The interim report of the investigative committee looking into the citizenship by investment programme was a catalogue of irregularities, possible illegalities, fraud, misinformation and conflict of interest stretching over more than 500 pages.
Here is an example of what the committee wrote: “Presumably, in the above cases, the decision for granting citizenship took into account misleading, or false or inadequate data, therefore the issue of denying it is raised.” There were countless such remarks, about providers deceiving ministry officials in a variety of ways, or of applying pressure on ministers or the presidency to secure the approval for applications that did not satisfy even the basic criteria. Due diligence of applicants was not practised and only years after the introduction of the scheme did the interior ministry subscribe to the Worldcheck database.
Although the investigation started from 2007, the citizenship scheme took off after the bailout of 2013 when the country was in an assistance programme, the government had no access to the markets, the banks were in desperate need of recapitalisation and foreign direct investment was non-existent. In these conditions, the scheme was a very good idea as a way of helping along an economy deep in recession with unemployment at record levels. The European Commission initially turned a blind eye to it, and there would have been no problems for Cyprus if the scheme had been phased out in 2018.
Unfortunately, as is so often the case in Cyprus, the scheme had become a free-for-all, exploited to the full by providers and developers, with the authorities unwilling to apply the brakes on this cash-cow that caused another construction boom. Who was going to apply the brakes when even the president’s family was linked to the scheme? Ultimately, the responsibility for a situation so out of control, and about which several warnings had been sent by the Commission, belonged to the government and specifically to President Anastasiades, whose family law firm was also benefiting.
Yet the president would sit at the council of ministers’ meetings and approve applications without ever declaring a conflict of interest. The same applied to one of his ministers, whose family’s law firm had submitted a record number of applications. The laxness displayed by the ministries dealing with the applications, sadly, also leads to the president and raises questions about the instructions given to ministry officials by the government. This laxness and large-scale bending of what few rules there were could only have taken place on the go-ahead of the president, when we consider how difficult civil servants make it for well-respected businesses to set up operations in Cyprus.
What was made public on Tuesday was only an interim report. The investigation is not over yet, even though it has already highlighted cases relating to the committing of possible criminal offences. Will criminal charges be brought against anyone, will citizenships obtained unlawfully be revoked or will the report be left to gather dust? It is now up to the attorney-general to decide.