Today's WorldView • Analysis
China and Russia draw closer, but how close?
The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

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

A Wizz Air plane flies over a beach at Larnaca, Cyprus, in August. (Roy Issa/AFP/Getty Images)
8 min

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

“Yes! He crossed into Kazakhstan,” Ruslan shouted in Russian, taking a triumphant sip of Keo, an inexpensive locally brewed lager. His friend had just texted that he escaped Russia after an agonizing three-day wait at the border, where he feared a notice from an enlistment office might derail his plan to avoid the trenches in Ukraine.

Since late September, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s order to enlist at least 300,000 men to help his flagging invasion of Ukraine has been at the heart of discussions among Russians in the increasing number of emigre communities around the world, many of which have experienced a steep increase in new arrivals, including in Larnaca.

Putin’s mobilization prompted hundreds of thousands of fighting-age men to flee Russia, many abandoning their families to cross land borders with Georgia, Kazakhstan and, in rare cases, Finland and Norway, if they held a coveted Schengen visa. Those visas, granting entry to 26 countries, most in the European Union, are now extremely difficult to get as Moscow faces international isolation over the war.

Since then, Finland has followed the Baltic countries — Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia — in denying entry to Russians with visitor visas, essentially sealing shut Russia’s borders with the European Union. In Georgia, officials said they are considering terminating 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 divided by its own historical territorial dispute between Turks and Greeks, remains one of the last few havens for Russians running away from the uncertainty and doom Putin’s war in Ukraine has created back home.

As the E.U.’s most easterly member, Cyprus has long been a go-to destination for Russian companies and wealthy individuals due to its relatively easy immigration process, low taxes, and openness to attracting as much foreign business as possible. Its beaches are also a plus.

So after the tanks rolled into Ukraine, a significant part of Russia’s highly educated, middle- to upper-class workforce — mostly IT workers — flocked to Cyprus, triggering a new migration wave.

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

According to Reshetnikov’s estimates, up to 50,000 people have moved to Cyprus since February, mostly Russians and Ukrainians looking to start a new life away from the war.

Ukraine urges citizens to turn off appliances, save power after airstrikes

Most Russians try to settle in Limassol, sometimes dubbed “Moscow on the Med” or “Limassolgrad,” where Russian speech can be heard everywhere due to the sheer size of the existing community, which is catered to by a well-oiled network of anyone from lawyers and realtors to nannies and manicure technicians.

The sudden influx in the spring saw the real estate market booming, rental car companies scrambling to meet demand and newly arrived parents fighting over spots in English-speaking schools. Those who came in the summer, or as part of the second wave triggered by the Sept. 21 mobilization announcement, typically have been forced to settle in Larnaca or Nicosia, which are relatively less popular.

“There were already serious problems with housing when I moved here: prices doubled, rentals advertised on the websites got scooped up within just a few hours,” said Yevgenia Korneeva, a 28-year-old art manager at a gaming company, who moved to Cyprus from Moscow in April. “In Limassol, the most expensive city in Cyprus, finding a two-bedroom apartment for less than 2,000 euros is considered lucky.”

Korneeva said her company, which is based in Cyprus, supported her decision to leave Russia after the war broke out, and handled most of the paperwork. But being suddenly disconnected from friends and family and trying to settle into a new life without her partner, who couldn’t leave Russia right away, has taken a toll on her mental health, she said.

“I’ve had all these routine immigrant problems pile up on top of constantly monitoring of news about the war and feeling ashamed for worrying about things like a broken air conditioner while there are such horrors going on,” Korneeva said.

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

That mistrust proved justified Friday when a lawyer who tried to stop the mobilization of a 33-year-old IT worker reported that his client had died last week in Ukraine.

The IT worker, Timur Ismailov, qualified for exemption as he held a key role in one of the biggest Russian banks. But the lists filed by his employer did not reach the military’s general staff in time, and Ismailov, who received a summons for duty on Sept. 23, soon ended up in the trenches only to be killed a few weeks later in a mortar attack, his lawyer Konstantin Yerokhin said.

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

Russia is grabbing men off the street to fight in Ukraine

Russians living in other E.U. countries, especially the Baltics, have reported hostility from local residents who consider all Russians at least partly responsible for Putin’s war in Ukraine. Cyprus, however, has long a long history of welcoming Russians, their businesses, and their money.

This open-arms approach caused a backlash when E.U. officials voiced unease over the so-called golden passport program, by which Cyprus offered rich investors a path to citizenship, while also making it easier for dirty money to flow into Europe.

In 2020 Cyprus suspended the program, but it is still relatively easy to set up a company in Cyprus and obtain residency permits for highly skilled workers who meet the 2,500 euro a month salary threshold, about five times Russia’s median wage.

Russians aren’t the only ones seeking shelter in Cyprus. The island also has a growing Ukrainian community, with at least 16,000 refugees arriving since Feb. 24, according to the Cypriot Interior Ministry.

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

The capital, Nicosia, has also experienced a rare mix of pro-Russian demonstrations slamming Cyprus for supporting E.U. sanctions and larger antiwar rallies organized by Russians and Ukrainians.

Russia’s invasion has forced Cypriot leaders to counterpose political support for the E.U. and Ukraine and the island’s economic dependency 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 revenue.

Ukraine improvises with aging air defenses to counter Russian missiles

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

But after a brief hesitation, Cyprus threw its weight behind Ukraine and the E.U. sanctions to punish Moscow, while also signaling that it would not close the door to individual Russians.

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

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

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