Gazprom’s audacious offer to bail out Cyprus in return for its natural gas

If this is how Gazprom celebrates welding pipes together, imagine their Cyprus bailout.
If this is how Gazprom celebrates welding pipes together, imagine their Cyprus bailout.
Image: AP Photo / Mikhail Metzel
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Talk about buying low and selling high. Gazprom, Russia’s state-owned oil company, reportedly offered to bail out Cyprus’s troubled financial sector in exchange for exploration rights to the country’s natural gas.

Cyprus is holding a bank holiday until Thursday as it works to finalize a deal with European leaders that would rescue the country, but the tentative agreement includes a controversial provision taxing bank depositors, one that even conservative German newspapers think is a bad idea.

Hence Gazprom sweeping in with its “friendlier” rescue offer. It’s not clear if they wanted to take over the entire bailout, which would cost roughly €16 billion, or merely the depositor bail-in of €5.8 billion, but either way they’d be getting a pretty rock-solid deal: The gas reserves could be worth as much as €300 billion, though it would likely take about seven years of development to start exporting gas and collecting revenue, not to mention fears of competing claims on the reserves from Turkey.

Cyprus rejected the offer, preferring to refine the fiscal program it is negotiating with the European Central Bank, European finance ministers, and the International Monetary Fund, which will likely include some concessions from the Russian government, which made an emergency loan to the country last year.

The irony here is that one of the reasons Cyprus’ bailout is so unpleasant is that it acts as an off-shore financial center for Russia, whose residents and corporations have as much as US$19 billion in the country’s banks and stand to lose about US$2 billion if the depositor tax goes through. A significant motivation for the deposit tax was to make sure that foreigners taking advantage of Cyprus’ bank secrecy laws and low taxes would take part of the hit. A partnership with Gazprom, in exchange for exploration rights, would have further solidified the island’s status as a  Russian client.

The Cyprus government is trying to use its gas reserves to keep people from pulling their money out of the country, offering to compensate depositors with securities linked to the reserves. While the long time-horizon on returns from those securities might be scant comfort to private investors who fear losing money they keep on the island nation, the ability of the Cypriot public sector to manage those reserves in the long-term is one the country’s bigger advantages in digging itself out of its fiscal hole.