The billionaires investing in Cyprus in exchange for EU passports

Businesspeople and those with political influence from Russia and Ukraine among hundreds granted citizenship for money

A leaked list of names of those who have benefited from Cyprus’s citizenship-by-investment programmes represents a detailed insight into the panoply of clients behind schemes providing passports to the super rich, reports The Guardian.

It also reveals the extent to which interest from the Russian and Ukrainian elite has driven the programme which, according to the Cypriot government, has generated more than €4bn in investment since 2013. There is no suggestion of wrongdoing on the part of beneficiaries.

Prior to 2013, Cypriot citizenship was granted on a discretionary basis by ministers, in a less formal version of the current arrangement.

“Golden visa” schemes, whereby countries sell passports or citizenship in exchange for investment, are almost universally carried out in complete secrecy. Only Malta has ever published the names of its applicants.

Several of the hundreds of names seen by Guardian are prominent businesspeople or individuals with political influence in their home countries.

Leonid Lebedev, a former member of the Russian parliament and the sole owner of the Sintez Group, is one of hundreds of Russian nationals named as having acquired Cypriot citizenship. His personal wealth is estimated by Forbes to be more than $1.2bn.

Another politically sensitive name is that of Alexander Ponomarenko, a Russian industrialist worth an estimated $3bn, who in 2011 reportedly paid $350m for a palace allegedly constructed for the private benefit of Russian president Vladimir Putin. Ponomarenko acquired citizenship in 2016.

Neither Lebedev nor Ponomarenko responded to requests for comment for this article.

Gennady Bogolyubov and his former business partner Igor Kolomoisky founded PrivatBank in the 1990s, and were its biggest shareholders until it was nationalised by the Ukrainian government in 2016. The Ukrainian central bank alleged that the two partners had illicitly extracted £4.2bn from PrivatBank.

A lawyer representing Bogolyubov confirmed that he had been granted a Cypriot passport in 2010 “as a result of him having made substantial investments in the country (via certain companies) and being fully compliant with the legal requirements at the time”.

He said that the allegations concerning PrivatBank were “unsubstantiated, untruthful and defamatory” and that proceedings had been issued in relation to its nationalisation.

A spokesman for Kolomoisky said: “He was granted citizenship of Cyprus, in recognition of his substantial investments in that country.” Kolomoisky is also bringing legal action in Ukraine with regards to PrivatBank.

Nikita Mishin, founder and commercial director at Severstaltrans and former member of the Expert Council of Russia, a non-governmental body of advisers, did not dispute that he had acquired Cypriot citizenship in 2015.

Konstantin Stetsenko is the managing partner of Invest Capital Ukraine, which was commissioned to advise former Ukrainian prime minister Petro Poroshenko on the sale of his confectionary business. A representative said that ICU had operations in Cyprus and that “Stetsenko’s citizenship is a helpful addition in those circumstances.” He acquired the citizenship this year.

Konstantin Grigorishin is the largest investor in the Ukrainian utilities firm Energy Standard Group and, according to Forbes, an avid swimmer with a $300m art collection. His opponents describe him as an oligarch based on alleged links to Poroshenko, which he denies.

He declined to comment on whether he had obtained Cypriot citizenship in 2010.

The billionaire Teddy Sagi obtained Cypriot citizenship in 2009. The majority shareholder of the company that owns Camden Market, he also founded the gambling software and services company Playtech. A representative for Sagi did not dispute his acquisition of citizenship, but questioned whether a Cypriot passport could be fairly called a “golden visa”.

Little-known outside wealthy circles, the golden visa industry first came into existence in 1984, when the tiny islands of St Kitts and Nevis decided to bring in additional foreign investment in exchange for passports.

Countries across the world followed suit, setting up schemes to provide foreign investors with passports, residency visas or citizenship in exchange for cash. Investment in real estate is often a key requirement of the schemes.

Boutique firms offering assistance to those potentially in need of a second or third passport advertise schemes in at least a dozen countries, including the UK.

Advocates of the industry argue that such programmes attract talent and wealth at a time when exchequers around the world are facing budget shortfalls. Some also argue that they grant those with ability and entrepreneurial spirit the chance to seek a better life outside repressive countries.

By contrast, critics attack them as greedy and cynical schemes that undermine the concept of citizenship. They also question the social value of a foreign investor buying property that is often never lived in.

Although secretive, the industry has suffered several scandals in recent years.

Eleven Portuguese civil servants and golden visa holders were arrested in 2013 after a police investigation codenamed Operation Labyrinth began examining whether golden visas had been issued corruptly. Earlier this year, the former immigration minister was officially designated a suspect in the Labyrinth investigation.

Maltese politicians have been accused of involvement in an alleged kickback scheme relating to passports, which it has sold since 2014. In the US, the former company of Trump adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, has recently been exposed as offering visas to Chinese investors who buy into one of the company’s construction projects.

Earlier this year the Guardian reported how the son of a Kazakh businessman accused of a multi-billion dollar fraud on his own bank was issued with an “investor visa” by the British government, despite informing them that the cash had been provided to him by his father.

Interest in the UK’s Tier 1 Investor visa crashed after new rules were put in place requiring more stringent financial checks.

Even St Kitts and Nevis, the original innovator behind the schemes, has been unable to escape scandal. In 2014 the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network issued an advisory notice warning that criminals were buying St Kitts passports “for the purpose of engaging in illicit financial activity”.

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