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Why sunny Cyprus gave me flashbacks to the Cold War

I miss the Cold War. The spy swaps on bridges, dead drops, sleeper agents, the threat of nuclear war, and going through Checkpoint Charlie from East to West Berlin and back. Anything is better than Brexit.

Crossing the border in Cyprus between the Turkish North and the Greek South brought back memories of the past. It gave me flashbacks to being in ‘no man’s land’ in Berlin, when the possibility of being shot was real and stark. When we are now so used to travelling between EU countries without hassle, it seemed an ominous foreshadowing of things to come. 

Of course, Brits have made their homes in Cyprus for decades (unsurprisingly, given the glorious weather, good food, and the sea). More recently, the Russians and Russian-speakers, those from the Ukraine and Belarus, have arrived, and now comprise the most significant foreign population in the South. They too have come for the weather, it beats Siberian winters. 

My Russian friend, Elvira, who I was visiting, moved to Girne, in the North, last year. We met in Kenya, but her husband, who used to work in Africa, now works in Syria. In Cyprus, not only has she found a place that has stolen her heart, but its location is perfect for her husband to visit.

As you may have noticed, the former Soviet Union is an area of fascination, and I bought an original 1957 Sputnik music box some years back. On this trip, I met a Russian engineer, a woman, who worked on a much later version of Sputnik, where she built the antennae and worked in one of the closed cities. These days no money exists for the space programme.

In Girne, three Russian women, based in the South, came into the restaurant where Elvira and I were drinking Turkish coffee. They struggled with the menu and the language. In fact, in the North, you hear almost as much Russian as Turkish. After Elvira sorted out their order with the server, they asked her some startling questions: was the North safe? They had heard it was dangerous, hence their day trip by bus and their one-hour stop excursion. As we sat in the cafe,  they said they heard there were no beaches in the North, and it would be too dirty anyway because it was . . . Turkish. We were overlooking the Mediterranean, and water is quite hard to escape on an island. Needless to say, it’s perfectly safe.

Cyprus has a fantastic, but complicated history, and as it says in the country profile, “it’s been coveted, conquered and colonised”. In its 10,000 year history, it has attracted the Achaean Greeks, the Phoenicians, it was ruled by the Ottomans, and according to mythology, the goddess Aphrodite emerged from the waves near Paphos.

The UK ruled the island from 1878 until 1960, and in 1983, the Turkish Cypriot leadership declared independence. The North is part of a very lonely group of states that is internationally unrecognised. Only Turkey recognises the Republic. As a result, you cannot fly from the UK directly into the Turkish part of the island, from anywhere other than Turkey. 

When you cross from the North to the South side there’s a serious border check, precisely like those old East versus West days, only without the romance. It’s impossible to get a visa from the North to the South if you need one. It’s easier to get EU citizenship in the South if you’re a Russian oligarch, and many migrated there. If you haven’t pilfered state assets, you can simply buy a house. This might provide an answer for those of us who want to escape our own divisions in the UK. Many of the Brits I’ve spoken to, a definitive straw poll of about six, voted to Leave. Is there an irony there that I have missed?

So, we come back to the Cold War with its division and propaganda. The world and our current equivalent of fake news and wars and proxy wars and old wars and the sad realisation that plus ca change . . .