In presidential election, Cyprus votes for solvency | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 17.02.2013
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In presidential election, Cyprus votes for solvency

The state of the Cypriot economy will play a dominating role in the February 17 election of the new Cypriot president. Whether that president can get Cyprus out of a worsening financial crisis is another issue.

People walk past a large, blue political billboard that shows smiling people on it (Photo: no info)

Wahlen Zypern Strassenszene

Every opinion poll has pointed to the victory of Nicos Anastasiades of the right-center opposition DISY party in the February 17 presidential election in Cyprus.

He will most likely receive the most votes, but will not earn more than 50 percent, which will lead to a runoff election next week. There, Dimitris Christofias, the current president of Cyprus and the first EU president a party that labels itself communist, is expected to lose to the right-center Anastasiades.

"Anastasiades is a western European manager type," said historian Heinz Richter, who has followed Cypriot politics for more than three decades. "He'll be more open to business and have a better grasp of the problems."

A middle-aged man wearing glasses smiles off-camera (Photo: no info)

Anastasiades studied law in Athens and completed post-grad studies in shipping law in London

Approximately 15 percent Cypriots are unemployed - the highest since 1974. Public debt stands at 85 percent of the gross domestic product. Five years ago that number was 50 percent.

Andreas Thephanous, the director of the Cyprus Center for European and International Affairs at the University of Nicosia in Cyprus, said the president cannot solve the problems alone.

"Cypriot society needs a new beginning," he said. "But we also need the solidarity of our partners."

In other words, the country needs 17.5 billion euros - the sum Cyprus requested from the EU in the summer of 2012.

Greek bonds, Russian laundering

A large part of Cypriot's difficulties, Tephanous said, are due to the interweaving of Cyprus's economy with events in Greece.

"When the crisis hit Greece, we also took a hit," Thephanous said. "And with [Greece's] debt restructuring we lost 25 percent of our GDP overnight."

Since Cyprus banks held large quantities of Greek bonds, they were forced to write down 4.5 million euros in assets.

A blue-and-white Greek flag stands beside a mostly-white Cypriot flag (Photo: DW/V. Izotov)

Thought independent, Cyprus still has strong ties to Greece and is divided into Greek and Turkish zones

Beyond an EU bailout, a second solution to Cyprus's economic woes, Thephanous said, is a reduction in government spending.

"Public expenditures now  constitute half of GDP. And that's dangerous," he said, adding that Cyprus has too many public sector employees, that public salaries are too high and that social welfare entitlements are too generous.

Brussels has a different Cypriot problem in its sights. For the last two decades, low taxes have lured Russians, above all other nationalities, to the small Mediterranean island. Cyprus and Russian have long shared close political, cultural and religious ties. Yet the small island now serves as the de facto money-laundering site for Russian cash.

"The fact that Cyprus has been laundering money, especially Russian money, is something that's been known for about 20 years," historian Richter said.

From the EU's perspective, an infusion of cash into wobbly Cypriot banks would indirectly benefit Russian money-laundering operations.

Theophanous said he sees the money laundering discussion as exaggerated.

"No one wants a money laundering haven," he said. "There will be a concerted effort carry out [all banking] within the law."

Colonial legacy

Cypriots, and those who manage their country, are an efficient group of people, historian Richter said, adding that 70 years of British colonialism as having left a positive legacy on the small island nation.

"It's a country founded on western European principles," Richter said. "I don't have the tiniest shred of doubt that the Cypriots can pull themselves back up again."

A tan-skinned, middle-aged man looks into the camera against a gray backdrop. (Photo: DW/V. Izotov)

Andreas Theophanus teaches in Nicosia, Cyprus's capital city of 330,000

Economist Thephanous agreed. In contrast to Greece, most of Cyprus's problems, he said, were due to external factors - and not homemade. The largest of all was the write-down on Greek bond holdings.

"If it weren't for the banking problem and our connection to the Greek economy, we wouldn't need the European Stability Mechanism to get out of this crisis," he said.

Thephanous said he hopes for slow and measured reforms from the future president of Cyprus.

"When a country is stuck in an economic crisis and you come in with austerity measures," he said, "that crisis will only get deeper."

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