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NGOs harsh on Cyprus as others hold fire

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

In the heat of a crisis which has left it on the brink of bankruptcy, NGOs have accused Cyprus of a host of economic wrongdoings -- as a tax haven, a hub for money laundering, and of financial opacity.

But institutions like the International Monetary Fund and the European Union have so far held fire on criticising the tiny eurozone member, terming their intervention an effort to rescue the economy of a member state.

French Finance Minister Pierre Moscovici has spoken of excessive expansion and lending in the financial sector of an overbanked country.

He put the total capital of the banking sector at seven times gross domestic product, with deposits paying annual interest rates of 5-6 percent, with non-residents -- especially Russians -- accounting for a large portion.

According to a study by the Institute of International Finance (IIF), a banking lobby group, non-residents accounted for 20 billion euros ($25.8 billion) of deposits, out of a total of 52.2 billion euros in Cypriot banks.

Citing figures from the European Central Bank, the IIF said 85 percent of those non-resident deposits came from clients outside the European Union, in particular Russia, Ukraine and Lebanon.

Other countries, chiefly Germany, suspect Cyprus of having turned a blind eye to money laundering, with an independent European audit lined up to verify.

German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble has stopped short of declaring the country a tax haven, but has described it as a country where individuals pay little tax with few controls.

Such remarks fall well short of the blunt assessment of the Tax Justice Network, an umbrella group of NGOs.

According to the TJN, Cyprus is 20th out of 71 countries on the level of opacity of its financial sector, with the group complaining of limited cooperation on the question of money laundering.

"For us, Cyprus is still a very opaque tax haven -- it is a black hole in the eurozone," Mathilde Dupre of a Paris-based NGO, CCFD, told AFP.

International organisations, whose individual members have been critical of Cyprus, have themselves come under attack for allegedly tolerating bad practice by the eurozone member.

Nicosia joined the European Union in 2004 and was admitted to the eurozone four years later.

The Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an inter-governmental group charged with combating money laundering, does not rank Cyprus among its worst offenders internationally.

But in a 2011 report, it warned that laws on the books were poorly enforced, with few prosecutions or convictions.

The OECD, a grouping of industrialised countries, also did not list Cyprus in a 2009 report on corporate tax havens, pointing out the Mediterranean state had signed several bilateral tax treaties with other countries.

Since then, the OECD's Global Forum, which attempts to combat tax evasion, said in April 2012 that Cyprus's financial sector had several failings.

Andrew Auerbach, an OECD official, said the most serious was a lack of available accounting information, which he listed as something Cyprus needed to improve.

In the report, experts also complained that when Cypriot tax authorities compiled information on a taxpayer as requested by a third country, it informed the individual of the source of the request, jeopardising any investigation.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130321/ngos-harsh-cyprus-others-hold-fire