The Cypriot town of Ayia Napa and its Russian friends

Dmitry Khmelnitsky

In November 2023, in the small Cypriot resort town of Ayia Napa, a strange event took place — the Ayia Napa — Gelendzhik View Park was inaugurated. Gelendzhik has been a sister city of Ayia Napa since 2017 and the event itself wouldn’t have been anything special if it wasn’t for the moment chosen for it.

Not so long ago, it would have seemed like the order of the day. But now it is the end of the second year of Putin’s Russia’s aggressive war with Ukraine. The countries of the European Union, of which Cyprus is a member, have cut off practically all international diplomatic, cultural, and trade contacts with Russia during this time. More and more new sanctions are adopted against the most important Russian enterprises and persons responsible for the aggression against Ukraine. By May 2022, more than 150 cities around the world have already broken twinning relations with Russian cities. In this situation, the demonstration of the friendship of the Cypriot resort town with Russia looked at least inappropriate. The guests of honor were the mayor of Ayia Napa Christos Zannetos, the Consul General of Cyprus in Krasnodar Nikos Vasiliou, and the head of the municipality of Gelendzhik Alexei Bogodistov.
As a rule, behind such events, there is a long and varied preparation on the part of Russian diplomats and special services. As in Soviet times, any international contacts of Putin’s Russia, especially at the official level, remain the prerogative of the special services. And now, during the war with Ukraine, virtually all of Russia’s international activities have been reduced to the unofficial work of the secret services and their agents. Its methods and goals are easy to understand on the example of such modest events as the opening of the twin-cities park in Ayia Napa.
The municipality of Ayia Napa began actively befriending Russia in 2014, also not in the most peaceful time. Six months after Russia occupied Crimea and the European Union adopted the first sanctions against it, a twinning agreement was signed between Ayia Napa and the Russian city of Ivanovo. On the side of Ayia Napa, it was signed by the mayor of the city, Yiannis Karoussos, the future Minister of Transportation of Cyprus. The event was initiated by the Imperial Orthodox Palestinian Society (IPPO), which has a representative office in Cyprus. This fake «public» organization was established in 2009 under the same name as the real Imperial Orthodox Palestinian Society, which existed in the Russian Empire before the revolution. It organized pilgrimages to the Holy Land and scientific research, and built Russian schools there. The task of the Putin Palestine Society created almost a hundred years later in an empty place, is to imitate pilgrimage activities to the Holy Land and to penetrate the Mediterranean countries. The head of the IPPO is FSB Colonel General Sergei Stepashin, former director of the FSB and former Prime Minister of Russia.
After another three years in Ayia Napa, in September 2017, in the presence of the Russian Ambassador to Cyprus, Stanislav Osadchey, the agreement on «twinning» between Ayia Napa and Gelendzhik was solemnly signed. The event was initiated by the Cypriot Consul in Krasnodar, Nicos Vasiliou.

Vasiliou’s initiative coincided extremely well with Russian interests. In any case, the ceremony of the «second stage of twinning» in Gelendzhik, accompanied by the signing of a protocol of intentions, was held with much more splendor.

The Governor and Ministers of Krasnodar Region, the Greek Ambassador to Russia, the Greek Consul in Novorossiysk, a 14-member delegation from Ay Napa headed by Mayor Yannis Karoussos and his deputy Christos Zannettou, and many other officials were present.
Of particular interest among the official guests is the figure of the President of the Russian-Cypriot Friendship Association, George Muradov. Muradov, a graduate of MGIMO, is a former Russian ambassador to Cyprus (1996-1999). In 2010 — 2014. — Deputy Head of Rossotrudnichestvo, and since August 2014 — Deputy Chairman of the Council of Ministers of the Republic of Crimea, Permanent Representative of the Republic of Crimea to the President of the Russian Federation. Since 2014, Muradov has been under EU sanctions for having «played an important role in strengthening Russian state control over Crimea since its illegal annexation.» It can be assumed that Muradov is one of the key figures in organizing the Russian-Cypriot actions. Ideally, his participation after 2014 in joint events with the Greek ambassador and other EU officials should in itself have caused their protest. But it did not.

