| NICOSIA, June 15
NICOSIA, June 15 From the sharp-suited
'biznesmeny' in their black BMWs, to the grocery selling
imported vodka and whole smoked whitefish, to its
Soviet-educated Communist president, the Mediterranean island of
Cyprus speaks with an unmistakable Russian accent.
And as the latest troubled EU nation hurtles towards a
seemingly inevitable financial rescue, it finds itself teetering
between Moscow and Brussels.
"They have to decide whether they want to be part of the
European Union - or of the Soviet Union," said Fiona Mullen,
economist at Sapienta, a consultancy.
Cyprus took a 2.5 billion euro ($3.15 billion) loan from
Russia last year. It now urgently needs at least 1.8 billion
euros by the end of this month to rescue its banking sector,
torpedoed by its exposure to its bigger brother, Greece.
The actual bill is likely to be several times as high, and
if Greece were to exit the euro zone it could run into double
digits, a huge sum for a country with barely a million people.
Many in Cyprus think the only place the country could find
that kind of cash would be Moscow. Especially if President
Demetris Christofias - the EU's only Communist leader and a
fluent Russian speaker from his Moscow university days - wants
to avoid the tight conditions Brussels normally attaches to its
Cyprus officials have said they are in discussion with
Moscow for a loan of 4-5 billion euros. Russian newspapers have
hinted that a deal is in the works, although the finance
ministry in Moscow says it has received no such request.
The question is: what would Russia get in return? And how
would that effect relations with the rest of the European Union?
If Cyprus, which assumes the EU's rotating presidency on
July 1, becomes so deeply in hock to Moscow, it would be an
enormous embarrassment, both to Brussels and to many in Cyprus
who see its long term future with the West, not the East.
"You don't want to have all of your money owed to one
country," said Mullen. "Two thirds of your GDP is owed to Mr
Putin? That's something that even worries Russian businesses
here, who worry that if Cyprus falls out with Russia they have
to do what Moscow says."
Still, others say Russian funding would be easier for
Nicosia to accept than funding from Brussels, which would
require Christofias to make budget cuts that would hurt the
economy and enrage voters before an election next February.
It isn't hard to find reasons why Moscow would be willing to
be generous - and more lenient with its terms than Brussels.
Although the debt would be huge, in the long term, loans to
Cyprus are probably a safe bet. Despite its dire cash flow
problems now, Cyprus expects a windfall of wealth in the next
decade, following the discovery of giant natural gas fields
offshore in the eastern Mediterranean. Russian firms are among
the bidders for gas concessions in coming months.
Nicosia insists the bilateral loan it has already accepted
from Russia, and any others it might agree in the future, will
have no impact on the bidding process. But firms no doubt will
expect Moscow's generosity to be taken into account.
Russia also shares the Cypriot government's desire to
protect Nicosia from intrusive fiscal conditions and regulations
that might come with a bailout package from Brussels.
With its 10 percent corporation tax - the EU's lowest -
Cyprus serves as the perfect off-shore base for Russian money,
much of which is then reinvested back in Russia itself, a role
it played for wealthy Arabs in earlier decades.
"Cyprus will go for any deal that allows them to avoid
changing laws and regulations that make it the tax haven that it
is," said Hubert Faustmann, politics professor at the University
"Common sense would point in the Russian direction rather
than Brussels, that the strings attached to the EU loan would be
tighter than a Russian loan," he added. "The Russians have a
strong interest in Cyprus staying the way it is, as a nice place
for Russian businessmen to keep their money and pay low taxes."
It helps that many of the rich Russians who have become
residents on the sunny island - they are known for paying cash
for newly-built seaside villas - are "close to the power centres
in Moscow", Faustmann added.
EITHER, OR BOTH
It may not be a question of either Brussels or Moscow.
Cyprus might need help from both.
One solution, said Stelios Platis who runs a financial
consultancy in Cyprus, would be for Cyprus to turn to the
European Union's EFSF rescue fund to bail out its banking
sector's exposure to Greece - a problem arguably not of Cyprus's
own making - while continuing to look to Moscow for loans to
balance its state budget.
As in the 100 billion euro Spanish bank bailout agreed
earlier this month, EFSF money given to recapitalise banks need
not come with the intrusive fiscal requirements associated with
an EU rescue for public finances.
But it still would add to the country's sovereign debt, so
EU officials will probably need assurances that Nicosia has
funding for its public finances in place, meaning a bilateral
loan could be part of a grand double deal.
And any Russian loans would have to be on terms that Cyprus
could still afford to repay.
"It would be optimal for Cyprus to meet some of its
financing needs through a bilateral loan, whilst applying to the
EFSF for banking recapitalisation," Platis said.
"The devil is in the details. It depends on what the terms
are of the bilateral loan."