Cyprus is an attractive place for many Russians. They invest their money in luxurious apartments, or celebrate an expensive holiday there. But since the outbreak of war, life has changed.
Liza Giorkatzi apologizes for the drilling and carpentry, which she sometimes finds difficult to get out of in the reception room. Workmen are putting the finishing touches to the super luxurious and prestigious New Construction Project Limassol Del Mar, three interconnected apartment complexes that tower over the Cypriot coastal city with their undulating facades and 27 floors. “But it’s finished. There are seven more apartments for sale, like all the others with unobstructed sea views,” says the pr and marketing manager.
The starting price is 1.8 million euros; for the three still free penthouses, the new owner must deposit at least 4.7 million, plus VAT. The new owners are almost all foreigners. “Thirty families have already moved in. They live here permanently, others use it for vacation or as an investment. We have seventeen nationalities here, ” says Giorkatzi. Yes, Russians too.
Borscht, Russian radio and fur coats
There are quite a few of them in Cyprus: according to estimates, around 40,000. The largest part has traditionally lived in Limassol, a city with about 200,000 inhabitants. Here they can eat borscht in restaurants, listen to a radio station in their own language and even buy fur coats.
Giorkatzi puts down a colorful brochure and walks to a model. “A number of apartments are furnished according to top Italian design. Look, the penthouses each have their own swimming pool. On the third floor there will be a gym with sauna, spa and swimming pool.” We also rented out the 31 retail spaces. The first case that is open is a boutique for high-end luxury fashion. It is very popular with our Russian clients.”
Now that the Western world has imposed sanctions on Russia because of the brutal crackdown in Ukraine, can those clients still use their money to buy an expensive apartment? “Those who live and work here and hold accounts can just join. But that’s different for those who have their assets in Russia. In any case, we do not suffer from it, our apartments were fortunately sold on time.”But, Giorkatzi knows, some other construction projects in the city are at a standstill.
Although that may also have to do with the abrupt end of the so-called gold passport program, at the end of 2020. Those who invested at least 2 million before that time received a Cypriot passport, thereby becoming an EU citizen. Including all the benefits that come with it, such as free business and travel within the European Union. Cyprus sold around 3,000 passports, which thus brought the country at least 6 billion euros in investments – not infrequently in real estate.
Politicians in the highest echelons turn a blind eye
A little less than half of the applications came from Russians, according to research by the British newspaper The Guardian. One shiny apartment building after another was glued to the Limassol skyline. The vulnerability to money laundering and other shady practices was criticized, but according to Cyprus, it was a completely legitimate program. Until Al Jazeera journalists showed with the hidden camera that politicians in the highest echelons turned a blind eye to the granting of passports to a fictional Chinese criminal. Cyprus was forced to stop issuing the passports, which was a sensitive blow to the real estate market in Limassol.
It is difficult to say to what extent it is still rumbling in Limassol and to what extent the EU sanctions against Russia are strengthening the effects. Although you can hear Russian on almost every street corner, few people want to talk. “I do not comment,” says Natalia Kardash, a Russian who has lived in Limassol for 27 years, over the phone. She is a consultant, editor-in-chief of the Russian-language newspaper Vestnik Kipra (Herald of Cyprus) and every year organizes the Russian festival in Limassol. The Cypriot president traditionally opens that.
“Has it been nine years since we spoke? “That’s it,” she said, after some insistence. In 2013, the Russians of Limassol could already count on international interest. Then the financial system of Cyprus and with it the whole country threatened to collapse, partly because banks had invested massively in Greek government bonds that had become virtually worthless. The EU came to the rescue, but stipulated that rich account holders pay along and that the country did more to combat money laundering.
At the time, a quarter of Cypriot bank assets consisted of Russian money. “So much is written about us,” Kardashian said at the time. To add that many Russians had not come to Cyprus with pockets of money at all. They settled in Cyprus after the fall of the Soviet Union, to do business. Because of the trade mentality, the liberal visa regime, the favorable tax climate and the shared religion. And the beautiful weather was also taken. Kardashian remembers it all, she says, but now keeps her lips tight together. “I’m Sorry, the politics are too sensitive.”Another old contact initially reacts enthusiastically to apps, but when he hears about the reason for the renewed interest, it becomes quiet.
Getting used to openness in Cyprus
“Russians don’t like talking to strangers anyway. The fact that everyone here is much more open was something I had to get used to,” says Tatjana (25) laughing through the phone. She has been living in Limassol for a year now and works at a company that deals in currency. That has forbidden his employees to talk to the press, which is why Tatyana does not want her last name in the newspaper. Thanks to her Cypriot work and residence permit, she can simply continue to work in Limassol. For a moment it was rumored that Cyprus would withdraw it for all Russians, she says, but that has not happened.
Even though she is far away, the war did not make Tatyana’s life easier. “Due to the blockade of payment traffic, I can no longer send money to my family. And that’s why I came here to support them,” she says. In addition to Russians, several thousand Ukrainians also live in Limassol. In addition, the city hosts about 3,500 Ukrainian refugees. Some entrepreneurs and individuals, as elsewhere in Europe, have hung Ukrainian flags.
Especially at the beginning of the war, this led to tensions and even quarrels and fights at a school. “Ukrainians think I don’t speak out enough against the war on social media, while some Russians think I should stand up for my country. I can’t do it right. So I avoid the topic and don’t post anything anymore. Someone with a Ukrainian flag behind his name on Instagram I do not send a message, for fear of an annoying response. Fortunately, colleagues understand and support me.”
Anastasia Terekhova (27) also avoids the topic, especially with her parents. “They belong to the generation that has been completely brainwashed by the propaganda on Russian tv. I can’t blame them, but it’s painful that the topic has become debatable. And I can’t even send a ticket to my parents, the Cypriot post no longer cooperates with the Russian one.”
As a result, her mother is unable to send some of the documents she needs. “There are possibilities, of course. For example, if one of us flies to Russia through, for example, Belgrade. That is expensive and time consuming, but it can be done. Such a person is immediately deployed to arrange chores for everyone, haha.”
Many Russians wanted to leave Putin’s country.
There were tensions at her job, at a financial services firm, especially when war broke out. Many people became emotional and irritated, the atmosphere was bad. “People often forget that many Russians, especially of my generation, have moved to Cyprus in recent years precisely because they wanted to leave Putin’s country. The fact that we too are suffering from the sanctions, and are forced to separate from our motherland, hurts a lot.” Her work continues, but has become more difficult. “Payments to and from Russian customers take a long time and are much more cumbersome.” That’s not doing her company any good.