The next attack on Russian-Cypriot friendship happened in Ayia Napa in 2021, nine months before the attack on Ukraine. On June 22, the ceremony of laying the first stone in the foundation of the monument «Family is the guarantee of peace» took place here. The monument was donated to Ayia Napa by the charitable foundation «Building Peace» of Russian oligarch Vyacheslav Zarenkov with the support of the Russian Embassy and the Rossotrudnichestvo office in Cyprus.
As a patron of the arts, Zarenkov, a Cypriot citizen, specializes in the construction of Orthodox churches. These include a monastery in Jerusalem, a memorial temple in Serbia, and the Church of St. Andrew the Apostle in Tamassos Metropolis in Cyprus, built in 2017. Since the same time, the Zarenkov Foundation has been organizing the annual Greek-Slavic festival «CyprusRus» on the temple’s territory on May 1.
The monument by Julia Zarenkova, the philanthropist’s daughter-in-law, depicts a touching family group holding a globe with doves flying around it. The piquancy is that the laying of the monument was celebrated on June 22 and, according to the website of the Russian House in Cyprus, was «designed to emphasize the importance of preserving peace, the significance of the Great Victory in the history of mankind.» That is, the laying of the naive monument was just an excuse to organize in Cyprus another pro-Putin ideological action, and a military one at that. At the base of the monument, which was under construction, a stele dedicated to the «80th anniversary of the beginning of the Great Patriotic War» was erected.
The USSR’s victory in the world war is a key element of Putin’s ideology and propaganda, both domestic and international. The cult of victory in the world war started by the USSR in alliance with Hitler’s Germany has been growing in recent years as Putin’s regime has transformed into a totalitarian dictatorship. As became clear less than six months after the monument was laid, this very plot was the quintessential ideological preparation for Russia’s attack on Ukraine. The Soviet victory over National Socialism in 1945 was to inspire the Russian army to defeat «Ukrainian Nazism» at the right moment, and to convince «foreign friends» of the purity of Russian thoughts. Moreover, the stronger the involvement of local officials in Russian ideological games, the more difficult it will be for them to backtrack.
Russian propaganda abroad is also aimed at solving this problem. One way is to involve as many foreign officials as possible — at any level — in Russian propaganda events. It seems that everything was conceived for the sake of holding this purely Putin-inspired celebration in Cyprus with the participation of local officials.
The monument itself was opened four months later, on November 4, 2021, in an even more solemn atmosphere, because the opening was combined with the celebration of the Russian «Day of People’s Unity». This purely Putin’s meaningless holiday, replaced the Soviet holiday of November 7, the day of the October Revolution, in 2005. At the same time, November Fourth was declared in Russia as the «Day of Military Glory.» That is, the opening of the monument entitled «Family is the guarantee of peace» coincided with the celebration of the victories of Russian arms. However, this contradiction did not embarrass anyone present. The Cypriot participants hardly realized the meaning of what was happening, while the Russian participants were counting on it.
On behalf of the President of Cyprus Anastasiades the Minister of Transport, Communications and Public Works of Cyprus and former mayor of Ayia Napa Yiannis Karoussos spoke at the ceremony. The current mayor of Ayia Napa Christos Zannetos said that «from next year the residents of the city entrusted to his administration will celebrate Family Day, the date of its celebration will be the holy day for all Russians — May 9. He added that this idea was proposed to him by the «Russian House in Cyprus» and he supported it». One can imagine what behind this inadvertent confession hid the work of guys in civilian clothes from the «Russian House».
Three and a half months after the unveiling of the peace monument, Russia attacked Ukraine, and apparently only the changed political situation in the world prevented the municipality of Ay Napa from making the gift promised to Russian friends and establishing a new pro-Russian holiday.
The ceremony was also attended by Metropolitan Isaiah of Tamasos and Orinia, who studied in Moscow and is known for his pro-Russian views, patron of arts Vyacheslav Zarenkov himself, and Russian Ambassador to Cyprus Stanislav Osadchiy. As an appetizer, the participants of the celebration were treated to an exemplary performance by the symphony orchestra of the Russian Guard, specially brought to Cyprus by the Russian House. As it was said in the newspaper «Herald of Cyprus», «…The installation of the sculpture group was made possible thanks to the cooperation of the Vyacheslav Zarenkov Foundation «Creating Peace», the Russian Embassy and the Rossotrudnichestvo office in the Republic of Cyprus, the municipality of Ayia Napa, the Cyprus-Russia Friendship Society and the Coordination Council of Russian Compatriots of Cyprus».

