Passport dealers of Europe: navigating the Golden Visa market

Passport dealers of Europe: navigating the Golden Visa market

Jump to Golden Visas background | Country comparison | Call to action

Following a series of new investigations led by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), Transparency International urges the European Commission to scrutinise ‘Golden Visa’ programmes in Europe.

Imagine for a moment that you’re an unscrupulous businessperson with close ties to your government in a country with higher than average levels of corruption.

You make more money than you know what to do with from lucrative public contracts (awarded in processes that aren't exactly competitive). Other friends own the media, so the disasters that happen every now and then at your facilities don’t get much air-time. And you don’t come under much pressure from activists or NGOs because your corrupt politician friends keep them in check.

But do you actually want to spend all your time in a country racked with corruption?

Wouldn’t it be nice to have the option to easily travel, and even live, somewhere else?

Say, somewhere in Europe?

What if we told you that you can forget lining up at the embassy for a Schengen visa?

With enough cash, an array of European ‘Golden Visas’ – residence permits or passports – are at your fingertips.

Based on OCCRP investigations and our own research, we have compiled a non-exhaustive list of the options at your disposal in the European Golden Visa Shop.

Coast or mountains? Real estate or business investment? Want your money back in five years? Worried you might not pass a background check? No problem; some countries are more forgiving than others. There’s something for everyone. 

But first, some background. 

What exactly is a Golden Visa?

The idea is simple: governments trade citizenship or residence rights for investment. Arrangements differ from country to country, and requirements may include investment in business, real estate or government bonds.

Over 20 countries or territories currently offer Golden Visa programmes worldwide, including 13 in Europe: Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Greece, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Monaco, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom. Hungary ran a controversial Golden Visa programme from 2013 to 2017.

Freedom of movement, tax advantages as well as access to the EU’s single market, legal system, and social services are some of the main selling points for EU member states’ programmes.

Not surprisingly, there is a lot of demand. Over the past few years, the Golden Visa market has turned into a multi-billion-euro global phenomenon with price tags varying from country to country, costing anywhere from €250,000 to €10 million.

Win-win, no?

Short answer: no.

OCCRP reporters investigated the Golden Visa programmes of seven EU member states – AustriaCyprus, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta and Portugal – as well as programmes currently on the table in Armenia and Montenegro. 

While Golden Visa programmes bring in financial capital, they also represent a potential threat to the fight against cross-border corruption. Without sufficient integrity checks in place, they constitute an easy back door for the corrupt, as OCCRP’s recent investigations have revealed.

In light of the significant sums involved, governments need to scrutinise the source of foreign assets to ensure that Golden Visa programmes are not used to launder money.

Governments must ensure the impartiality and integrity of the programmes, especially when they have outsourced their management to private companies which sometimes also advise clients on how to apply to them, representing a conflict of interest.

Golden Visas: Why should the EU care?

Read More

You can also download Global Witness's latest policy briefing on what the EU can do to mitigate corruption risks in its member states' Golden Visa programmes. 

Austria

Legal basis:

  • National legislation allows citizenship to be granted for “rendering exceptional services in the interest of the Republic". 

Key features:

  • The minimum contribution is not specified by law, but the price tag is reported to be as high as €10 million.
  • The official processing time is between 12 and 36 months, however a fast-track option is available to applicants with ‘clean criminal record’.

Investigation highlights:

  • Vague legislation allows the government to reward individuals of their choice with citizenship without much scrutiny.

Notable recipients:

  • Former Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s daughter Tatyana Yumasheva and her husband Valentin Yumashev, who is also father-in-law of ‘Kremlin list’ businessman Oleg Deripaska.
  • Gulzhan Moldazhanova, Oleg Deripaska’s former secretary and now chief executive of his company Basic Element. 
  • Rami Makhlouf, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s cousin and one of the richest businessmen in Syria, was reportedly close to receiving Austrian citizenship in 2009.

Read more from OCCRP here and here.

Dear @sebastiankurz, @OCCRP's recent investigations demonstrate vulnerabilities in Austria's #GoldenVisas programme. What's your anti-corruption plan? Tweet This

Cyprus

Programme:

Status:

  • Active since 2014

Key features:

  • Citizenship can be acquired after investing €2 million in real estate, companies or government bonds.
  • No residency requirement

Investigation highlights:

  • While background checks are required by law, their rigor is questionable.
  • The programme is the main avenue for wealthy Russian businesspeople to gain an EU passport.

Notable recipient:

  • Oleg Deripaska, a Russian billionaire with close ties to President Vladimir Putin and one of the names on US Treasury’s 'Kremlin list'. He is also a one-time business partner and employer of US President Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort.

Read more from OCCRP

Stop selling #GoldenVisas to the corrupt, protect Cyprus & the EU! @thadjigeorgiou @sylikiotis @DemPapadakis @THEOCHAROUSE @LefChristoforou Tweet This

Hungary

Programme:

  • The Hungarian Residency Bond Program

Status:

  • Suspended; active between 2013 and 2017

Key features:

  • Investment of €300,000 in special Hungarian government bonds, to be repaid in full after five years with a fixed interest rate of 2%. 
  • Processing time of just four weeks

Investigation highlights:

  • Applicants were required to make an investment through designated intermediary companies with opaque ownership structures.
  • Intermediaries kept part of the invested amount, taking a cut from the final sum transferred to the state budget.
  • All but one of the intermediaries are registered in offshore tax havens.
  • Reportedly, members of the Hungarian political elite had stakes in the Golden Visa programmes.
  • Because the investment is repaid with a 2% interest rate and the intermediaries keep fees, the state is expected to lose money on the scheme.
  • OCCRP found that almost 20,000 Golden Visas were handed out between 2013 and 2017.
  • The majority of visas were granted to Chinese migrants who sold their homes to move to Hungary. Many of them are worried they will not be repaid.

