German Bailout Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is trying to avoid any tumult ahead of the elections later this year, has a new headache. Cyprus, the fifth of 17 Eurozone countries to ask for a bailout, might default and exit the Eurozone under her watch. Using taxpayer money or the ECB’s freshly printed trillions to bail out the corrupt Greek elite or stockholders, bondholders, and counterparties of decomposing banks, or even privileged speculators, is one thing, but bailing out Russian “black money” is, politically at least, quite another.
Cyprus is in horrid shape. Particularly its banks. Their €152 billion in “assets” are 8.5 times the country’s GDP of €17.8 billion. “Assets” in quotation marks because some have dissipated and because €23 billion in loans, or 27% of the banks’ entire credit portfolio, are nonperforming. That’s 127% of GDP! And then there are the Russian-owned “black-money” accounts.
A “secret” report by the German version of the CIA, the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND) was leaked last November, revealing that any bailout of Cyprus would benefit rich Russians and their €26 billion in “black money” that they deposited in the now collapsing banks. The report accuses Cyprus of creating ideal conditions for large-scale money laundering, including handing out Cypriot passports to Russian oligarchs, giving them the option to settle in the EU. Much of this laundered money then reverses direction, turning minuscule Cyprus into Russia’s largest foreign investor.
Now Cyprus needs €17.5 billion—just about 100% of its GDP—of which €12 billion would go directly to the murky and putrid banks. The package should be wrapped up and signed on February 10 at the meeting of the European finance ministers.
“I cannot imagine that the German taxpayer will save Cypriot banks whose business model is to abet tax fraud,” grumbled Sigmar Gabriel, chairman of the opposition SPD that has been a supporter of euro bailouts; and Merkel, hobbled by opposition within her own coalition, had relied on them to get prior bailouts passed. “If Mrs. Merkel wants to have the approval of the SPD, she must have very good reasons,” he said. “But I don’t see any….”
The Greens are resisting the Cyprus bailout for the same reasons. And 20 members of Merkel’s own coalition are categorically opposed to it. For the first time, Merkel has no majority to get a bailout package passed. The opposition smells an election advantage.
Before the German finance minister can vote in the Euro Group of finance ministers for disbursement of bailout funds, he must seek parliamentary approval. The German Constitutional Court said so, inconveniently. But without his yes-vote, which weighs 29%, the qualified majority of 73.9% cannot be reached. The bailout disbursement crashes. That’s what Cyprus is contemplating.
Fearing defeat, sources within the government now made it known that they wouldn’t even present a bailout package unless Cyprus agreed to “radical reforms,” including massive privatizations of the bloated state sector—precisely what communist President Dimitris Christofias has ruled out.
The Russian “black money” is so unpalatable that even the bailout-happy President of the EU Parliament, Martin Schulz, got cold feet. Before a bailout package could be put together, he said, “it must be disclosed where the money in Cyprus is coming from.”
Markus Ferber, head of Merkel’s coalition partner CSU, demanded a guarantee that “we help the citizens of Cyprus and not the Russian oligarchs.” In addition, he wants Cyprus to reform its naturalization law. If Cyprus wants to get bailed out, he mused, it must make sure “that not everyone who has a lot of money can get a Cypriot passport.”
Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle (FDP), who is no Eurosceptic, hammered home that the Cyprus won’t get special treatment. The European community is “ready for solidarity, but only in return for real structural reforms,” he said. “Greece didn’t get a blank check, Cyprus won’t either.” And those reforms included “banking transparence.” They’re all out there now, griping about German taxpayers bailing out Russian “black money.”
Having learned a lesson from Greece, Cyprus has gone on a charm offensive to persuade the other 16 Eurozone countries that its “black money” problem has evaporated and that more reforms aren’t necessary. On Monday, Central Bank President Panicos Demetriades invited the finance ministers to a dog and pony show that would explain the banking sector and the perfectly legit activities of the Russian funds.
If Greece is any guide, Merkel will vociferously demand more reforms and transparence in the banking sector. The February 10 deadline might pass. Cyprus will come up with a list of promises. Gradually the rhetoric will change. Words like “progress” will show up. “Black money” will disappear from the media. This might even culminate with a heartwarming meeting in Berlin between Merkel and Christofias. And suddenly, voting against the Cyprus bailout, once a safe bet, will become politically risky. It worked before. It might work again. If not, Cyprus with all its “black money” might become the first Eurozone country to go bust.