A recent investigation from Al Jazeera into Cyprus revealed a plethora of leaked government documents, uncovering that Cyprus has sold dozens of passports to foreigners linked to crime. What the leak essentially shows, is that there have been 1,400 citizenship applications approved by the Anastasiades government between 2017 and 2019, to people from 70 countries. Among the countries of origin of most applicants are Russia, China and Ukraine.
So-called “golden passports” can be important for those who have restricted access to Europe, as they provide easy mobility across the European Union, among other things. To obtain a Cypriot citizenship, through the “golden passport”, candidates are required to invest at least €2.15 million euros, usually with the purchase of real estate, and with a clean criminal record. We have debated the subject of golden visas many times, when the safety was questioned, the government would always prove how beneficial it was for the island and how many checks each applicant would have to go through.
However, Al Jazeera reports that candidates only provided their own proof of eligibility, and even if the government claimed to verify the criminal record, there are documents that prove otherwise.
Since 2013, Cyprus’ investment program has received numerous criticisms from the European Union, including from some Members. Sven Giegold, MEP of the Greens / European Free Alliance, says that “opening a bank account, a business relationship and without questions, without visa requirements, is very easy for anyone who wants to travel from anywhere, namely from Russia, China or countries more doubtful ”.
The second round of the Presidential elections in Cyprus took place on February 4th earlier this year and President Nikos Anastasiades was reelected of the conservative DISY party and the EPP.
Presidential elections in Cyprus: Re-election of Anastasiades keeps Cyprus at a crossroads
Since the program began in 2013, the Cypriot country has earned more than seven billion euros, according to the government, to maintain the country’s deteriorating economy.
Between 2017 and 2019, the countries with the highest number of orders were Russia, China and Ukraine. Among the orders, Al Jazeera reveals that it was that of Ukrainian tycoon Mykola Zlochevsky, owner of the energy company Burisma. When Zlochevsky applied for Cyprus citizenship in 2017, he was being investigated in his country for crimes of corruption. This passport is for Zlochevshy to live beyond the reach of the Ukrainian authorities.
A similar situation was what happened to Russian Nikolay Gornovsky, former president of giant Gazprom. Mr Gornovsky was being sought for abuse of power when his passport was approved in 2019, and so far it has been impossible to extradite him.
Other requests were approved when the applicant had been arrested and serving a sentence. Chinese businessman Zhang Keqiang received his Cyprus passport after being in prison for a fraud in market shares.
According to Ms Laure Brillaud, a head of Transparency International, the results of the investigation are worrying, but not surprising. Programs like the one in Cyprus “carry inherent risks of money laundering, corruption and tax evasion. These programs were created to make it easier for people who are quickly looking for the European Union” she told Al Jazeera.
In 2019, Cyprus introduced tougher rules for anyone who wants to obtain Cypriot citizenship. In July, parliamentarians passed a law that gave the state the power to withdraw citizenship from individuals linked to the “golden passport” and who are being investigated or guilty of crime, but also voted to prevent the names of those trying to obtain a passport. Cyprus is investigating previous requests and claims to have close to 30 people who will lose their citizenship.
According to Al Jazeera, some of the people who could lose citizenship are Venezuelan banker Leonardo González Dellan, accused in the United States, and Oleg Bakhmatiuk, under investigation in Ukraine for embezzlement and money laundering, among a plethora of other financial crimes.
A Cypriot MP, from AKEL-LEFT political party, stated “the way the program was implemented in recent years was obviously a procedure that allowed cases that the Republic of Cyprus should be ashamed of” and adds that “I believe that the new regulations will not leave room for dirty play or exceed the limits that a state must respect ”.
Interior Minister Nicos Nouris told Al Jazeera that “no citizenship was granted in violation of the regulations in force at the time”.