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Most of Cyprus has spent the past two weeks in a state of shock as Cypriots try to process how much of their savings is lost and how deep a recession the country will face.
Less shell-shocked are the island’s Russians who know a thing or two about crises and have a peculiar way about dealing with them.
Having survived the turbulence of the collapse of the Soviet Union, followed by the 1998 rouble crisis and the 2008-09 global financial crisis, many are finding the current situation to be, quite literally, a day at the beach.
“I always used to complain, it’s too boring, too relaxed,” Masha, a financial manager in Limassol, told me as she delved into a crisis-worthy 11am piece of cheesecake. “I’m Russian, you know. I like things to be exciting.”
Rattling through the economic downturns she had experienced in her native Perm, the site of a former Gulag camp in the Urals, she offered a view on the difference between the island’s Russians and locals. “I don’t want to wash dishes but I will if I have to. A lot of people here in Cyprus are not willing to wash floors,” she said.
Most are not getting ready to wash dishes quite yet. Indeed, the chosen coping mechanism appears to be quite the opposite.
By the pool of a Limassol beach resort last week, Nikolai, a businessman, was calmly taking calls about the fate of his six-figure-plus fortune while lying on a lounge chair, his generous stomach resting orb-like above his Speedos.
For someone who appeared to have had a considerable amount of money frozen, he was in relaxed spirits – a temperament that may have something to do with his home town. Chelyabinsk, a grimy industrial city, shot to fame in February when an 11,000 tonne meteorite came hurtling towards it at 42,000 miles an hour. More remarkable than the meteorite was the reaction of Chelyabinsk’s residents, as captured by dashboard video cameras. They appeared so unaffected as the giant ball of fire streaked past them that you would think it was a daily experience.
Nikolai said his own experience had been similar. “It was just over so fast,” he shrugged.
Cash on the move
In the foreign media, Cyprus has often been portrayed as a playground for oligarchs and money launderers. Yet those on the island and in Moscow say the reality is anything but. Yes, Russia’s biggest billionaires – Roman Abramovich, Oleg Deripaska, Alisher Usmanov – have holding companies there. And yes, they sometimes visit and rent out entire floors of the Limassol Four Seasons, bringing their yachts and jet skis along for the ride.
As for the cash, that is a different story. “Cyprus is more for more mid-level, high net worth individuals,” says Vladimir Savov, an analyst at Otkritie brokerage in Moscow. “The real big guys they have global possibilities. They can base entities in the Netherlands, the Cayman Islands, the British Virgin Islands.”
This was confirmed by a representative for one of Russia’s richest men who, when asked if her boss stood to lose money in Cyprus, laughed. “BVI for ever!” she crowed.
Alimony’s a winner
It is not just the oligarchs who had the foresight to take their cash off Cyprus pre-bailout. Asked which local lender she banked with, Svetlana Zaitseva, the owner of a dingy hair salon on Limassol’s dusty main road, replied: “Switzerland.”
The last €30,000 she shifted off the island in November, she said, the final part to a bank in Russia. “I knew something like this would be possible,” she added.
Sergei Tyulenev was not so lucky. A Russian businessman who owns several companies and moonlights as a fantasy writer, Mr Tyulenev had the misfortune of choosing to bank with Laiki, the failed Cypriot lender where rich depositors stand to lose the vast majority of their savings.
Mr Tyulenev knows too well that losing everything comes with a price. He is the veteran of three financial disasters and just as many divorces.
“Women love a winner, they never love a loser,” he said. “I am on my fourth wife. If I was on my knees, if I was poor, if I was crying, she would leave me.”
Asked how much money he stood to lose in financial crisis number four, Mr Tyulenev demurred. As a man who has had to pay alimony to at least one of the former Mrs Tyulenevas, some things were better kept a secret, the businessman said.