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Geography Note: Russian Energy Company Tries to Bribe Cyprus

• March 19, 2013 • 10:27 AM

Massive Russian gas concern Gazprom’s offer to bail out Cyprus in exchange for access to the little Mediterranean nation’s natural gas fields, is proving to be one of the more bonkers moments in the already surreal evolution of Europe’s economic crisis. Gazprom officials explained the offer as an alternative to a deeply unpopular European Union plan to save the country. That plan, scheduled for a vote this week, involves waiting for a holiday when the banks are closed and then just withdrawing lots of money out of normal Cypriots’ regular bank accounts. That could happen as soon as Thursday. EU officials, presumably reading from the script of some 80s heist comedy, call the plan an “extraordinary one time tax.”

Enter Gazprom, which sounds almost reasonable by comparison, if a large energy company pretending to be the same thing as a public treasury can be considered reasonable. (hint: it can’t).

Cyprus’ President, in what one must assume is the last chapter of his political career, has already claimed to have rejected the Russian offer.

Then again, other people have tried to reject Gazprom’s offers, which can be of the sort one can’t refuse. A few years back, a conflict between the government of Ukraine and Gazprom led Russia to cut off all gas shipments to a vast swath of eastern Europe and as far south as Greece — in winter.

Russia’s relationship to Cyprus was already deeply weird. Though average Russians have long used the island as a vacation destination, recently the Putin government has appeared to be seeing the country more strategically. Reports of official involvement in everything from tax shelter schemes to gun running are commonplace. It’s also a preferred tax haven for the Russian elite.

Before yesterday, however, they hadn’t tried to just straight-up buy the place. This is the first time in Europe’s five-year crisis that a private(-ish) entity has offered to pay off a national debt in exchange for raw materials. Though one wonders. There are still a few Italian banks that accept deposits in hard cheese. Perhaps the Russian company is on to something.

Marc Herman

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