If we may, let us start with an assessment of the current state of the Cyprus economy and the recent economic developments.
The Cyprus economy is in a recovery phase. Cyprus faced a severe economic crisis two years ago, climaxing in 2013. Since then we have been actively implementing a very ambitious program of economic reform and change and fiscal consolidation. We are doing so working together with the EU institutions and the IMF [International Monetary Fund]. It is a program that has been delivering tangible results. Already our economy is in a phase of recovery. We first aimed to stabilize the economy after the financial crisis—the banking crisis and the deepening of the recession. The first thing was to stabilize the situation. Since then, we have moved on and we are already registering positive growth rates and a very promising outlook for the future, which is taking form in various sectors of our economy—on the one hand through the good performance of traditional key sectors of the economy like tourism, business and financial services, and shipping. And, on the other hand, through new up-and-coming sectors like energy, which includes the exploitation of offshore natural gas resources and the rapid development of renewable energy, as well as through new multimillion-dollar investments in projects like casinos and marinas. That is a very new project that started operating a year ago at the height of the crisis. It managed to proceed and is going very well. There is another one that will commence over the next few months. We were seeing activity in various sectors of the economy that is driving the economy forward. This is the best evidence of the fact that through the implementation of our economic plan we have already created the necessary conditions that encourage this renewed economic activity across sectors. You have already mentioned several examples of what is in fact included in our economic agenda.
In terms of the jurisdiction, we have heard some recent negative news because of Greece. Sometimes it has been labeled as Cyprus as well. To differentiate itself from Greece, what can Cyprus offer to international investors?
I do not think there is an identification. I think there is a very clear differentiation. I hope that Greece will be able to move toward its own recovery but I think we have clearly demonstrated, and it is perfectly understood, that our economy is a completely different jurisdiction. We do not think it is misrepresented as being an annex of the Greek economy. We have hard evidence that confirms there is not such a misrepresentation. For instance, when Greece was regrettably moving toward the imposition of capital controls, we were fully lifting them. As a result, deposits came in instead of leaving. Our economy at the very same time was returning to positive growth rates. We were able to access the international capital markets at the height of the Greek crisis. This is hard evidence that the international investment community is expressing a vote of confidence in Cyprus and its economy and the efforts in the direction of its economic recovery. We are even seeing an influx of new business, for instance in shipping and in other sectors. These facts demonstrate that there is really not a misperception. Of course the traditional ties between Greece and Cyprus exist, but everyone realizes these are not translated into our economy being linked to theirs. There is not even the link that existed in the past through the wide exposure of the secret banking sector in Greece, which was terminated. Even that does not exist anymore. We have a very clear policy. We are a very pro-business government, first and foremost, but moving beyond the government of the day, Cyprus is a very business- and investment-friendly jurisdiction. To give another example, we have been through the economic crisis and we have seen the end of the crisis without raising a single tax. No new taxes were imposed during these difficult years and there are no new plans to raise new taxes that would burden either households or businesses. We were actually able to offer a series of tax incentives to encourage new business investment. We are a very business- and investment-friendly jurisdiction. The government is focusing all of its efforts in these directions. At the same time, we very much acknowledge our shortcomings. We are not pretending that everything is perfect. This is also a very honest approach.
What are the biggest challenges you face at the moment?
Bureaucracy. Red tape. It is something we as a government consider one of the main drawbacks and something that is limiting entrepreneurship and local and foreign investment. We are not shying away from the problem. We are identifying and acknowledging it. We are in the process of unfolding a plan that will simplify procedures, simplify regulation, and see the merging of government services and departments in an effort to deal with what is a real problem. The banking sector was another problem, since you are asking me about what was wrong. The banking sector was also part of the problem.
For the last two years, we have been promoting a very deep reform of the banking sector. Essentially, we now have a smaller banking sector but it is already a better-capitalized, better-managed, and better-supervised banking sector. The public finances were also a problem burdening the private sector. We also have debt. We are essentially operating with a balanced budget. No need to burden the private economy with continuous deficits and debt, which eventually leads to taxes.
