Billionaire Russian oligarchs and Ukrainian elites accused of corruption are among hundreds of people who have acquired EU passports under controversial “golden visa” schemes, the Guardian newspaper claimed on Monday.
There is no suggestion that these passports were obtained by illegal means.
It said the government of Cyprus has raised more than €4 billion since 2013 by providing citizenship to the super-rich, granting them the right to live and work throughout Europe in exchange for cash investment.
More than 400 passports are understood to have been issued through this scheme last year alone.
Cyprus argues that stringent checks were carried out on all applications for citizenship by investment and that all funds used underwent checks for money laundering by a Cypriot bank.
Prior to 2013, Cypriot citizenship was granted on a discretionary basis by ministers, in a less formal version of the current arrangement.
According to the Guardian, beneficiaries included an oligarch and art collector who bought a Palm Beach mansion from Donald Trump and a Syrian businessman with close links to the country’s president, described in a leaked US diplomatic cable as a “poster boy for corruption” in war-torn Syria.
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A leaked list of the names of hundreds of those who have benefited from these schemes, seen by the Guardian, marks the first time that a list of the super–rich granted Cypriot citizenship has been revealed.
The list sheds light on the little-known but highly profitable industry and raises questions about the security checks carried out on applicants by Cyprus.
European politicians have been watching the sector’s growth with alarm; with some saying the schemes undermine the concept of citizenship. Ana Gomes, a Portuguese MEP, described golden visas as “absolutely immoral and perverse”.
Later this year the European parliament will debate an amendment tabled by Gomes requiring countries to carry out thorough security checks on golden visa applicants. The European commission recently ordered an inquiry into whether checks were being properly conducted.
Cyprus’s current scheme requires applicants to place €2 million in property or €2.5m in companies or government bonds. There is no language or residency requirement, other than a visit once every seven years.
Rami Makhlouf, a cousin of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, was first placed under US sanctions in 2008 over allegations that he had benefited from corruption. Cyprus issued citizenship to him in 2010.
Makhlouf was subsequently sanctioned by the EU in 2011 and whose Cypriot citizenship was revoked after the outbreak of the Syrian civil war.
The billionaire Russian art collector Dmitry Rybolovlev found himself at the centre of international attention last year after it emerged that his private jet crossed paths with that of Donald Trump during his presidential campaign. Rybolovlev denied meeting Trump and said the flight paths were a coincidence.
In 2005, Trump paid $41m for a mansion in Florida’s Palm Beach. After renovating it, he sold it to Rybolovlev three years later for a reported $95m.
A spokesman for Rybolovlev, who acquired Cypriot citizenship in 2012 and is worth an estimated $7.4bn according to Forbes, said it was “natural [for him] to get citizenship upon becoming an investor in Bank of Cyprus.”
The anti-corruption group Global Witness demanded tougher checks in response to the findings. “All countries offering golden visas must make sure the lure of investment doesn’t mean a race to the bottom on values,” the group said.
“Without these, they risk offering a ‘get-out-of-jail free card’ to the corruptand criminal.” The Cyprus finance ministry said the programme was intended for “genuine investors, who establish a business base and acquire a permanent residence in Cyprus.”