Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Window on Eurasia: The Past Rise and Current Fall of Russian Cyprus

Paul Goble

            Staunton, February 18 – “Russian Cyprus,” the term that has been used to describe the 50,000-strong Russian-speaking population of that Mediterranean island has experienced a remarkable rise since the end of Soviet times but now may be declining in importance given that Cyprus is now a member of the European Union, according to a Russian journalist.

            In an article on Rosbalt.ru, Tatyana Khrulyeva surveys the rise and what she sees as the potential fall of this community.  According to the 2011 Cyprus census, there were only 8164 Russian citizens living on the island, but in reality, there are far more Russians there and they play a variety of roles (rosbalt.ru/main/2014/02/15/1233278.html).

            “Not all Russians allowed themselves to be counted,” she says, given that many of them are involved in activities they do not want to call attention to. Moreover, not all of the members of Russian Cyprus are ethnic Russians or citizens of the Russian Federation. Many have other backgrounds and it is thus more appropriate to speak of the Russian-speaking community.”

            Using that measure, unofficial calculations suggest that there are some 50,000 Russian speakers on Cyprus, approximately six percent of the island’s total population. Most are in the major cities, and there are so many in Limassol that some there jokingly refer to it as “Limassolograd.”

            The Russian speakers are not involved in local politics, but they are very much part of the social and economic scene. There are various Russian-language newspapers and journals and a Russian-language radio station, there are four Russian schools, and there are Russian churches and festivals. As a result, few of those who speak Russian there have learned Greek: English and Russia are sufficient.

            According to Khrulyeva, there are four basic sub-groups of the Russian-language community of Cyprus. First, there are the Pontic Greeks who in Soviet times lived on the shore of the Black Sea. Most of this community left Russia in the early 1990s, many went to Greece proper, but 10,000 settled in Cyprus, mostly around Pafos.

            But this community is now declining, she continues. The economic crisis has left 30 to 40 percent of its members without work – a figure that in the off-season rises to 70 percent -- and because few of them own property on the island, ever more of them  are leaving to find employment elsewhere. 
            Second are the group Khrulyeva calls “the Russian wives.”  According to Cyprus media, “almost 50 percent of the marriages” on the island involve Russian women.  In the 1970s and 1980s, Cypriots often went to the USSR for higher educations and returned “not just with diplomas but also with spouses.” Many of these women, despite their degrees, now work as domestics.

            The third group consists of “Russians who are able to live in Cyprus for an extended time during the course of the year.” Most of these people have good incomes and are from Russia or Ukraine. They came to Cyprus not only because of the good weather and good schools but because until the island joined the EU, it was just about the best place in the world for Russian companies to register and operate as offshores.

            And the fourth, Khrulyeva continues, are those who came to find work. Getting a visa to Cyprus is easy but getting work permits is much less so. Consequently, those who came in pursuit of jobs have often found that while they like the weather and the schools, they are forced to work in service jobs far beneath those they were trained to do.

            It is entirely appropriate to speak of “Russian Cyprus” now, Khrulyeva says, but “will it be significant some 20 years from now?”  The answer is unclear. Cyprus’ membership in the EU has “put an end to the offshore paradise” it represented in the past, and the government is collecting taxes more rigorously. As a result, wealthy Russians are leaving.

            But so too are younger ones. Difficulties with finding a job mean that ever more of them and their parents are looking abroad as the place to study or find a job.  Some of those who study in the Czech Republic, Belgium or England may come back to Cyprus, “but most are unlikely to do so.” That pattern, she says, also affects children of mixed marriages who speak Russian.

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