Exposed to Greek banks, Balkans brace for trouble

A woman uses an ATM of a bank after the government's decision last week to limit daily cash withdrawals to 60 euro ($66) in Athens, Tuesday, July 7, 2015. Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras was heading Tuesday to Brussels for an emergency meeting of eurozone leaders, where he will try to use a resounding referendum victory to eke out concessions from European creditors over a bailout for the crisis-ridden country. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek)
A woman uses an ATM of a bank after the government's decision last week to limit daily cash withdrawals to 60 euro ($66) in Athens, Tuesday, July 7, 2015. Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras was heading Tuesday to Brussels for an emergency meeting of eurozone leaders, where he will try to use a resounding referendum victory to eke out concessions from European creditors over a bailout for the crisis-ridden country. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek)

BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — There is a saying in the Balkans: “Indebted like Greece.”

The expression is believed to have originated in the 19th century, when the southeast of Europe was engulfed in wars and poverty. It has taken on new significance since Greece’s financial crisis worsened this year.

Millions of people in Serbia, Albania, Bulgaria, Macedonia and Romania have their deposits in Greek bank subsidiaries in their own countries, putting the Balkans on the front line in the Greek crisis.

Though Greece’s limits on cash withdrawals have not extended to subsidiaries in the Balkans, the deposits could be at risk if the parent banks collapse. To be safe, many Balkan states are preventing the local bank subsidiaries from sending money back to the Greek parent companies.

On top of that, several countries in the region have substantial business and trade relations with Greece that would be endangered if the country suffered more economic turmoil.

Here is a look at the Balkan countries that have most at risk in Greece’s crisis.

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BULGARIA — It is the most exposed to the Greek crisis, with Greek lenders accounting for about 23 percent of its banking system. Should Greek banks collapse, they could take the deposits and savings of its customers with them. The Bulgarian government might also have to intervene to rescue them. Some seven percent of its exports go to Greece. On the good side, Bulgaria, an EU member, has low sovereign debt and its banking sector is otherwise in good shape financially.

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MACEDONIA — It has introduced capital controls to stem outflows of money to Greece from subsidiaries in Macedonia. Two Greek banks in Macedonia represent 22 percent of total bank assets in the country. The central bank has ordered Macedonian banks to withdraw all loans and deposits from banks based in Greece. The regulator also temporarily banned the country’s residents from investing in Greek securities. Macedonia is also in the midst of a political crisis which could hamper its ability to act quickly in case the Greek crisis gets any worse.

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SERBIA — It has also limited the amount of money Greek banks can send back to their parent companies in Greece. Serbian central bank said the Greek banks have adequate liquidity and reserves, which “can be used in situations where bad news can cause unnecessary negative consequences and psychological stress.” Serbia, however, has relatively high public debt and fiscal deficit, meaning it could run into financial trouble if it had to bail out the Greek-owned banks in Serbia.

“If this crisis persists in Greece, I may consider changing the bank,” said Slavica Martinovic, who keeps an account in one of the Greek banks in Belgrade.

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ALBANIA — Three out of 16 commercial banks operating in Albania are Greek. Albanian authorities have assured depositors they should fear nothing from the Greek crisis. But it would also struggle to rescue any Greek bank subsidiaries and could suffer from weaker trade ties. Sherefedin Shehu, an opposition lawmaker and former deputy finance minister, warned more trouble in Greece would cause Albania’s economic growth to fall.

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ROMANIA — There are four Greek-owned banks in Romania and they own 12 percent of the overall market. Two of them are among the top ten banks in terms of size. Romanian National Bank Governor Mugur Isarescu said the banks could weather unfavorable developments and had a high level of solvability. They are bound by Romanian legislation and supervised by the central bank, he said. While its trade links with Greece are not significant, the government’s finances are weaker since it slashed the sales tax on goods.

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SLOVENIA — Although there are no Greek banks operating in Slovenia, the eurozone member is exposed to the Greek crisis through its funding of aid to Greece. It has 661 million euros ties up in loan guarantees and 264 million euros in direct aid. Foreign Minister Karl Erjavec recently said it is hard to believe Slovenia will ever get back the direct aid loans. The sums are big for Slovenia — its exposure to Greek debt amounts to 3.2 percent of national gross domestic product, the highest besides Greece among the 19 nations that use the shared euro currency.

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