* Cyprus finance minister says no deal on Russian aid yet
* Parliament votes 36-0 to reject EU-driven tax on deposits
* ECB threatens to pull plug on Cyprus banks soon
* Cypriot, Russian presidents talk by phone, energy minister
By Michele Kambas and Karolina Tagaris
NICOSIA, March 20 Cyprus pleaded for a new loan
from Russia on Wednesday to avert a financial meltdown, but won
no immediate relief after the island's parliament rejected the
terms of a European bailout, raising the risk of default and a
Finance Minister Michael Sarris said in Moscow he had
reached no deal with his Russian counterpart Anton Siluanov, but
talks would continue.
Russia's finance ministry said Nicosia had sought a further
5 billion euros on top of a five-year extension and lower
interest on an existing 2.5 billion euro loan.
Cyprus has to seek Moscow's help after the euro zone's plan
for a 10 billion euro bailout was cast into disarray on Tuesday
when the island's parliament rebuffed EU demands for a levy on
bank deposits to raise 5.8 billion euros.
Moscow has its own interests in ensuring the survival of
Cypriot banks, which have served as an offshore financial haven
for Russian businesses and individuals.
The European Central Bank's chief negotiator on Cyprus,
Joerg Asmussen, said the ECB would have to pull the plug on
Cypriot banks unless the country took a bailout quickly.
"We can provide emergency liquidity only to solvent banks
and... the solvency of Cypriot banks cannot be assumed if an aid
programme is not agreed on soon, which would allow for a quick
recapitalisation of the banking sector," Asmussen told German
weekly Die Zeit in an interview conducted on Tuesday evening.
Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann said he could not rule
out Cyprus leaving the euro zone, although he hoped its leaders
would find a solution for it to stay.
Cypriot officials disclosed that the country's energy
minister was also in Moscow, ostensibly for a tourism
exhibition, fuelling speculation that access to offshore gas
reserves could be part of any deal for Russian aid.
Cyprus has found big gas fields in its waters adjoining
Israel but has yet to develop them.
"We had a very honest discussion, we've underscored how
difficult the situation is," Sarris told reporters after talks
with Siluanov. "We'll now continue our discussion to find the
solution by which we hope we will be getting some support.
"There were no offers, nothing concrete," he said.
Not a single Cypriot lawmaker voted for the bailout, which
included a proposed levy that would have taken up to 10 percent
from accounts over 100,000 euros.
Smaller bank accounts would also have been hit, although the
government proposed to spare small savers with less than 20,000
euros in the bank.
It was the first time a national legislature had rejected
the conditions for EU assistance, after three years in which
lawmakers in Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Spain and Italy all
accepted biting austerity measures to secure aid.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose country is Europe's
main paymaster, said it was up to the Cypriot government to come
up with an alternative proposal but it was fair to expect savers
with deposits over 100,000 euros to contribute to the bailout.
The EU has a track record of pressing smaller countries to
vote again until they achieve the desired outcome.
Nicosia was eerily quiet on Wednesday, the morning after
demonstrators cheered parliament's rejection of what was seen as
an unfair EU diktat.
The government has not allowed banks to reopen this week to
prevent a run, but cash machines which were emptied over the
weekend have been replenished, giving people access to limited
amounts of cash.
"Things won't be so bad as long as people can withdraw from
ATMs but if they go too there will be a huge problem," said
Titos Pitsillides, 50.
President Nicos Anastasiades, barely a month in the job, met
party leaders and the governor of the central bank at his
office. Government spokesman Christos Stylianides said a "Plan
B" was in the works.
"A team of technocrats has gone to the central bank to
discuss a plan B related to financing and reducing the 5.8
billion euro amount," he told reporters during a break in the
meeting with party leaders. He did not elaborate.
Lawmaker Marios Mavrides told Reuters one option under
discussion was to nationalize pensions funds of semi-government
corporations, which hold between 2 and 3 billion euros.
Anastasiades was also due to hold a cabinet meeting and talk
with officials from the so-called "troika" of the EU, European
Central Bank and International Monetary Fund.
Among the most urgent decisions awaited was whether the
government will allow banks to reopen as planned on Thursday, or
keep them closed until next week. Deputy Central Bank governor
Spyros Stavrinakis said no decision had been taken yet.
The crisis is unprecedented in the history of the divided
east Mediterranean island of 1.1 million people, which suffered
a war with Turkey and ethnic split in 1974 in which a quarter of
its population was displaced. The Turkish-populated north
considers itself a separate country, recognised only by Turkey.
While Brussels has emphasised that the tax measure was a
one-off for a country that accounts for just 0.2 percent of
Europe's output, fears have grown that savers in other, larger
European countries might be spurred to withdraw funds.
Leaders of the currency union said the bailout offer still
stood, provided the conditions were met. Teetering Cypriot banks
have been crippled by their exposure to the financial crisis in
neighbouring Greece, where the euro zone debt crisis began.
Germany, facing an election this year and increasingly
frustrated with the mounting cost of bailing out its southern
partners, said Cyprus had no one to blame but itself.
With Sarris and Energy Minister George Lakkotrypis in
Moscow, there was mounting speculation that Russian oil and gas
giant Gazprom had mooted its own assistance plan in
exchange for exploration rights to Cyprus's offshore gas
Noble Energy reported a natural gas recovery of 5 to
8 trillion cubic feet of gas south of Cyprus in late 2011, in
the island's first foray to tap offshore resources.
A senior source in the "troika" said dealing with Cyprus was
even more frustrating than protracted wrangling with Greece.
"The Greeks wanted to cheat on you all the time, but they
knew what they wanted. The Cypriots are leaving us really
confused," the source said.