Scramble to find Cypriot cash escape route

People queue up outside a Laiki bank branch in the Cypriot capital, Nicosia, on March 28.

Story highlights

  • The hunt is on to find ways to circumnavigate the new draconian capital controls in Cyprus
  • At least three people have attempted to flee the island in recent weeks with more than €200,000
  • Individuals have only been allowed to take €1,000 a day out of the country since last week

The hunt is on to find ways to circumnavigate the new draconian capital controls in Cyprus and get money off the island.

At least three people have attempted to flee the island in recent weeks with more than €200,000 in cash on their person, according to official sources. The money was in all cases confiscated and the people questioned by the authorities.

Individuals have only been allowed to take €1,000 a day out of the country since Thursday under strict capital controls designed to prevent a bank run. The imposition of the eurozone's first ever capital controls followed the re-opening of the country's two banks for the first time after the European Union and International Monetary Fund bailout.

Amid the financial confusion that has characterised recent weeks, police have stepped up their security at the marina in the southern town of Limassol, in a bid to combat those trying to get money off the island by boat. Others have, it seems, approached the problems with more sophistication.

Sergei Tyulenev, a Russian businessman, says he received a call on Thursday -- the day the capital controls were implemented -- from Cypriots he did not wish to identify offering to help him move what he implied was more than €1m out of a collapsing local bank.

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The move would have seen his money transferred from the now-failed Laiki Bank, where deposits over €100,000 are likely to see substantial write-offs, to Hellenic Bank, a comparatively healthy Cypriot bank.

There was a catch though, on top of the illegality of the move. "They said I had to pay €200,000 up front. I refused," said Mr Tyulenev, speaking from Limassol, a town dubbed "Limassolgrad" for its high proportion of Russian residents.

The Financial Times has seen no official reports of illegal financial dealings at the banks. Those calling Mr Tyulenev may not have been able to follow through with their offer or may have been stopped in their attempts by the financial regulators.

But concerns have also been raised in Brussels that politically-connected depositors on the island have been able to move their cash out of Laiki and Bank of Cypus, even though banks were closed from the start of the crisis.

"There are some dubious capital outflows out of Cyprus as we speak," one senior eurozone official directly involved with negotiations with Cypriot officials said before the banks had reopened. "I'm sure it's 'the friends', and the friends are not only Russians."

Many foreign depositors had already sought to move money out of Cyprus by legitimate means before the crisis struck, seeing the writing on the wall for the banking sector as early as from the end of last year.

Some 18 per cent of the deposits held in Cypriot banks by residents of other eurozone countries were pulled out in February, according to figures from the Central Bank of Cyprus. Such deposits in Cyprus had fallen 41 per cent since last June to €3.9bn.

But there are also concerns that large sums flowed out of the two banks just before the first bailout package was signed in the early morning hours of March 16, and an inquiry has now been launched looking into who took money out and what knowledge they had at the time.

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