Either bankers are so confident of their power that they increasingly can’t be bothered to disguise it, or we have to stretch the definition of “democracy” so far that the word loses any sense of meaning. This week’s news that the newly elected government of Cyprus was ordered to make its savings depositors pay for a bailout of Russian oligarchs and real estate speculators is stunning even by the standards of the global economic slump.
None of the previous eurozone bailouts had gone so far as to directly confiscate the savings of ordinary depositors. Not even in Ireland, where former Prime Minister Brian Cowen had huffed and puffed that Ireland would not surrender its sovereignty — which he demonstrated by insisting that Ireland’s ultra-low corporate tax rate not be touched. It wasn’t. European bankers had no issue with that, granting him that one concession while imposing cuts to wages, lowering the minimum wage, drastically raising water rates, raising university tuition and reducing health care services.
The intensity of Ireland’s austerity derives from the decision by the former prime minister to cover all potential losses by Ireland’s major banks, no matter how reckless their speculative lending had become. In other words, the Irish government paid off the bad loans made by its bankers and guaranteed speculators in the banks’ bonds would suffer no losses, and passed the bill onto its citizens. This represented an extraordinary warping of the idea that bank deposits, up to a certain level, are guaranteed. Other countries have had various versions of this austerity imposed on them. But now the European Union and its bankers are attempting austerity from a different angle: Partial confiscation of all savings, even if “guaranteed.”
No, that doesn’t mean that the normal austerity terms aren’t being imposed by the European Central Bank, the eurozone’s finance ministers and the International Monetary Fund. For weeks, rumors had circulated that, this time, that there would be a sharing of the cost of a bailout as Cyprus inched closer to a bailout. In the ordinary sense of this concept, that would mean that bondholders and the banks themselves would shoulder some of the burden. Not surprisingly, there had been pushback against this idea with financiers complaining that making them take responsibility for their own speculation would be disruptive to financial markets.
Finance ministers want pensioners to pay for crisis
Plan B was is to make working people and pensioners who have their life savings in banks and had nothing whatsoever to do with the latest eurozone crisis instead shoulder the burden. The Cypriot government was told point-blank to confiscate a portion of depositors’ savings or all money would be cut off, which would cause an immediate collapse of its two primary banks. No matter that deposits up to €100,000 are guaranteed. To avoid a bank run, Cypriot banks are closed for at least three days so that Cypriot parliamentarians can be hectored by eurozone finance ministers to do their duty.
The Cypriot parliament said no in its March 19 vote, but “no” votes in other countries have been reversed under pressure, so this drama has not yet run its course.
Cyprus needs €17 billion to bail out its banks, but European Union and International Monetary Fund officials are loaning only €10 billion, insisting that the remainder come from a deposit tax and other internal measures, including privatizing utilities. And why do Cypriot banks need all this money? Because they over-extended themselves on loans to real estate developers and others, the same story as in so many other countries. They also absorbed losses when Greek government bonds they owned were devalued in the wake of Greece’s ongoing crisis. An added complication is that about 40 percent of Cyprus’ total deposits are by foreigners, mostly Russians, causing extra challenges.
Cypriot banks are widely seen as money-laundering havens for Russian oligarchs, and a straight bailout of the banks would appear to many eyes as a bailout of money launderers. That in itself would not look good. In addition, German Chancellor Angela Merkel faces re-election later this year and, given repeated assertions by German right-wingers that Germany is bailing out slothful Mediterraneans, is loath to leave herself exposed to more such charges.
Imposing a “deposit tax” only on deposits greater than the government guarantee would be one way out of this political dilemma, but that would leave Russia angry. Not only does Russian President Vladimir Putin seek to protect his country’s oligarchs, but Russia has previously granted Cyprus a loan on which the Cypriot government hopes to re-negotiate easier terms. As it is, Russia strongly protested the proposed confiscation that would have affected everyone.
The Cypriot government is caught between multiple rocks and hard places — subordinate to Germany, the northern European Union countries that ally with Germany on financial issues, Russia, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund. It is also subordinate to financial markets, a nice term that really means international financiers and speculators. Countries far bigger than Cyprus are subordinate to financial markets, and even large countries like Germany are not independent of market forces.
Cypriot banks hold assets estimated at eight times the country’s gross domestic product — Cyprus, like Ireland and Iceland, which had similarly bloated banks, can’t sustain a financial sector swollen to such a dangerous size. Cypriot banks offered interest rates far above rates found elsewhere, which attracted foreign depositors but also signaled significant risk. Banks that do not ask questions of people who deposit huge sums of money are not closely regulated. The downside of that risk has materialized, but rather than impose the cost, financiers and the government ministers who represent them prefer to say “never mind” to the deposit insurance counted on by working people and pensioners banking their life savings.
A crisis of financial domination, not national characteristics
The social risk here, in a broader sense, is that the Cypriot crisis will be seen through nationalist lenses. To accuse “slothful Mediterraneans” or “arrogant Germans” is to be blind to the larger structural forces at work, which pay no attention to national borders. Financiers last year imposed new unelected governments on Greece and Italy so that their preferred policies be carried out. If they can topple one government, they can topple other governments; the pious declarations that Cyprus’ confiscation of savers would be a unique event that won’t be repeated rings hollow given those precedents.
Austerity comes in many forms and no country’s workers are exempt — the German manufacturing “miracle” in fact has a down-to-earth cause — a decade of wage cuts for German workers. Germany is ever more dependent on exports as its domestic ability to consume slowly declines due to the steady drop of wage cuts. When those export markets begin to dry up, German workers will not be able to pick up the slack and German manufacturers and financiers will impose stronger austerity on German workers to buoy profits.
For now, German workers are relatively privileged, a difference exploited to foster divisions. Austerity has been much harsher in the eurozone’s Mediterranean countries and Ireland. Thus far, we have seen only the beginnings of any political fightback, in the form of strong electoral showings by Syriza (the Coalition of the Radical Left) in Greece and the 5 Star Movement in Italy. For the most part, Europeans have continued to alternate among their local dominant parties.
Frequent massive demonstrations demonstrate widespread anger — that is important, as the route to reversing austerity and the system that imposes it lies in mass action. It is a healthy sign of cross-border solidarity that demonstrators in front of the Cypriot parliament carried signs saying (in Italian and Spanish) “today me, tomorrow you.”
But anger without organization ultimately dissipates like steam released from an engine. Such organization has to translate, in part, to challenging political power, which in turn is intimately linked (and subordinate) to economic power. Austerity does not fall out of the sky; it is an expression of power to benefit those in power. Capitalists, including financiers, can remove governments and confiscate savings. What’s next? The return of debtors’ prisons? Mandatory unpaid labor to boost profits? Those might sound far-fetched, but unchecked power has a way of moving toward limitless power. Organizing to reverse this is simply self-defense.