Rival gangs of Ukrainian and Georgian `Pontians' clash in streets of resort


The Greek Cypriot authorities are set to tighten restrictions on foreign workers while officials try to defuse a row between Greece and Cyprus over "Russian Greek" migrants from the Black Sea region. Some 7,000 of these "Pontians" have come to the island since 1993.

Thousands of these people claimed to be Hellenes and were given Greek passports after the collapse of the Soviet bloc in 1991. Since Greeks are permitted to reside and work without restriction in Cyprus, many migrated to the island which is more prosperous than mainland Greece. The Cyprus government is reportedly critical of the "indiscriminate" way in which Athens issues passports to Pontians.

A "Pontian problem" arose when 5,500 Russian Greeks who came here created a Pontian ghetto in the heart of the popular tourist resort of Paphos near the grotto where the Greek goddess of love, Aphrodite, was said to be born in the white foam of the azure Mediterranean.

The Pontians settled into blocks of flats along two main streets of the small town, which has a resident population of 22,000. The Mayor, Mr Feidas Sarikas, yesterday hosted a meeting between an envoy from Athens and district police and municipal officers to discuss the Pontian problem. Parliament will hold a second discussion on the issue today.

Mr Nicos Pittokopitis, a deputy from Paphos, considers this concentration "dangerous". He told The Irish Times: "They cause problems every day, every night, every moment of the day." He accused the Pontians - Russians, Ukrainians and Georgians - of a wide range of crimes - assault, rape, prostitution, robbery - and of having connections with organised crime in the countries of the former Soviet Union. Rival gangs of Ukrainian and Georgian Pontians have clashed in the streets of Paphos, creating concern that their activities could harm tourism, the town's main source of revenue.

During the first debate on the Pontian problem in the House of Representatives last week, Mr Pittokopitis accused the authorities of "doing nothing about it" and called on the Greek embassy "to carry out an investigation to determine whether" the Pontians had valid Greek passports.

He expects the government to come up with a plan during today's session for "moving some of the thousands out of Paphos" and deporting "the bad characters".

A police spokesman who attended the mayor's meeting rejected such accusations. He said the problem was "not Pontian crime" but a Kulturkampf [cultural war] between Russian Greeks and local people. He said the rate of serious offences amongst Pontians was low and blamed the media for highlighting arrests of people from this community.

"The real problem is their behaviour," he stated. "We have asked to discuss this with their leaders and propose to set up a club" which would keep the youth off the streets and out of trouble. He does not believe dispersing them is the answer to the problem.

A club will certainly not address the fears of Paphiots that Pontian "mafia" elements may have established themselves there. The town does not have a well-developed criminal underworld of its own, unlike the two coastal cities, Limassol and Larnaca, where rival gangsters have been engaged in a high-profile, low-level war of attrition over the past two years. Cars are the main targets in this conflict. There are two or three bombings a week.

From time to time, a local cappo or "soldier" is assassinated or blown up. For a short period score-settling between Russian and other east European gangsters also became a feature of Limassol life, but this has waned. Then in May Pontians made their presence felt in this city when two of their number were detained in connection with the brutal murder of a 71year-old Belgian woman.

This murder, the protests of the Paphiots against the Pontian ghetto and bombs exploding under cars in and around the capital, Nicosia, have forced the authorities to take the whole underworld scene seriously.

The Pontians constitute the latest wave of immigrants from troubled lands to wash up on the shores of Cyprus. During the 1975-1991 Lebanese civil war, thousands of Lebanese sailed here on freighters to escape the fighting. As many as 60,000 were resident at the peak of the conflict, enabling the island's offshore business sector to take off and become a major money-earner.

This sector attracted many businessmen and bankers from the Soviet bloc during the era of economic liberalisation and after the disintegration of the union. Some of these migrants were mobsters and money-launderers, attracting others from the former Yugoslavia, the Caucasus and the Black Sea area.

But the majority were legitimate businessmen who have invested as much as $20 billion in Cyprus. The government does not want to take action on the Pontian problem which could discourage these people from coming here.