Liberalism in Cyprus: Painting the full picture

In many Southern European countries conservative parties have claimed to represent the liberal school of thought as well. In part, this can be blamed on the absence of a discrete liberal tradition or – if you want to go down the road even further – on the non-participation of Southern European societies in the enlightenment. However, this is not the full picture.

In Cyprus, things have not looked very promising for liberal forces as conservative and communist governments took their turns. Lately, Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades and his governing Conservatives, the „Democratic Rally“, have adopted a liberal rhetoric when it comes to economic issues. Still, the member of the European People’s Party is far from being a liberal stronghold.

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Alexander Apostolides

“With presidential elections just around the corner, there are multiple issues at the moment in which the Cypriot government does not act in a liberal way”, says Alexander Apostolides, an assistant professor at the European University Cyprus. “Just recently the government announced that it will use tax payers’ money to compensate for losses suffered by depositors in the 2013 financial crisis. This is a major issue in Cyprus right now as compensation could be potentially as big as 9,4 billion, or 51% of our GDP.”

Debt restructuring on public expense

To much international applause, the Cypriot government, the EU, and the IMF had decided in 2013 to include private creditors in the debt restructuring. As part of the bailout financed by the EU and the IMF, the island’s two largest banks were merged and recapitalised with uninsured deposits, resulting in total or partial loss of deposits over 100.000 EUR. Since this approach allowed for a limited use of state funds, Cyprus avoided the sovereign debt trap that other countries struggle with.

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The Bank of Cyprus had to be recapitalized

“The bail-in of uninsured depositors was painful for them as it was for the economy as a whole”, explains Apostolides. “However, it allowed the economy to recover without passing the burden to the taxpayer. This allowed taxation to remain relatively low and spurred the economy’s recovery.” But what in 2013 was hailed as a liberal principle being upheld for the first time in a financial crisis is now about to be withdrawn.

To address such topics and promote truly liberal solutions for Cyprus, Apostolides recently co-founded the “Centre of Cyprus Liberals-Hayek” (CCL). It is the first Cypriot think-tank with a distinct liberal focus.

“Our scope of action will certainly go beyond economic and financial issues”, says Savvas Charalambous, another founding member of the CCL. “We feel that the liberal perspective is not being presented, or is only selectively and partially being put forward in the public discourse. We would thus like to delve into a wide array of topics, focussing on safeguarding and promoting individual liberties and the core values of liberal thought.”

Creating a liberal alternative for Cyprus

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Opening Event of the Centre of Cyprus Liberals-Hayek

Compared to liberal forces in other crisis-ridden EU member states, the Cypriots have a comparative advantage: the size of their country. With a population of just over 850.000, public debate in the Republic of Cyprus can be influenced in a more direct way than elsewhere – at least theoretically.

Prospects are indeed looking good: more than eighty people showed up to the opening event of the CCL, among which Members of the Cypriot Parliament as well representatives of the Presidential Office. “The response has been encouraging”, rejoices Charalambous. “Even people who do not share our views on many issues have given us their support, noting that this is something that Cyprus is missing.”

“I am convinced that we can make something happen in Cyprus”, says Alex Apostolides. Sitting in front of a bar on a warm November evening in Nicosia, he sounds determined. As people pass by, the academic who is well-known in Cyprus for his public interventions on economic and social issues discusses politics with quite a few of them. People know each other in a capital of only 220.000.

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Coffee scene in front of the UN patrolled Buffer Zone in central Nicosia

“Since there’s a lack of understanding what liberalism really means, we have to start with the grassroots, but on the other hand the small size of the country allows for effective interventions in the political discourse”, explains Apostolides. “Liberal policy recommendations are deeply needed, and I believe the Cypriot society is ready for it. We just need to paint the full picture for them.”

In a traditionally polarized political system, “painting the full picture” can add a lot to public discourse. In regard to Cyprus, the vast space between communist and conservative ideas waits to be filled with meaningful content and concrete policy proposals. The Centre of Cyprus Liberals-Hayek is up for the task.

Markus Kaiser is the Friedrich Naumann Foundation’s project manager for Greece.