Cyprus: Displaced Ukrainians adjust to life in Russia-friendly resort | Cyprus
Carried away on one of the last flights to leave kyiv before the invasion of Russia, the Ukrainians witness the scene. To their left stretches the Mediterranean, to their right a five-star hotel lined with palm trees.
“We all work for a multinational computer company which has an office in Cyprus“, explains Xenia Karpenko, installed since the end of February in the seaside resort of Limassol. “Less than 48 hours before the Russian invasion, he was saying, ‘We’ll fly you in, with your family, your partners, your pets.’ We were 200 on board, now we have no idea what tomorrow will bring.
It may seem like an unusual place for them.
Until Cyprus began to clear its act, it was best known as a haven for wealthy Russians, many of whom hid ill-gotten gains. At least five Russian oligarchs with ties to the eastern Mediterranean island are on EU sanctions lists.
And no Cypriot city attracted Russians more zealously than Limassol. With its Russian community of 40,000, Russian banks, Russian media, and private Russian schools, it’s easy to see why the waterfront metropolis is also known as Limassolgrad.
On the boulevards lined with billboards displaying the Cyrillic script, it is Russian that is frequently heard. Russians make up the vast majority who have also invested in multimillion-dollar homes – often high-rise buildings that alter the city’s skyline – to gain citizenship under a a now-discontinued cash-for-passport scheme reputed to have raised more than €9bn (£7.6bn) for the island. He also has his own Russian political party.
“We love this place,” says Valentina Ivanova, who was walking with her sausage dog. “It’s hard to miss Moscow under the sun, but to be honest, we understand our president. The West pushed Russia too hard. Putin had no choice with Ukraine; he had to come in.
Although Cyprus has a growing Ukrainian community (estimated at around 4,000), it is not lost on those now forced to flee that they have found themselves in one of the most pro-Russian circles in Europe. Almost alone among EU capitals, Nicosia has witnessed both protests in support of Vladimir Putin’s “special military operation” and fiery anti-war rallies. Tensions have erupted between young Ukrainians and Russians in schools and university lecture halls.
But the easternmost member of the block is keen to point out that he threw his weight behind the west. The tiny state has hosted more than 3,000 displaced Ukrainians so far. Last week, it delivered what has been described as its largest package of humanitarian aid to the war-torn country. To punish Moscow for its military actions, the non-NATO member also banned Russian navy ships from docking in Cypriot ports for refueling and resupplying, the foreign minister said. ‘Isle.
“There is a war going on. We are not going to be seen as helping and encouraging it,” said Ioannis Kasoulidis, noting that Cyprus, like Orthodox Greece and the rest of the EU, has been placed by Russia on a list of “countries hostile”. “Before, we were exposed to money laundering, but now we are good boys. Gone are the fictitious companies, the “golden passport” stories. Every possible loophole has been closed…and we’re doing everything we can to make sure no one says we’re breaking EU sanctions.
Despite initial reluctance, Nicosia has also agreed to exclude Russian banks from accessing the Swift international payment system. The move is seen as particularly significant due to the island’s role as one of Russia’s largest foreign investors, resulting from the reinvestment of Russian-owned offshore companies in the country. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba was quick to hail the decision as a diplomatic victory.
For Ruslan Nimchynskyi, Kyiv’s ambassador to Cyprus, there is no doubt which side Nicosia is on. Although sleep deprived and exhausted – “diplomacy like the army works 24/7” – the envoy is driven by what he sees as an outpouring of solidarity with Ukraine. In addition to official expressions of support, there are more modest gestures, such as the flowers that are laid almost daily in front of the villa that houses the embassy, alongside placards denouncing Russian aggression.
“We are deeply grateful to the Cypriot government for the support and unity it has shown,” he said. “I see ordinary Cypriots feeling our pain.”
President Nicos Anastasiades said the experience of war, division and the ongoing Turkish occupation of his compatriots underpins local compassion for Ukraine.
But EU diplomats and analysts say official condemnation of Russia’s move towards war was slow at first. “Russia was not mentioned by name because it did not want to offend a power perceived as pro-Greek Cypriot in the UN Security Council even though, in reality, Moscow has no interest in a solution of the Cyprus problem since it keeps the island divided and out of NATO suits it very well,” says Hubert Faustmann, professor of history and political science at the University of Nicosia.
It was only when, a few days before the invasion, Putin recognized the self-proclaimed “people’s republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent states that alarm bells rang in government circles. “It was too close to the situation here,” Faustmann says, referring to the breakaway Turkish republic in northern Cyprus that unilaterally declared independence in 1983, nine years after Ankara sent troops provoked by a coup. state aimed at uniting the island with Greece.
For a country so dependent on tourism, Cyprus will pay a heavy price for its support for the sanctions.
The island’s GDP is expected to contract by 2%, largely due to the closure of Cypriot airspace to Russia, the island’s second largest tourist market after the UK. “Tourism accounts for 20% of our GDP and it has become increasingly dependent on Russians,” explains Philokypros Roussounides, managing director of the Cyprus Hotel Association. “Before Ukraine, we were talking about a 10% to 15% increase in Russians and Ukrainians who together make up about 22% of our entire tourism pie. The impact is definitely going to be big.
Stanislav Osadchiy, Moscow’s longtime ambassador to Cyprus, has previously said that Nicosia had “shot himself in the foot” by supporting measures “aimed at demonizing” his country. After predicting that Russian tourists would instead head to Turkey, which did not approve the flight ban, he said Moscow was watching Cyprus closely.
“Everything will be taken into account [including] these measures that Nicosia will take in relation to our country,” he told Phileleftheros, a Cypriot daily. “For our part, we will try to maintain these good relations that have formed before. We hope that Nicosia will react in the same way.
Kasoulidis is sanguine. “All EU member states have some impact from sanctions. They were inevitable and we all unanimously agreed on them,” he says, insisting that while Nicosia has reserved the right to lift the ban on Russian flights, if Turkey does not follow not her example, he doesn’t think she would.
“We are working to bring in tourists from other regions. In any case, it is preferable to diversify our sources.