Cyprus bailout incites turmoil as blame flies

BRUSSELS — A plan to rescue the tiny European country of Cyprus, assembled overnight in Brussels, has left financial regulators, German politicians, panicked Cypriot leaders and a disgruntled Kremlin with a bailout package that has outraged virtually all the parties.
A Russian market in Limassol, Cyprus. Russia was angry it was left out of talks to aid Cyprus, where it has billions in banks. Net photo.
A Russian market in Limassol, Cyprus. Russia was angry it was left out of talks to aid Cyprus, where it has billions in banks. Net photo.

BRUSSELS — A plan to rescue the tiny European country of Cyprus, assembled overnight in Brussels, has left financial regulators, German politicians, panicked Cypriot leaders and a disgruntled Kremlin with a bailout package that has outraged virtually all the parties.

In the end, a bailout deal that was supposed to calm a financial crisis in an economically insignificant Mediterranean nation spread it wider. Word of the plan unnerved markets across Europe, raised fears of bank instability in Spain and Italy and sent pensioners into the streets of the island’s capital, Nicosia, in protest.

As markets tumbled and the Cypriot Parliament fell into turmoil, salvos of blame were hurled back and forth across the Continent.

Officials scrambled to explain what went wrong and how best to control the damage of what Philip Whyte, a senior research fellow at the Center for European Reform, called a “completely irrational decision” to make bank depositors liable for part of the bailout.

The deal flopped so badly that finance ministers who came up with it shortly before dawn on Saturday were on the phone to each other Monday night talking about ways to revise it.

Whatever the outcome, the dispute is a vivid demonstration of why Europe, which until recently was congratulating itself on having weathered the worst of the financial storm, has trouble making decisions with so many different interests represented at the table.

Politics, both domestic and international, get in the way of economics and make it difficult for wealthy countries to line up behind a plan to help the smallest ones.

The northern European nations have grown so weary of bailouts for their southern neighbors that they were intent on exacting a hefty contribution from their latest supplicant. Germany in particular, with parliamentary elections looming in September, was set on driving a hard bargain.

A wild card in this instance were the Russians, who have deposited billions in Cypriot banks, extended a $3.25 billion line of credit to Nicosia in 2011 and were in negotiations to help out Cyprus once again. Cypriot leaders apparently were so concerned with keeping their wealthy offshore Russian customers happy that they pushed their own citizens to pay even more than some of the lenders were demanding.

The Russians reacted angrily to a so-called stability tax on deposits in Cyprus, and at being left out of the negotiations. On Monday, Russia’s minister of finance, Anton Siluanov, warned that Russia might not extend the existing credit line because the Europeans had not consulted authorities in Moscow about the deposit levy plan.

On Sunday, one Russian official was reported by the Interfax news agency as advising Russians to withdraw funds from Cyprus, saying the banking system was untrustworthy.

The all-night discussions began Friday and ran for 10 hours, ending shortly before dawn on Saturday. Cyprus needed to come up with billions of dollars to help cover the costs of the bailout of the country’s financial sector, or its European allies said they would leave it to face the prospect of collapse alone.

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