Like hardly any other EU country, Cyprus has benefited from contacts with Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan. Oligarchs have been provided with passports for investments – they are now to be taken off again. Russia’s war puts the island state in a dilemma.
After initial hesitation, the government of Cyprus is now taking strong action against Russian oligarchs who are on the sanctions list of the European Union. EU sanctions against Moscow are hitting the Cypriot economy hard. Because the island republic has been a refuge of rich Russians for decades.
Four other Russian oligarch families lose their Cypriot citizenship and thus their coveted status as EU citizens. The cabinet in Nicosia, chaired by President Nikos Anastasiades, decided on Wednesday to revoke the passports of the four Russians and their eleven relatives. This month, the island republic of Cyprus has already stripped 21 Russian investors and their family members of the citizenship they had acquired with investments on the island in recent years.
The Cypriot government did not provide any information on the identity of the expatriated Russians. Media on the island, however, have since published the names of the four oligarchs whose passports were declared invalid on Wednesday. All are on the list of 1091 high-ranking individuals sanctioned by the EU for their Kremlin connections. These are Grigori Berezkin, Igor Kesaev, Oleg Deripaska, as well as Gulbakhor Ismailova, the sister of the sanctioned oligarch Alisher Usmanov. He is said to have moved many assets to his sister in recent months, including the luxury yacht “Dilbar”. The 156-meter-long and allegedly the most expensive yacht in the world with 500 million dollars, which is in dry dock at the Blohm + Voss shipyard in Hamburg, was fixed by the German authorities in mid-April.
Passports for investments
The Cypriot government’s “Golden Passport” program, to which thousands of Russians owe their EU passports, was already under international criticism before the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Anyone who invested at least two and a half million in Cyprus, for example, in a luxury property, could acquire Cypriot citizenship and, as a result, an EU passport. It entitles to establishment in all 27 EU countries. Between 2007 and 2020, Cyprus issued 6779 “golden passports” under the program, of which 2886 were issued to Russian investors and their families. Under pressure from the EU Commission, Cyprus suspended the programme in November 2020 and launched an investigation. It showed that in 53 percent of all cases, the granting of citizenship violated the current provisions.
Cyprus is traditionally a refuge of wealthy Russians. In the 1950s, the then Soviet Union supported the Cypriots in their struggle against the British colonial rulers. After Cyprus joined the EU in 2004, Russian companies and oligarchs soon discovered the island as a tax haven and underground money bunker. The Cypriot banks lured with discretion.
The government’s dilemma
Today, an estimated 45,000 Russians live on the island. This is almost six percent of the island’s population. No other EU country is economically as closely intertwined with Russia as little Cyprus. This also applies to tourism. Every fourth vacationer came from Russia last year. Meanwhile, Cyprus, like all EU countries, has closed its airspace to Russian aircraft and stopped air traffic to it. Finance Minister Konstantinos Petridis estimates that the island’s gross domestic product will shrink by up to two percent this year as a result of the absence of Russian guests.