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New party gives voice to Russian speakers in Cyprus

4 min

Limassol (Cyprus) (AFP)

Muscovite pensioner Svetlana Bogomilova emerges from a Russian grocery store into the Mediterranean sunshine near the Limassol beachfront in Cyprus.

"It is very convenient here," the retired teacher told AFP as a family with a pushchair strolled by chatting in Russian. "There is everything you could need."

Across the European Union's most easterly member it is easy to spot the influence of the island's sizeable Russian-speaking community.

In the seaside city of Limassol -- the main magnet for those coming to Cyprus from the former Soviet Union -- posters promote concerts by Russian stars while adverts in Cyrillic offer elite flats.

Money from the former Soviet region has helped spark a mini-building boom, and the number of new arrivals just keeps on rising.

Now, beyond the newspapers, schools and radio station blaring the latest Russian pop across the island, there is a striking new addition.

Two Russian-speaking businessmen have launched a political party they hope will help shake up the island, raising eyebrows in a country with deep ties to Moscow.

Russian investor Alexei Voloboev insists he never dreamt of getting involved in the insular world of Cypriot politics when he became a citizen 10 years ago.

But he says the rise of an ultra-nationalist party at 2016 legislative elections changed that.

Last year the former restaurant and radio station owner registered Ego o Politis (Me the citizen) -- a party he hopes will attract Cypriots and get the largely disengaged Russian community involved.

- 'We can change something' -

"We have provided a breath of fresh air for the Russian-speaking community," Voloboev told AFP at the party's still empty headquarters in the capital Nicosia.

"We have shown that we can change something here, if we want."

There are no exact figures on the number of Russian speakers who can vote in Cyprus.

Voloboev says 1,000 people have already applied to join the party and says it will gain a base among some 35,000 Cypriot passport holders, while double that number are resident on the island.

Others say the number is smaller -- but it could still prove a sizeable chunk in a country with only 550,000 registered voters.

The party is not fielding a candidate in a presidential election to be held on Sunday, but aims to run in European Parliament elections next year.

Its rise comes as alleged Kremlin meddling in Western democracies dominates global headlines.

But Voloboev and vice president Ivan Mikhnevich, an IT entrepreneur from Belarus, laugh off any suggestion they are doing Moscow's bidding as "anti-Russian hysteria".

"If I wanted to build Russia then I would go back and live in Russia," said Voloboev.

"I absolutely don't want it to be like Russia here. I left that country. It isn't my country anymore. Cyprus is my country."

Neither speak Greek but they insist their centrist, pro-European party is a genuine platform for all Cypriots wanting to modernise the country -- and prove their expat community is coming of age.

The financing, they say, comes from "members of the party -- including businessmen, average people".

- 'Colonisation by capital' -

Linked by a shared Orthodox Christian heritage, Cyprus and Russia have long had deep political and economic ties.

Moscow has portrayed itself as a staunch defender of the Greek-majority Republic of Cyprus in its bitter feud with Turkey since the island's division in 1974.

In 2011, as the Cypriot economy floundered, the Kremlin handed Nicosia a crucial 2.5-billion-euro lifeline that Cyprus is still paying back.

The Russian-speaking community has flourished on the island since businessmen from the former Soviet Union began using the country's lax banking system to park their money in the mid-1990s.

Since then it has undergone a shift as the community has settled more permanently on the island.

A brutal financial crisis in 2013 saw many lose money as the government imposed a haircut on accounts at two of the country's largest banks.

But since then the numbers have only grown as tax incentives have lured IT firms from the former Soviet Union, and a fast-track cash-for-investment scheme has drawn wealthy Russian speakers.

That inflow of cash has helped the island recover from the financial crash. Russians are the second biggest group visiting Cyprus as tourists each year.

"It's a sort of colonisation by capital," says Cypriot political analyst Christophoros Christophorou.

The deep ties have sparked some suspicions in the European Union that Russia could lean on Cyprus as ties have slumped since the crisis in Ukraine.

But despite objections, Cyprus' leaders have backed sanctions on Russia and are at the forefront of the bloc's efforts to integrate its defences.

"They are treading in between Russian influence and the EU," Christophorou said.

As for Russian speakers on the island, most insist they are far from politics and just busy building their lives in the welcoming Mediterranean warmth.

"Cypriots like Russians -- Russians feel it," said Natalia Kardash, editor of Russian-language newspaper Vestnik Kipra (Cyprus Herald).

"In Limassol you don't feel yourself to be a foreigner."

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