Cyprus and others must eliminate the passport black market

‘Investment programmes’ that tie the granting of citizenship to money can never be truly free of corruption.

A person holds an image of a passport during a protest against corruption outside the Filoxenia Conference Center, currently hosting Cyprus parliament, in Nicosia, Cyprus October 14, 2020. [Yiannis Kourtoglou/Reuters]

“Don’t mention Al Jazeera to me, so the devil will not take you,” the President of Cyprus, Nicos Anastasiades, angrily told reporters waiting for him to comment on the investigation that rocked the Eastern Mediterranean island nation on Monday.

His reaction, as shocking as it may be, was somewhat understandable.

Al Jazeera’s investigation, The Cyprus Papers Undercover, showed how Cypriot authorities were willing to bypass regulations and even break the law to help criminals obtain European passports via the Cyprus Investment Programme (CIP). The fact that several high-ranking government officials, including Speaker of the House of Representatives Demetris Syllouris, were implicated by the investigation was a huge blow to the president and the government of Cyprus.

So, the president’s reaction was understandable, but was it indicative of a desire to tackle this deep-rooted problem?

Al Jazeera’s investigation carried the issue to global headlines and proved the complicity of some elected officials in the misconduct, but the president was aware of the controversy surrounding the country’s citizenship-through-investment programme long before its undercover reporters got to work. Over the last few years, several reports have been published questioning the legality and legitimacy of such schemes, particularly in Cyprus, Malta and Bulgaria. Reporters, policy experts and researchers repeatedly underlined the pitfalls of schemes that tie the granting of citizenship to money, and flagged loopholes in these policies that could lead to criminals, politically exposed people and other problematic figures obtaining European passports.

Despite all this, Cypriot authorities, including President Anastasiades, not only failed to take action but also did everything in their power to defend the controversial scheme and accuse its critics of having ulterior motives.

Ignoring the fact that the scheme was amended five times since 2014, they defiantly claimed that it has all the necessary protective mechanisms built in to prevent the granting of passports to unfit individuals. Moreover, they repeatedly accused critics of the scheme of either working with Cyprus’s rivals, or trying to defame the country for political and economic gain.

And when Al Jazeera released its investigation and demonstrated that Cyprus has indeed “sold” passports to, among others, convicted criminals and people wanted by Interpol, they barely changed their approach to the issue.

President Anastasiades ordering reporters “not to mention Al Jazeera” was not a “joke” as his representatives later claimed, but part of his government’s efforts to downplay the investigation and avoid being forced to do anything tangible to address the problem.

In their initial response, Cypriot authorities refuted Al Jazeera’s claims as “propaganda”, with Interior Minister Nicos Nouris arguing they only aimed to damage the country’s economy through “false information”. They also accused the Qatar-based broadcaster of seeking to smear Cyprus’s reputation due to its alleged political ties to the island nation’s regional rival, Turkey. They remained similarly defensive even when the issue was raised by the European Union.

While trying to deflect the blame, and create a narrative in which Cyprus is being unjustly targeted by external forces with ulterior motives, they also tried to frame the scheme in question solely as an “investment programme”.

This is not only false, and problematic, for several reasons, but it also demonstrates the government’s unwillingness to acknowledge the dubious ethical foundations of the programme.

The CIP, despite its name, has never been an investment programme. It was created for one purpose and one purpose only: selling EU passports for significant sums to individuals who have no legitimate claim to Cypriot citizenship. Developers of the programme clearly understood this, as all their advertising had focused not on investment opportunities in the country, but on the claim that through this scheme one “can acquire a European passport in three months”.

Again, the CIP has never been an investment programme, since immovable property – a passport – bought at highly inflated prices is not an investment. Moreover, a passport is by definition an asset of the State and this raises serious questions about the ethical and legal standing of the CIP.

The first question to ask is whether any particular administration has any ethical or even legal grounds to implement policies that cede to some private invididuals an asset that belongs to the country, and ultimately to all its people. How and why are the benefits of that asset offered to these few people? Some may argue that all Cypriots benefit from the “investments” these individuals are asked to make in the country in order to acquire a passport. Sure, it seems logical to assume that any investment would help the country through the creation of jobs and other effects. But studies conducted by the Cyprus Finance Ministry have shown that the contribution the programme has made to the GDP and the economy, in general, has been very limited.

The second is a question that Al Jazeera’s undercover investigation has brought to light: Can the selling of passports, leaving the ethics and the legality of the practice itself aside, ever be efficiently regulated?

A European passport has no definite value, but it is not that difficult to see that such a document can be invaluable to many. An EU passport not only gives a person the right to move freely across Europe, but it also gives them access to a huge economic market and specific legal protections and rights. For criminals and politically exposed persons, it can prove even more valuable – it can help them avoid prosecution in their home country.

It is beyond doubt that certain high net worth individuals in legal and political trouble would be willing to pay any price for an EU passport. As this is also known by those tasked with “selling” passports in the name of the state, can any government ever come up with regulations strict enough to ensure passports are not sold to people unfit to acquire them?

Can an “investment programme” that ties the granting of citizenship to money ever be truly free of corruption?

Citizenship through investment programmes, by their nature, are black market affairs. The seller knows the good they are selling has no fixed price, is highly desired by many and can be produced without any real costs. The buyers, on the other hand, know that the good on offer can provide them with invaluable benefits and protections. As a result, the seller and the buyer can easily resort to illegitimate and even unlawful means to complete this highly profitable, and hard to regulate, transaction.

Following Al Jazeera’s investigation, several Cypriot officials, including Syllouris, resigned from their positions and the government eventually announced its decision to abolish the country’s citizenship through investment programme.

Nevertheless, this should not be seen as the end of this affair. Authorities in Cyprus still need to answer questions about why they established such a scheme in the first place, and why they tried to defend the indefensible for such a long time.

And, following the demise of the CIP, governments around the world will need to decide whether they will continue to try and fail to regulate the passport black market or do the right thing and abolish it for good.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.