The U.K. let Russian oligarchs buy their way into residency through ‘golden visa’ deals. It isn’t the only country to do so
The British government revealed this week that eight Russian oligarchs sanctioned for their links to Russian President Vladimir Putin had bought their way into the U.K. under an “investor visa” scheme.
Sometimes called a “golden visa,” the scheme offered visas to foreign nationals who promised to invest at least $2.6 million in the U.K., with the option of applying for permanent residency within five years—and in even shorter periods if an applicant promised more money. According to the Financial Times, the U.K. granted 798 investor visas between September 2020 and 2021—of which 82 were awarded to Russians. The U.K. government did not reveal which sanctioned individuals received the investor visas.
The U.K. abolished the investor visa program last month amid worsening relations with Russia in the lead-up to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. However, the U.K. is not alone in offering investor visas to wealthy individuals—Russian or otherwise.
Portugal offers two-year visas to individuals who have invested in the country—sometimes accepting investments as low as $222,000, depending on where the money is going. The visa can be easily renewed every two years so long as the investment is maintained—with the option of applying for Portuguese citizenship after five years. Golden visa holders can stay in Portugal for as little as seven days a year and keep their status.
According to CNN Portugal, Russian citizens applying for golden visas had brought $308 million into the country’s economy over the past decade. But on Feb. 26—two days after Russia invaded Ukraine—Portuguese Foreign Minister Augusto Santos Silva announced that Portugal would stop issuing investment visas to Russian nationals.
Other European countries, such as Spain, Greece, and the Czech Republic, have also barred Russian nationals from applying to their golden visa programs.
One sanctioned Russian oligarch with permission to live in Portugal, however, did not technically get his status from being rich. In 2021, Roman Abramovich—the billionaire owner of England’s Chelsea Football Club—received full Portuguese citizenship under a scheme that offered citizenship to the descendants of Sephardic Jews expelled from the country 400 years ago.
On March 16, Portugal said it would amend that law to prevent it from being “manipulated.”
In 2019, the UAE launched a scheme to grant a five-year visa to anyone who invests $1.4 million in the region, and a 10-year visa to those who invest $2.7 million in Emirati funds or companies. The program was meant to help support the country’s economy—especially the global city of Dubai—after the economic disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The scheme has proved popular among wealthy Indians—including some of India’s most famous Bollywood stars—hoping to take advantage of Dubai’s tax-free status. Russian oligarchs, reportedly, are also pouring money into Dubai real estate as Western sanctions bite investments elsewhere. According to the New York Times, at least 38 businessmen with ties to Vladimir Putin owned mansions valued at over $318 million in Dubai. The UAE has not imposed sanctions on Russia.
Rich foreigners looking for a green card can apply for the EB-5 visa, which secures residency status for those who invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in the U.S.
In theory, there are two ways for wealthy investors to gain this status: They could either invest in a U.S. company that employs at least 10 Americans, or they can put money into a “regional center”—a project authorized by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to connect international investors with developers in need of funding. The Hudson Yards project in New York City was one such “regional center,” with $1.2 billion of its funding coming from EB-5 investors.
According to data from the U.S. State Department, 59 Russian nationals received EB-5 visas in the 2019 fiscal year, compared to over 3,800 from mainland China and over 500 from India.
Malta goes a step further than the investor visa, offering outright citizenship to those willing to invest money in the country. It’s one of a small number of countries that offers citizenships for sale, alongside Turkey, Dominica, and St. Kitts and Nevis.
Malta offers citizenship—in effect, making someone a Maltese national with the permanent right to live and work in the country—to those who invest around $1.1 million. Because Malta is a member of the EU, the country’s golden passport scheme gives an additional advantage: Buying a Maltese passport grants the owner the ability to live and work in any EU country.
According to the Times of Malta, Russians made up 54.3% of applicants to Malta’s cash-for-passports scheme when it launched in 2014.
While Malta’s laws technically require someone to reside in Malta for at least 12 months before applying for citizenship, an investigation dubbed the Passport Papers found that Maltese passport agents were advising clients that a few days of physical presence in Malta would be enough to qualify. The investigation also claimed to uncover a “scoring system” that would determine whether someone had “genuine links” to Malta, which included activities like opening a local bank account or subscribing to a Maltese newspaper.
European leaders have long criticized Malta’s investor citizenship scheme, and pressure intensified after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. On Feb. 26, Western leaders said that they would take efforts to “limit the sale of citizenship—so-called golden passports—that let wealthy Russians connected to the Russian government become citizens of our countries and gain access to our financial systems.”
On March 2, Malta suspended its golden passport scheme for Russian and Belarussian nationals.
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