22 Mar 2013

Cyprus on the brink as vote looms on bailout plan

10:47 pm on 22 March 2013

The Government of Cyprus has submitted a package of emergency measures to Parliament to try to win backing for an international bailout and save the country from going bankrupt.

In the meantime, all the island's banks remain closed and the nation's largest bank warns that the economy is "on the brink" and desperately requires a liquidity lifeline from Europe.

"The next move may prove its salvation or destruction," said the Bank of Cyprus - itself said to require urgent funding to prevent collapse.

The European Central Bank has given the island nation until Monday to raise the funds it needs to secure a bailout.

MPs have delayed their a vote on the new plan to raise those funds until the early hours of the weekend.

Earlier this week they flatly rejected a plan to tax bank deposits.

Political leaders discussed the options with President Nicos Anastasiades on Thursday, and the package was then discussed by the cabinet. But MPs said they needed more time to study the nine bills that make up the draft legislation.

If no "Plan B" can be found by Monday, the ECB may cut off funding to the island's banks, it said in a statement, triggering their collapse and possibly the country's exit from the euro.

After holding a phone conference on Thursday night to discuss the situation, eurozone finance ministers said they stood "ready to discuss with the Cypriot authorities a draft new proposal", which they expected "the Cyprus authorities to present as rapidly as possible".

It is now a race against time to approve the proposals by Monday, the BBC reports.

The country's two biggest banks, Bank of Cyprus and Laiki, are reliant on the ECB's Emergency Liquidity Assistance, provided via the Central Bank of Cyprus.

All Cypriot banks have been shut until next Tuesday to prevent mass withdrawals, but long lines have been forming at cash machines.

They are still dispensing cash but with such demand are frequently running out, and on Thursday Laiki radically lowered the daily withdrawal limit to 260 euros.

The fear is catching. Outside cash machines, queues have grown all day with savers worried about their money - particularly in the two most troubled banks. Rumours that they might be closed altogether only sparked more concern.

Elsewhere, businesses are demanding payment in cash, turning away credit cards for fear they won't get their money. It's led to a drop in business - with customers staying away.

The coming hours are critical to save this troubled country and calm an anxious eurozone.

"There are rumours that Laiki Bank will never open again. I want to take out as much as I can," retired government official Phaedon Vassiliades told AFP news agency as he withdrew cash at a machine in the capital, Nicosia.

"I have nearly 60,000 euros as savings in this bank and some credit societies. I don't know if I will ever get it back now. This is what I had and now it seems it is all gone."

"We are doomed. Our sunny days are over," said Neophytos Constantinides, an insurance company employee.

State broadcaster CyBC said employees of Laiki - the country's second largest bank - were told on Thursday afternoon the bank would be closing down, but on state radio a Laiki spokeswoman denied those reports.

On Thursday there were reports that the government was considering the restructuring of Laiki Bank into "good" and "bad" banks. Bank employees clashed with police as they protested over possible lay-offs.

Earlier crowds gathered outside parliament in anticipation of a vote on a new proposal - a key component of which is the establishment of a state "investment solidarity fund" which would issue bonds on state assets to raise the 5.8 billion euros required.

Other elements of "Plan B" could include restructuring other Cypriot banks, use of pension funds, and accepting an offer of help from Cyprus' wealthy Orthodox Church.

A revised levy on deposits also remains a possibility.

It might also contain some kind of Russian help. Cypriot Finance Minister Michael Sarris is in Moscow discussing possible assistance.