Dr Christodoulos Christodoulou, Cypriot Finance Minister, argues that it takes more than tax breaks to create a thriving offshore centre

What does Cyprus offer as a financial centre that others, for example the Caribbean islands, do not?

Cyprus is today a well-established and respected international business centre due to the high quality of the facilities it provides for the conduct of banking, financial, commercial and maritime activities worldwide. In contrast to 'tax havens', Cyprus is a tax incentive country which offers benefits aimed at attracting foreign individuals and enterprises. We believe that tax and other concessions by themselves are not enough to transform a country into a regional, still less an international, business centre. Well-developed institutions and infrastructure are also necessary. Our ability to do this, coupled with our English-based legal system, high quality of life, low cost of living, well-educated labour force and non-bureaucratic regulatory framework create an ideal business environment. Furthermore, the island's strategic location - near to the European Union market, eastern Europe, the Middle East and Africa, has also been a major factor in Cyprus' success.

It is our opinion that Cyprus' entrepreneurial environment compares favourably with that of other major, well-established centres. Unlike other offshore centres, including most of the Caribbean islands, Cyprus possesses a wide network of double tax treaties which can be effectively used for tax planning purposes. Some of these treaties, especially those with eastern Europe, contain uniquely favourable features.

How do you respond to allegations that Russian criminals use Cypriot banks to launder illegal funds?

The allegations appearing in the international press are unsubstantiated and at odds with the facts. Cyprus, of course, is not unique in facing accusations of this sort; other countries, including major financial centres such as New York, London and Frankfurt, have faced similar allegations from time to time. Although unsupported accusations are best ignored, it can be said that in the case of Cyprus, available concrete information, such as the total amount of cash being deposited in our banks, suggests that the island is not a laundering centre. Nevertheless, we are doing everything we can to combat laundering. Cyprus has ratified and implemented the 1988 UN ('Vienna') Convention against drug-trafficking by enacting appropriate legislation criminalising drug money laundering. We have also ratified the 1990 Council of Europe Convention on laundering and a draft law in accordance with the Convention's provisions is expected to be adopted in the next few months. In addition, the Central Bank of Cyprus, the country's leading regulatory authority, has, since 1989, taken various precautionary measures in accordance with the Financial Action Task Force's recommendations.

What are your plans to expand the banking sector in Cyprus?

Cyprus' domestic banking sector, which at present comprises nine banks with more than 500 branches all over the country, satisfies the needs of our economy, and the market is almost saturated. However, given the state of economic development, there might be room for one or two additional banks of prime international standing.

At the same time, the Central Bank welcomes and encourages the establishment of Off-shore Banking Units in Cyprus by foreign banks with good international reputations and with a record of growth and profitability. It must be emphasised that only banks which are, in the opinion of the Central Bank, subject to adequate supervision and regulation in their countries of incorporation are allowed to establish a presence in Cyprus. So far, 26 foreign banks from several countries have been granted banking licences to establish an offshore presence, while the Central Bank is currently dealing with a number of serious enquiries from other international banks which are interested in exploiting the opportunities offered in the sector. A further eight foreign banks have established representative offices in Cyprus.

Cyprus is well-placed to act as a trading centre with the Middle East. To what extent do political developments in the region affect the island's investment potential?

Cyprus is strategically placed to act as a base for expansion in the Middle East once peace is secured in the region. We have long maintained excellent relations with the region, hosting diplomatic missions from Israel, the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and various Arab countries. Cyprus is therefore set to become a centre for trade, economic and financial exchanges, and our banking sector is expected to benefit from the greater volume of investment and commercial and private transactions. Already, several Arab banks have expressed an interest in setting up Off-shore Banking Units to finance development projects in areas governed by the Palestinian authorities.

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Will the rehabilitation of Lebanon's banking sector harm the industry on Cyprus?

We have never considered that the efforts made by the Lebanese people to rebuild their country from the civil war present a danger for Cyprus' banking sector. I do not believe that Lebanon is among our direct competitors, given that it has yet to resolve its economic and political difficulties. Moreover, Lebanon is in the midst of the difficult task of rebuilding the infrastructure required to meet the demands of a modern and developed international business and financial centre. Given these demands, it will probably take several years for Lebanon to reach Cyprus' level. Even then, I believe that Cyprus will continue to enjoy a competitive advantage because Lebanon has traditionally operated as an international centre without drawing a distinction between on- and off-shore banking. I should also say that none of the six Lebanese banks with an off-shore presence in Cyprus has abandoned - or expressed a wish to abandon - the island. Far from seeing the re-emergence of Lebanon's financial sector as a threat, I believe that it will create challenging opportunities to enhance investment potential in the region.

Cyprus looks close to joining the European Union. What benefits would this bring for the banking sector, and for the economy as a whole?

Following our application to become a member of the European Union, in July 1990, the government of Cyprus has embarked upon a programme to harmonise Cyprus' institutions with those of the Union. Part of this effort concerns the harmonisation of Cypriot banking legislation. In this respect, the Central Bank has prepared a comprehensive banking bill aimed at modernising and streamlining our banking legislation by incorporating current concepts of regulation and supervision. We have already had substantial success in harmonising our banking legislation with that of the Union.

Membership of the European Union will accelerate overseas expansion of local banks, while increased interaction with the liberalised financial environment of the European Union will enhance local banks' sophistication and foster greater efficiency. Indeed, we are already working cautiously towards greater liberalisation of our financial system. Co-operation agreements with other European banks are also a feasible strategic alternative for Cypriot banks. These agreements, which will be stimulated by Cyprus' membership of the European Union, will provide access to the European banking market. At the same time, European banks will offer their products through domestic banks to the local market. The entire services sector, which contributes nearly 70 per cent of GDP, will have the opportunity to expand beyond the tight limits of the Cypriot market, especially given the skills factor and educational standards which characterise Cypriots.

I am convinced that Cyprus' accession to the Union will have a positive impact on the Cyprus Question. Even the prospect of accession will have a bearing on the settlement of this longstanding problem because it will act as a catalyst in efforts to find a solution. This is already apparent. Turkey, which is the key to any solution, is now under European Union pressure to act and to co-operate with us and other interested parties.

Turkey is now in a serious dilemma. The Council decided on 6 March that accession negotiations would begin six months after the end of the Inter-Governmental Conference. Turkey must decide whether to co-operate, so that the whole of the Cypriot people accede to the Union, or to remain intransigent and thus deprive the Turkish Cypriots of the benefits of membership.

Are you confident about the future of the Cypriot economy?

I believe that the economy is strong in terms of growth and stability, and compares well with that of other European Union nations (for example, Cyprus already satisfies the economic criteria for Union membership). Our annual growth rate over the past decade has been more than double the Union average, unemployment is low (2.6 per cent) and inflation has sharply declined. We have good reason to believe that this will continue, and our efforts will remain focused on exploiting all our comparative advantages, such as the dynamism of our professionals, our modern infrastructure and our geographical position.

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©Kensington Publications 1996