Golden passports: the back door to Europe for Russian oligarchs

Mikuláš Peksa MEP
International passport. Customs control. Red Passport for travel in different countries. Passport control . Documents for traveling.

Belgium (Brussels Morning Newspaper) For two weeks now, the world’s attention has been focused on the unprovoked and unjustified Russian military aggression of Ukraine. At the same time, Bulgaria and Malta are continuing to issue so-called “golden passports” to Russian oligarchs, making a lucrative business out of selling their citizenship to the higher bidder.

European passports are of great value and power, as every citizen of an EU Member State enjoys equal rights and freedom of movement throughout Europe, as well as easy travel to most countries in the world. 

Used almost exclusively by oligarchs and fraudsters to enter the Schengen area, the golden passport scheme has plagued Europe for many years, exposing us to great financial and security risks. It is also clear that this scheme is not beneficial to the countries operating it and, on the contrary, it is damaging to the whole of our Union.

European fast and “cheap”

Bulgarian passport ownership has gained in popularity since 2013. The price of a passport ranges between 800,000 and 2 million euros, which the applicant is expected to invest in the local economy, through companies and real estate, or by creating jobs. However, this is rarely the case, as previous cases have shown rich individuals buying Bulgarian government debt or depositing cash in a Bulgarian bank in exchange of favours. According to experts, many applicants even take out loans worth millions of euros for such deposits.

A total of 97 people, including oligarchs with a bad reputation from former Soviet Republics and corrupt Chinese officials, have gained passage to Europe through Bulgaria over the past decade. Approximately 40% of them are Russian.

Security checks and vetting procedures are not even necessary. A very influential Russian with a Bulgarian golden passport is businessman Roman Savushkin, who has close ties to former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. He is one of three Bulgarians sanctioned by the US Treasury Department under the Magnitsky Act since last year. 

Nevertheless, pressure from the EU on Bulgaria finally seems to be bringing about change. Although a year ago the previous government had been vocal in its support for the issuance of golden passports, the new government has recently promised to completely abolish the entire golden passport scheme within a few weeks. Malta also just announced it will no longer process applications for golden residency or citizenship status by Russians and Belarusians, following short of scrapping the scheme for other nationals.

Thousands of golden passports for rich Russians

Until recently, you could also buy European citizenship in Cyprus. There, the government decided to withdraw the golden passport scheme at the end of 2020 after it emerged that the country was selling citizenship to politically exposed individuals and providing asylum to international criminals. 

Cypriot citizenship was much more popular than Bulgarian one because of the island’s distance from the rest of Europe. In seven years, the small island state has granted golden passports to more than a thousand Russians and made a total of more than eight billion dollars. Billionaires such as the founder of Russian bank Tinkoff and a Chinese property developer with an estimated fortune of 617 billion crowns have applied for passports.

Seventeen other EU members also offer the possibility to buy golden residence status, a crucial step in gaining citizenship, without even requiring physical presence. Some of the most popular destinations include Greece and Portugal. Even the Czechia has received two applications for golden residence since the programme launched in 2017.

European citizenship is a right, not a commodity!

European citizenship cannot be treated as a cheap commodity for the world’s top oligarchs and corrupt officials. It should not be possible anymore for countries like Bulgaria or Malta to sell passes to Europe to Russian oligarchs with links to Putin and state structures. 

Many EU countries have already suspended their golden programmes in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which is of course commendable. Unfortunately, this is not enough – Europe must stop selling golden passports and resident status for all nationals. European values are not for sale.

This is why I voted this week in the European Parliament plenary in favour of a request for the European Commission to ban such schemes. I hope they will finally start taking the problem seriously!

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Brussels Morning is a daily online newspaper based in Belgium. BM publishes unique and independent coverage on international and European affairs. With a Europe-wide perspective, BM covers policies and politics of the EU, significant Member State developments, and looks at the international agenda with a European perspective.
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Mikuláš Peksa is a Czech biophysicist, activist and a Czech Pirate Party politician elected Member of the European Parliament in the 2019 election, member of the Greens–European Free Alliance parliamentary group.