The Cyprus government is in crisis talks to come up with a plan to secure an emergency bailout package to shore up its banks and avert financial meltdown.
On Tuesday night, parliament threw out a controversial plan to skim €5.8bn (£5bn) from savings accounts, in a move that risked plunging the eurozone into deeper turmoil and heightened expectations that the cash-strapped country would seek a funding lifeline from Russia.
The newly elected conservative president, Nicos Anastasiades, who said this week a rejection of the bailout deal would mean “indescribable misery” for Cyprus, is meeting party leaders to explore a potential plan B, but few details had emerged.
He is also due to hold a cabinet meeting and talks with officials from the EU, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund. Late on Tuesday night, the eurozone governments said despite the vote Cyprus would still need to raise a third of the proposed €17bn bailout.
The finance minister, Michael Sarris, is in Moscow amid mounting speculation that the Kremlin could step in with a rescue plan to safeguard high levels of Russian deposits in Cypriot banks. Sarris said he would stay in Russia until a deal was reached.
Cyprus has asked Russia for a five-year extension of an existing loan of €2.5bn that matures in 2016, and a reduction in the 4.5% interest rate. Sarris told reporters in Moscow: “We’re hoping for a good outcome, but we cannot really predict.”
Anastasiades spoke with the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, on Tuesday night. Moody’s ratings agency estimated Russian banks had extended up to $40bn in loans to companies in Cyprus.
If Cyprus does not find the money to secure a bailout and satisfy officials in the eurozone and the IMF, its biggest banks could fail. Banks remained closed across the island on Wednesday to avert a potential bank run. They had been scheduled to reopen on Thursday but it is possible they will remain closed for the rest of the week, or until a deal can be reached.
On German TV, the finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, warned Cyprus that the biggest crisis-stricken banks might never be able to reopen if Cyprus rejected bailout terms.
The 56-member Cypriot parliament rejected the bank tax by 36 votes, with 19 abstentions (one MP was absent), even though the proposal had been tweaked to remove any levy on savings less than €20,000.
Accounts holding €20,000-€100,000 still faced a 6.75% levy, and any account with more than €100,000 would be hit by a tax of 9.9%, despite calls by Cyprus’s eurozone partners not to tax accounts below €100,000 – the level at which an EU-wide guarantee kicks in if a bank in the bloc goes bust.
In return for the levy, savers would be given shares in Cypriot banks and possibly a share in domestic gas reserves – but only once the country is back on its feet.
Even before the no vote was announced, the euro had slumped to its lowest level in four months on Tuesday after speculation that Sarris had resigned. The finance minister later texted Reuters from Moscow to deny the rumours.
With the crisis escalating, an RAF flight carrying €1m in low-denomination notes landed in Cyprus to provide cash for 3,000 British service personnel based there.