Cyprus, a haven for Russian expats, welcomes techies fleeing Ukraine war


LARNACA, Cyprus – On Larnaca’s wide and flat beach, a group of young, pale men huddled over their phones disrupted the otherwise idyllic scene of happy, tanned British and German tourists lying on the neatly arranged beige loungers.

“Yes! He entered Kazakhstan,” Ruslan shouted in Russian, triumphantly sipping Keo, an inexpensive locally brewed lager. His friend had just texted that he had fled Russia after an agonizing three-day wait at the border , where he feared a notice from a draft office might derail his plan to avoid the trenches in Ukraine.

Since late September, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s order to recruit at least 300,000 men for his flagging invasion of Ukraine has been at the center of discussions among Russians in the growing number of émigré communities around the world, many of which have seen sharp increases with newcomers, also in Larnaca.

Putin’s mobilization prompted hundreds of thousands of military-age men to flee Russia, many leaving their families to cross land borders to Georgia, Kazakhstan and, on rare occasions, Finland and Norway if they held coveted Schengen visas. These visas, which allow entry into 26 countries, most in the European Union, are extremely difficult to obtain now as Moscow faces international isolation over the war.

Since then, Finland has followed the Baltic countries – Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia – in refusing entry to Russians on visitor visas and essentially sealing off Russia’s borders with the European Union. In Georgia, officials said they are considering ending an existing visa-free regime with Russia. Turkey, another major hub for Russians, is tightening requirements for immigrants hoping to open a bank account.

Cyprus, a small, sunny island in the Mediterranean Sea divided by its own historic territorial dispute between Turks and Greeks, remains one of the last few havens for Russians fleeing the insecurity and demise wrought at home by Putin’s war in Ukraine.

As the easternmost member of the EU, Cyprus has long been a popular destination for Russian businesses and wealthy individuals due to its relatively easy immigration process, low taxes and openness to attracting as many foreign companies as possible. The beaches are also a plus.

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After the tanks rolled into Ukraine, a significant part of Russia’s highly skilled, middle and upper-class workforce – mostly IT workers – flocked to Cyprus, sparking a new wave of migration.

“We haven’t seen any signs of a reversal in Cyprus’ politics,” said Oleg Reshetnikov, who moved to the island in 2014 and founded CypRus_IT, a networking community for thousands of Russian-speaking specialists. “Cyprus remains one of the best places for immigrants from Russia, Ukraine or Belarus in the entire European Union.”

Reshetnikov estimates that up to 50,000 people have moved to Cyprus since February, mainly Russians and Ukrainians who want to start a new life away from the war.

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Most Russians try to settle in Limassol, sometimes referred to as “Moscow on the Mediterranean” or “Limassolgrad”, where the Russian language can be heard everywhere due to the sheer size of the existing community, which is served by a well-oiled network of everyone is from lawyers and real estate agents to nannies and manicure technicians.

The spring’s sudden influx sent real estate booming, rental car companies struggling to meet demand, and newly arrived parents vying for places in English-speaking schools. Those who came in the summer or as part of the second wave sparked by the September 21 mobilization announcement have usually been forced to settle in Larnaca or Nicosia, which are relatively less popular.

“When I moved here, there were already serious housing problems: prices doubled, the rental offers offered on the sites were booked within a few hours,” said Yevgenia Korneeva, a 28-year-old arts manager at a gambling company who moved to Cyprus from Moscow in April. “In Limassol, the most expensive city in Cyprus, it is considered lucky to find a two-bedroom apartment for less than 2,000 euros.”

Korneeva said her Cyprus-based company supported her decision to leave Russia after war broke out and did most of the paperwork. But being suddenly separated from friends and family and trying to settle into a new life without her partner, who couldn’t leave Russia immediately, has affected her mental health, she said.

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“I’ve had all these routine immigration problems, compounded by constantly following the news about the war and feeling embarrassed to worry about things like a broken air conditioner while such horrors are going on,” Korneeva said.

The Russian government has tried to combat the high-tech brain drain with various sweeteners, including lower mortgage rates and, more recently, military service exemptions. But these tactics have largely failed, as few believed their lives would be untouched by war.

That suspicion was proven Friday when a lawyer trying to stop the mobilization of a 33-year-old IT worker reported that his client had died in Ukraine last week.

IT employee Timur Ismailov was released because he held a key role in one of Russia’s largest banks. But the lists submitted by his employer did not reach the military general staff in time, and Izmailov, who received a summons for duty on September 23, soon ended up in the trenches, only to be killed in a mortar attack a few weeks later. said his lawyer Konstantin Yerokhin.

“We filed more than 7 complaints, filed a lawsuit, filed inquiries to all available hotlines, went to the media, but this is the result,” Yerokhin said.

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Russians living in other EU countries, particularly in the Baltics, have reported hostility from local residents who blame all Russians, at least in part, for Putin’s war in Ukraine. However, Cyprus has a long tradition of welcoming Russians, their businesses and their money.

This outspoken approach sparked a backlash when EU officials expressed unease over the so-called Golden Passport scheme, through which Cyprus offered wealthy investors a route to citizenship while making it easier for dirty money to flow to Europe.

In 2020, Cyprus suspended the program, but it is still relatively easy to set up a business in Cyprus and obtain a residence permit for highly qualified workers who reach the salary threshold of 2,500 euros a month, about five times the Russian average wage.

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Russians are not the only ones seeking refuge in Cyprus. The island also has a growing Ukrainian community, with at least 16,000 refugees arriving since February 24, according to the Cypriot Interior Ministry.

Before Putin’s invasion, the Russian and Ukrainian diaspora mostly coexisted without any problems. But the war has brought uncharacteristic social tensions to the island, with local media reporting verbal altercations between Ukrainian and Russian children in schools.

The capital Nicosia has also seen a rare mix of pro-Russian demonstrations, with Cyprus criticized for supporting EU sanctions and larger anti-war rallies organized by Russians and Ukrainians.

Russia’s invasion has forced Cypriot leaders to counter political support for the EU and Ukraine and the island’s economic dependence on Russian money. Russia accounts for about a quarter of foreign investment in Cyprus, and before the war Russians generated about 20 percent of tourism revenues.

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“Where does Cyprus get its Russian tourists from?” Russian ambassador Stanislav Osadchiy taunted Cypriot officials during a March interview with local broadcaster.

But after a moment’s hesitation, Cyprus sided with Ukraine and EU sanctions to punish Moscow, while signaling that it would not shut the door on individual Russians.

Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades has cited his country’s own history of invasion and occupation as a reason for siding with Ukraine, but has also said Cyprus has “nothing against” Russian citizens. The Cypriot Foreign Ministry rejected a blanket visa ban on Russian tourists imposed by some EU capitals.

Some Russian immigrants say they are willing to stay in Cyprus, while others see the island as a temporary base before moving elsewhere in Europe or the United States. However, few expect to bring their skills back to Russia.

“I would really like to come back and live there,” Korneeva said. “But even if I want to put aside the issues surrounding my views and general prospects of living in Russia, there is no practical way to do it now: all game development has left Russia, and this amazing industry that existed before the February 24 no longer exists.”


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