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 has learnt.
The government of Cyprus has raised more than €4bn 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.
Prior to 2013, Cypriot citizenship was granted on a discretionary basis by ministers, in a less formal version of the current arrangement.
A leaked list of the names of hundreds of those who have benefited from these schemes, seen by the Guardian, includes prominent businesspeople and individuals with considerable political influence.
The leak marks the first time a list of the super rich granted Cypriot citizenship has been revealed. A former member of Russia’s parliament, the founders of Ukraine’s largest commercial bank and a gambling billionaire are among the new names.
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.
Beneficiaries of the pre-2013 schemes include 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.
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”.
“I’m not against individual member states granting citizenship or residence to someone who would make a very special contribution to the country, be it in arts or science, or even in investment. But granting, not selling,” she said.
She added that she had attempted several times to obtain the names of golden visa buyers in Portugal, but without success. “Why the secrecy? The secrecy makes it very, very suspicious.”
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 its own inquiry into whether checks were being properly conducted.
Launched in 2013, Cyprus’ current citizenship-by-investment scheme requires applicants to place €2m 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, the 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. It is unclear what due diligence checks the country carried out on his application.
Makhlouf, who was subsequently sanctioned by the EU in 2011 and whose Cypriot citizenship was revoked after the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, did not respond to requests for comment.
Many other purchasers are prominent Russian businesspeople or politicians – “politically exposed persons” in industry parlance – requiring stringent checks on the sources of their wealth.
The billionaire 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 515 N County Road, 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 spokesman reiterated that Rybolovlev has never met Trump, and added that the Palm Beach mansion has been demolished and divided into three lots, one of which has been sold.
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. That means ensuring the sharpest of checks on applicants and safeguards on process,” the group said in a statement.
“Without these, they risk offering a ‘get-out-of-jail free card’ to the corrupt and criminal.”
The Ministry of Finance of the Republic of Cyprus said the programme was intended for “genuine investors, who establish a business base and acquire a permanent residence in Cyprus”.
They said that stringent checks were conducted on all citizenship by investment applications, with funds required to undergo money laundering checks by a Cypriot bank. They also observed that Cyprus was not the only EU country to have granted citizenship to high net-wealth Russians. There is no suggestion of wrongdoing on the part of beneficiaries.
Makhlouf did not receive his citizenship through the current scheme, they said, adding that the launch of the 2013 scheme “established a much improved, transparent process for the examination of applications”, and that their decision to later revoke his citizenship was proof of their readiness to take corrective action.
Additional reporting by Craig Shaw and Micael Pereira.
This article was developed with the support of the Journalism Fund.