Cypriots generally don’t “do” lineups. But on Thursday, when the entire nation seemed to be standing in a queue, we could all have been waiting for a London bus, so orderly and mild was everyone’s behaviour.
From my position a third of the way along a queue of about 40 people snaking along the pavement from the closed bank entrance, I got a sense of comradeship. We are all in this together. We are all uncomfortable. The noon sun is searing. We are all anxious. But above all, we are fed up. From what locals tell me, the past two weeks has been the worst time in Cyprus since the 1974 Turkish invasion.
We all crave normality. The presence of a security guard and police officer at the bank entrance is not normality for Cyprus. But these are not normal times.
We were all here for our money: those bits of paper inaccessible to Cypriots, because of emergency currency controls imposed during its banking crisis, for nearly two weeks.
After three prior announcements which turned out to be false, the banks finally reopened Thursday. This bank was the troubled Laiki. The thought of getting my hands on my cash under police escort was unsavoury. But I didn't trust what may happen the next day with Laiki, so I forced myself.
After two months away, I had returned to Cyprus on March 16, the very day that the news of a “haircut” (that is, a one-time tax) on all bank deposits was announced as part of a European Union bailout plan.
Of course I had been expecting cuts and hikes where it hurt back home on the island. The economy had been struggling. But few people anticipated what has transpired since the banks shut without warning and the real economy stalled. Tipped off by a friend, arriving at the airport I headed straight to the ATM and withdrew all the cash I could from one of my accounts. This was before limits were imposed. I stored it in a cunningly hidden evening bag in my apartment. It’s what I have been living on. Others have been doing the same.
Foreign pension payments destined for Cypriot bank accounts have been suspended indefinitely until things settle down – a tough penalty on an island heavily populated with foreign pensioners. As soon as the demise of Laiki became evident, those with ATM cards waited in long queues to seize what they could of their money. Bakeries offered freebies with each purchase so that customers’ euros could go further. On the other hand, the petrol stations all demanded cash, even though the island’s plastic transaction company was operating as usual.
At the same time life went on. I peeled a few notes from my carefully stashed wad of euros and went out with friends. We carpooled in order to conserve euro notes and to defy the petrol stations.
Meanwhile, the island waited as proposal after proposal about its future was thrashed out and shredded up in Brussels. The island's leaders suspected they were caught in the crossfire of bigger political machinations. Cyprus was being used as an example and its population could be sacrificed. At night I couldn’t concentrate on what I was reading. During the day I unconsciously worried at my cuticles.
The situation was even more surreal because I am a journalist. It was peculiar to have to report impassively on something so harrowing which I was living through personally.
Now the international media were watching and waiting as the midday opening hour approached at my bank. We are like animals in a zoo, I thought. They want blood. They want hair torn out. They want riots. I am delighted when nobody obliges them.
“Are the Russians and Chinese really going to invest here now?” I heard the woman in front of me say. There is a feeling that the EU has been harsh on Cyprus. In order to raise €5.8-billion, depositors with more than €100,000 will have some of their savings forcibly exchanged for bank shares.
But not all of this money is of the so-called black variety. It includes pension funds, university deposits and cash from house sales. When the dust settles, how long will it take for anyone have the confidence to invest here again? The economy is heavily dependent on services. Joblessness, already at a high, will rise.
The capital controls implemented to curb a cash flight are not pretty either. Withdrawals are limited to €300 a day. You can only take €1,000 when travelling abroad. Businesses have marginally fewer restrictions but big transactions must be examined by a committee.
Shortly after noon, the bank manager came out and politely advised us how things would work. Six people at a time would be permitted into the bank to carry out their transactions. Do we have any questions about restrictions? This was all relayed in Greek and then English.
Soon it was my turn. The security guard ushered me into a vestibule and closed the door behind me. On one side of the glass was the fast-growing queue of people. On the other, tellers dealt with customers under police surveillance.
“This makes me feel like a criminal,” I say to the guard.
Back home with my cash, I checked the online banking at my other Cypriot bank. A large transfer to the UK I futilely instructed on March 16 after I heard the haircut news had finally been executed that morning – 12 days later.
I felt relief. On the surface banking, the underpinning of our society, was back to normal. But it is a normality with an uncertain price tag.
Lucie Robson is a British-Canadian journalist who has lived and worked in Cyprus for eleven years. She works for local and international media on the island.