Read more from OCCRP

For refugees and poor migrants travel can be terrifying, with no guarantee of a welcome at the end. For the one percent,​ ​it's a different story. Video produced by OCCRP.

Latvia

Programme:

Status:

  • Active since 2010

Key features:

  • When launched in 2010, the programme gave out five-year residence permits to applicants who invested as little as €71,150 in real estate.
  • The minimum investment amount increased to €275,000 in 2014 in response to a flood of applications.

Investigation highlights:

  • The Latvian government had little capacity to vet the flood of newcomers and security checks have not been tightened since the price was increased.
  • In recent years, the government has become increasingly concerned about risks to national security and has rejected many applications on grounds of espionage.
  • About 90 per cent of applicants are from former USSR countries, predominantly Russia, and eight per cent of applicants are Chinese. 
  • Unlike many other programmes, the average buyer is “a Russian middle-class man, not extraordinarily rich”.

Read more from OCCRP 

#Latvia's experience shows that #GoldenVisas aren’t really golden. Suspend the programme; protect Latvia and the EU from #corruption @Vejonis @Brivibas36 Tweet This

Lithuania

Legal Basis

Key features

  • Applicants must run a company with at least three full-time employees and an equity value of €28,000, and hold at least one third of its shares.

Investigation highlights:

  • Since the annexation of Crimea in 2014, Lithuania has stepped up its security checks and started cancelling previously granted residence permits. 
  • Most revocations were made on the grounds of providing false information and forged documents.

Notable recipients, recently stripped of their residence permits:

  • Yury Artyakov, brother of a top official in the Russian arms industry who is currently under western sanctions.
  • Anton Treushnikov, former advisor to the Bank Severny Morskoy Put, which is also under sanctions and owned by Putin allies Arkady and Boris Rotenberg.

Read more from OCCRP

Miela @Grybauskaite_LT, nedalinkite #GoldenVisas korumpuotiesiems, apsaugokite Lietuvą ir ES! Tweet This

Malta

Programme:

Status:

  • Active since 2014

Required for citizenship:

  • Contribution of €650,000 to Government Development Fund
  • Additional contribution of €25,000 per family member
  • Further €150,000 investment in approved instruments
  • Minimum property purchase of €350,000 or lease of a residential property in Malta for a period of 5 years, at an annual rent of at least €16,000
  • Residence in Malta for a period of 12 months preceding the issuing of a certificate of naturalisation

Investigation highlights:

  • The programme was designed and is being implemented and promoted by Henley & Partners, a global firm offering residency and citizenship planning on behalf of the government of Malta under a public services concession.

Notable recipients:

  • The programme is especially popular among Russian businessmen, including at least three 'Kremlin-list' billionaires: Arkady Volozh, Boris Mints and Alexander Nesis, all of whom obtained Maltese passports in 2016. This is in addition to the lengthy list of other Russian businessmen who received passports and are suspected of corruption published by Transparency International Russia in December 2017.

Read more from OCCRP

Who received #GoldenVisas from #Malta? Publish the lists of the new secret EU citizens now, @MaltaGov. Tweet This .@JosephMuscat_JM, please stop handing out #GoldenVisas to the corrupt. Protect Malta & the EU! Tweet This

Portugal

Programme:

Status:

  • Active since 2012

Key Features:

  • Capital contribution of up to €1 million or real estate investment equal to or above €500,000 - or €350,000 if property is located in urban regeneration areas - or the creation of 10 jobs. 
  • Applicants should stay in Portugal for a period of seven or more days in the first year and 14 or more days in subsequent years.

Investigation highlights:

  • In 2014, the programme was rocked by a major corruption scandal when criminal corruption charges were filed against former Interior Minister Manuel Macedo and the former heads of the notaries service and the immigration authority, among others. The latter were accused of being involved in a bribery scheme and accepting gifts in exchange for expediting residence permits. The trial is ongoing.
  • Ninety per cent of the money raised by Portugal’s Golden Visa programme comes from real estate investment which, according to Transparency International Portugal, exponentially increases money laundering risks. 
  • The US State Department’s 2017 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report states that “suspect funds from Angola are used to purchase Portuguese businesses and real estate” and reports allegations that “Portugal serves as a hub for laundering illicit funds for Angola’s ruling class.”

Read the investigation OCCRP

Golden Investments or Golden Cityscape? Analysis by Transparency International Portugal

Read More
.@antoniocostapm os #GoldenVisas são uma porta de entrada dourada para a corrupção entrar em Portugal e na EU. O que tenciona fazer sobre o assunto? Tweet This


Tell the representatives of European institutions and national governments what you think about Golden Visa programmes. Call to Action

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