We believe your ministry is taking care of Cyta. Is that correct?
We are overseeing it.
We believe Cyta is going to be privatized or is in the process. Could you tell us a little bit about that?
Part of this reform effort is a privatization process. It is going to be the first really. There have been a couple of related privatizations in the past, but this is the first organized privatization project. There are two key projects included under privatization—one of which is Cyta, the state-owned telecom.
When do you plan to privatize it?
The process is running. We expect it to conclude next year. I am not sure if I can specify when during the next year. The process has started. We are enabling legislation now. That should be the aim by the end of this year, which will pave the way for the actual process to reach its conclusion next year. Telecom is the main item of our privatization program. We expect it will attract strong investor interest. We are also very optimistic about the second process, which is the ports—sea ports. Limassol and Larnaca will follow soon after. The process is in a more advanced stage. We already have the initial interest. The pre selection phase will take place very soon. This process will be completed early next year. Several other secondary items are also included, like the state lottery and some state-owned property and real estate.
Under your ministry, are you supervising some other governmental companies? Or is Cyta the only exception?
We have a few actually—smaller or larger state-owned organizations. Their supervision is divided between ministries. We have a few.
It is below the Ministry of Finance?
Yes. The stock exchange—it is a small exchange. It may also go for privatization at a later stage. We are also supervising two state-owned banking institutions. One is the CoopBank [Cooperative Central Bank]. There is another, a special-purpose banking institution, the housing bank. It is one of the big three.
I have heard from the private sector that the government really tries to help them. What is your vision for the coming year 2016? What is your prediction for the economy?
There is a clear priority to see the economic recovery gain momentum. That is the overriding aim for 2016. By then, we will have completed the IMF/EU program, which will end in early 2016. By then, we will have done enough in the areas of fiscal consolidation, restructuring and reform of the banking sector, and promoting of much-needed structure and reform, which will essentially pave the way for strong economic recovery. I want to emphasize—having seen the worst of the crisis and having stabilized the situation—that our aim is not only to return to a precrisis situation. We are much more ambitious and we want to create the foundations for a much more viable, healthy economic model for Cyprus that will ensure its long-term growth. Cyprus has some very attractive comparative advantages, being a very business-friendly jurisdiction. It is in a good location with excellent human capital and skills in some very important sectors. Through the changes we are implementing, and through working very closely with private sector, we want to improve Cyprus even more in the long run. Essentially, we would like to have solid foundations that will ensure Cyprus will be one of the fastest-growing economies in the EU and the eurozone in the medium to long term. Cyprus has immense growth potential and we want to guarantee that it materializes. That is the plan looking ahead.
What is the comparative advantage over other countries? What are the three biggest comparative advantages compared to other investment destinations?
We are Europe. The list of advantages is quite long. That is one. We are offering the stability and the credibility of an EU and eurozone member state, but we are also offering some country-specific advantages that take several shapes. Some well-developed industries have immense growth potential in tourism and shipping and services. It is probably one of the most attractive tax regimes in the EU and the eurozone. Being a member of the eurozone, there was the term offshore. The idea of the “tax haven” is not really valid anymore. We may have been an offshore in the 80s but not anymore. It is a combination. Not being really offshore, being a member of the EU and the eurozone, we have all the advantages of a jurisdiction that essentially is a hub.
Cyprus is a small island by size that offers a very competitive tax regime; excellent expertise in key sectors of the economy; and a reach through economic and commercial ties, and through double-tax treaties, to most of the key markets of the region. Cyprus is not only what it offers locally; it is a unique base in the EU to do business and to establish commercial investment links with a number of other economies. Continents, too. I do use the word hub. It is a business hub, shipping hub, tourist destination. Ultimately, it is a rather nice place to live and do business.