nicosia in 2011.

Russians—people ranging from members of the middle class to the super-rich tycoons who seek to avoid taxes back home—have $31 billion in private and corporate cash deposited in Cypriot banks.

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said the bailout had been bungled and the solution should not damage Moscow's relations with the EU.

"I hope that in the end the solution adopted will be as thought through as possible and will at the same time aid Cyprus and not harm our relations with the EU," he said, quoted by Interfax news agency.

Sarris, meanwhile, was upbeat after meeting his Russian counterpart Anton Siluanov before talks with First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov about a possible new loan, describing it as a "very good beginning".

But a Russian government source said a second round of talks with Shuvalov—a close Putin aide who oversees the financial sector—produced no results.

Reports said the Moscow talks would continue on Thursday.

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