Exclusive: Oleg Deripaska joins hundreds of rich people who have bought Cypriot nationality
The revelations will revive concern about oligarchs with Kremlin connections buying EU passports. Large numbers of the Russian and Ukrainian elite featured last year in a list of hundreds of people granted Cypriot citizenship over the past four years.
The island also offered citizenship to Viktor Vekselberg, a major shareholder in the Bank of Cyprus, the country’s biggest bank, documents show. Vekselberg appears to have turned the offer down. His spokesman said he only had Russian citizenship.
Deripaska and Vekselberg appeared on another list issued by the US Treasury in January of oligarchs close to Vladimir Putin. Deripaska has denied claims that he served as a back channel between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign, as an investigation by the special counsel Robert Mueller into possible collusion continues.
The Cypriot documents seen by the Guardian and the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) show that Deripaska’s first attempt to become a Cypriot citizen was unsuccessful.
Cyprus has been accused of failing to vet passport candidates vigorously enough, heightening concerns in EU circles about people being able to buy EU citizenship. On this occasion, however, Deripaska was asked to resubmit his case because of a preliminary inquiry into his affairs in Belgium. The inquiry was subsequently dropped in 2016.
Cyprus’s council of ministers sent Deripaska’s case back to the island’s interior ministry, the Cypriot documents say, asking it to investigate further. The oligarch’s naturalisation bid had to be re-examined before a final decision could be made.
Deripaska’s name was made public this week when an interior ministry document listing beneficiaries of the collective investment scheme was distributed inside Cyprus’s parliament. Clerks left it in a room used by journalists, and several picked up a copy.
Leaked documents show that the Cypriot “golden visa” scheme remains a lucrative source of revenue for the island, generating at least €4.8bn (£4.3bn). Cyprus has given citizenship to 1,685 “foreign investors” since 2008 – many from the former Soviet Union, and from China, Iran and Saudi Arabia – and 1,651 members of their families.
The finance ministry has previously said it carries out stringent checks on all citizenship by investment applications, with funds required to undergo money laundering controls by a Cypriot bank. Cyprus is not the only EU country to have granted citizenship to high net-wealth Russians, it says. There is no suggestion of wrongdoing on the part of beneficiaries.
Vekselberg’s Renova group is one of Russia’s biggest conglomerates. He made a major investment in the crisis-hit Bank of Cyprus in 2014, buying almost 10% of its stock. The move at a time when the island’s economy was depressed meant he was an “exceptional case deserving of honorary naturalisation”, the documents say.
Vekselberg’s spokesman, Andrey Shtorkh, said: “Mr Vekselberg has only one citizenship, of Russian Federation and was never granted any other citizenship including Cypriot.”
Cyprus made it easier for rich foreigners to gain citizenship in September 2016. It had previously required investors to have at least €5m in domestic assets, including real estate, firms and government bonds. Applicants could also take part in a collective investment scheme by spending a minimum of €12.5m, or €2.5m per person. The ruling council reduced the eligibility threshold to €2m and ditched collective schemes.
The fresh trove of scheme beneficiaries obtained by the Guardian and the OCCRP confirms the extent to which Cyprus’s citizen-by-investment programme has become a main avenue for Russian oligarchs who wish to get a European passport.
The Portuguese MEP Ana Gomes described the visa scheme as “absolutely perverse, immoral and increasingly alarming”. The European commission launched its own inquiry last year into citizenship-by-investment programmes in the EU. The outcome is expected to be revealed later this year.
Cyprus, along with Malta, is one of the countries under scrutiny. “Cyprus is the biggest European investor in Russia and a great number of Russian nationals acquired Cypriot passports. We are all aware that there is also a big problem of recycling money. The point is that Cyprus, like other countries, is not just selling its passport. It is marketing European citizenship,” Gomes said.
Naomi Hirst, a senior campaigner at Global Witness, said EU states that sell citizenship should carry out “the sharpest of checks” on applicants.
“The source of wealth and background of these individuals should be scrutinised,” she said. “If not, then the whole of the EU could be made vulnerable to those who will use these schemes as a ‘get out of jail free card’ to move freely around Europe.”