If you look closely at the people and organizations involved in such foreign pro-Russian actions, you will almost always find a characteristic tangle of Russian oligarchs playing the role of patrons, employees of the Russian security services under various disguises, their local agents, and simple-minded statisticians who do not understand what they are in for. All this crowd is working together to solve common tasks set by Moscow, which, as a rule, have not the slightest relation to the officially declared themes of solemn events, festivities, and conferences.
As a rule, old «friends of Russia» who are already tied up in «friendly ties» are not so easy to evade their obligations even in a critical situation. The grand opening of the Aia Napa-Gelendzhik Park in November this year is a good example of this. It took place in a completely different environment than all previous similar actions.
By this time, the war of Russia against Ukraine had already lasted more than a year and a half. There were many hundreds of thousands of casualties. For the countries of the European Union, Putin’s Russia is an aggressor incapable of civilized behavior and impossible to negotiate with. The only way to deal with it is to reduce diplomatic cultural and trade contacts to an absolute minimum, to isolate it internationally, and to impose sanctions that deprive the regime and its main functionaries of freedom of action. Cyprus is a member of the European Union and by definition supports all measures taken against Russia by EU countries. Or, at the very least, it should support them.
Besides, the twin town of Gelendzhik, the sister city of Aia Napa, has become famous in recent years not only as a Black Sea resort but also as the location of Putin’s palace, unimaginable in size, cost, and tastelessness, as well as the rehabilitation base of the private military company «Wagner», established on a plot of land owned by its commander Yevgeny Prigozhin. «Wagner» is a Russian armed formation and at the same time an international criminal and terrorist organization staffed by mercenaries and convicted criminals. Created in 2013 in the Russian Federation to participate in armed conflicts without attracting regular troops. «Wagnerites» are suspected of numerous war crimes, and crimes against humanity in different countries, including on the territory of Ukraine. After Prigozhin died in a plane crash in August 2023, «Wagner» detachments were subordinated to the Rosgvardiya.
So it’s not to say that Aia Napa is lucky to have a twin.
Russia is extremely interested in any action that breaks the hermetic seal of isolation from the European Union countries and introduces a rift in their internal unity. The grand opening in Cyprus in the fall of 2023, i.e. amid the Russian-Ukrainian war, of a park dedicated to the twin cities of Ayia Napa and Gelendzhik can be seen as an undoubted propaganda and foreign policy success of Russia and its agents.
The benefit of the Russian participants is obvious. What is not clear is the behavior of the Cypriots. What could make Cypriot officials — the mayor of Ayia Napa Christos Zanettos and the Cypriot consul in Krasnodar Nicos Vasiliou — agree to participate in an event that compromises them in the absence of any visible benefit, one can only guess.
It can be assumed that due to the sharp deterioration of diplomatic relations between the EU countries and Russia, its intelligence services will now intensify recruitment activities among the lower, municipal leadership of European countries, more responsive to signs of friendly attention than the more cautious government officials. But they too have a chance of being among them sooner or later.