NICOSIA — Forget the plastic. In Cyprus, cash is king.
"I plan to have at least 1,000 euros on me at all times," Constantinos Tsissios, a 34-year-old banker, said at a downtown ATM in the capital, Nicosia. "We've taken as much out as we could,'' he said on Thursday. "You don't know what might happen over the next few days.''
Five days after Cyprus's panicked leaders ordered banks to close their doors, the fate of the financial system hangs in the balance and credit cards are going out of fashion.
Reluctant to accept the promise of payment from customers, shop owners say wholesalers are demanding cash on delivery. Some gas stations, too, are refusing credit cards. Retailers with only Cypriot bank accounts are struggling to ship supplies in from abroad. Gentlemanly arrangements are bridging the gap.
"Because of what's going on, the suppliers ask for a small amount, say 50 percent, in cash, so they can meet their costs,'' said Federico Basonidis, a 25-year-old worker at a kiosk selling cigarettes, newspapers and sweets.
Spooked by an aborted bid to tax their savings, Cypriots are fast losing confidence that their money will still be there when - or if - banks re-open, on Tuesday at the earliest.
Rumors on Thursday that one teetering bank would be allowed to fall saw lines grow at ATMs at a downtown branch, as staff behind locked doors replenished cash machines. Some of the bank's employees, fearing for their jobs, faced off with riot police outside parliament.
"We have children studying abroad and next month we need to send them money so they can eat,'' protester Stalou Christodoulido said through tears. "We'll lose what money we had and saved for so many years if the bank goes under.''
Marinos Panaretou, a 36-year-old retail manager, said he had withdrawn a maximum 500 euros every day since Saturday. "People feel safer if we have cash on us because you don't know what you're going to wake up to,'' he said.
Saturday was the day news broke of a proposed levy on savings to raise the 5.8 billion euros Cyprus's lenders at the EU and International Monetary Fund want in exchange for a 10-billion euro lifeline to keep the island financially afloat.
Keep the faith?
With Cypriots and foreign depositors, many of them Russian, threatening to empty the banks, lawmakers on Tuesday overwhelmingly rejected the levy, in a stunning rejection of the kind of strict austerity accepted by Portugal, Ireland, Greece, Spain and Italy over the last three years of Europe's stubborn debt crisis.
Cypriot leaders were working on a "Plan B." They have until Monday to produce, or the European Central Bank says it will sever the emergency liquidity line keeping banks alive.
Christos Phasarias, 63, estimated he had lost thousands of euros worth of orders at his car parts and accessories store.
"We need to bring some orders in from abroad and they're all standing by waiting for the transfer to be made so that the goods can leave,'' he said. "There's no bank to make the transfers, so we can't receive parts on time. It's going to be a disaster.''
Adamos Hadjiadamou of the Association of Cypriot Supermarkets said that the majority of suppliers had suspended the customary practice of providing goods to stores in return for payments received through credit and checks.
"We see this as unjustified,'' he told Reuters. "What do we want to do? Destroy the market completely?''
At one gas station, pump attendant Tassos Spingas turned away two motorists who did not have cash. "How will I know if there's money in the account, when the banks are closed?'' he asked.
Others kept the faith.
"We don't have any problems,'' Stavros Stavrou, chairman of national flag carrier Cyprus Airways, told Reuters. "We've come to an understanding that we'll make payments that should have been made as soon as the banks open.''