Cypriots strongly resist austerity

College students protest in Nicosia.

College students protest in Nicosia.

Jens Weidmann, the president of the German central bank that has been key to the extreme austerity imposed on Cyprus, said, “The situation in Cyprus has stabilized in the last few days.” (New York Times, April 7) Workers in Nicosia, the capital of Cyprus, a small island country of about 4 million people, don’t think so.

On April 4, the Union of Bank Employees (ETYK) called a two-hour lunch-time strike to hold a protest there in front of Parliament, which is having trouble passing the laws needed to implement the austerity policies the government imposed by decree. The parliamentarians are feeling the heat of popular anger over this situation.

Hundreds of bank workers demonstrated again on April 5. They came out at the call of the ETYK, which has played a very active role in leading protests against the austerity. Workers told Telesur, the Latin American TV network, that they feared 60 percent of their pension funds would be confiscated. The government, under pressure from the Troika (the European Central Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the European Commission) has decreed that 60 percent of all accounts over 100,000 euros would be confiscated to pay for the bailout.

One protester told Telesur: “We live off our salaries and we are counting on living off our pension funds when we are retired. This debt should not punish us or our families.” Another said, “It was terrible that they are destroying the economy and telling lies about it.”

Panos Kyriakydes said, “We don’t want to close the banks, but if they force us to we will close the banks ourselves.” He realized that this would create big problems for the companies that depend on the banks, and on both the rich and the poor people who use them.

At the end of March, when the Troika had representatives in Nicosia to establish the terms of the “bailout,” ETYK led at least two major occupations of bank offices. A Reuters video showed hundreds of angry workers, many in business suits, marching into the headquarters of Laiki, one of the biggest banks in Cyprus, which has been designated to be closed. (March 26)

One protester told Reuters, “They are trying to take our money rather than find the bankers who were the ones who stole our money.”

Besides bank workers facing the loss of jobs and pensions, the other very energetic sector in these protest has been students who face the loss of their future. “The Troika will bring us to the point that we have no future. We cannot find a job,” a Cypriot student told RIA Novosti. (March 26) Subsequent student protests have tended to be focused on Parliament and the government offices.

One sign at a protest in late March read, “People wake up, they are sucking your blood.” Another sign read, “Death to Merkel.” Angela Merkel is the German chancellor who, to many Cypriots, is the chief architect of the austerity plan. ETYK, however, has moved from primarily blaming Germany to putting more focus on the Cypriot government. (Telesur, April 5)

The level of violence in Cyprus hasn’t reached the levels in Greece. A few ATM machines were blown up at night while the terms of the bailout were being set. (RT.com, March 25) There were a few shoving matches between cops and protesters, shown on video clips, but no rocks or tear gas were thrown.

Some left-wing leaders in Europe, especially in Greece, have tried to assess how the situation in the Greek-speaking part of Cyprus is connected to the overall situation in Europe.

Alexis Tsipras, the leader of Syriza, the major opposition coalition in the Greek parliament, told the French Communist newspaper l’Humanité on March 21: “It is clear that the European leaders are now engaged in a policy openly oriented against the people of Europe. The German government’s strategy, supported by financial speculators in Europe, is a strategy of colonization, of southern Europe in general and of Greece and Cyprus in particular. It relies principally on a form of extortion, whose lever is debt.”