CYPRUS: Secrecy surrounding passport scheme was a mistake

6 mins read


Journalists are usually blamed for getting the message wrong or concocting fake news to generate clickbait on social media, but the one thing organisations, governments and institutions fear is bad publicity.

The Cyprus government likes to pretend that everything is hunky-dory as they are getting everything right while those who criticise their untold wisdom are simply harbouring sour grapes.

Government’s will hide the truth as best they can for fear of being exposed or simply be disingenuously vague about policy issues, so ministers have plausible deniability.

Lack of transparency and access to information only perpetuates the opaqueness of the system where secrecy thrives, and a lack of accountability is the absolute norm.

All of a sudden, Nicosia became worried about the island’s reputation when reports surfaced that some unsavoury characters among Cambodia’s elite possessed Cyprus passport by paying a few quid.

Then there was the fugitive Malaysian financier who was also fast-tracked Cypriot citizenship with a helping hand from the Archbishop – leader of the Cyprus Orthodox faith.

It took some digging to reveal these names because the government doesn’t like to advertise who receives a golden passport as it’s an intrusion of privacy.

Maybe if the government did publish a list of those who received a passport, they would be more careful in vetting the candidates who were eligible for citizenship.

Surely, wealthy investors choosing Cyprus on its merits is something to shout about (not anymore).

In the past, the government brushed aside any concerns raised over the precarious nature of its cash for passports bonanza.

International surveys highlighting a lack of transparency in the investment scheme were shrugged off as the mutterings of a jilted lover jealous of how sexy Cyprus had become as a destination for millionaire investors.

Like all successful authoritarian regimes, Cyprus blamed the negative findings on envious or devious outsiders who would try every trick in the book to do the country down in the cutthroat business of international investment.

Cyprus did badly on corruption indices while its reputation as a tax haven and hideout for dodgy Russian oligarchs only seemed to blossom as the authorities were busy counting the money.

There is an argument to offer that as a tiny island, Cyprus was bullied with easy headlines of a hideaway in the sun for financial crooks given the Americans wanted to stick it to Russia.

This was allowed to slide because the government treats smart PR like a zombie virus.

Even if the country did have strict anti-money laundering regulations in place, it was doing a good job of hiding the fact while an insensitive approach to how the island was viewed by financial authorities didn’t help.

It took pressure from the EU for Cyprus to start pulling out the weeds, although when a report earlier in the year singled out the island’s golden visa scheme as bad for business there was a churlish response about rival jurisdictions putting the boot in.

In an act of damage limitation, Cyprus had no option but to introduce more stringent criteria and admit mistakes were made in the past.

But when the scheme was linked to some unsavoury characters (there are others most probably hidden in the closet), the government had to decontaminate the house and review conditions under which passports were issued.

Some 26 individuals will have their passports stripped while another 2,000 are under scrutiny as they got the nod before the authorities started worrying about the island’s reputation in 2018.

There is still the feeling that the government is only grudgingly doing enhanced background checks and super-duper due diligence because it has been forced to do so rather than believing it’s the best way forward.

Especially when the President suggests its only the Cypriots themselves that believe Cyprus has been made an international laughingstock while the outside world is oblivious to it all.

Safe to say that without the revelations exposed by pesky journalists or the wagging finger from international bodies, the Cyprus government would not have felt compelled to lift the bonnet on its investment scheme and start tampering with the engine.

I don’t see cabinet members waking up one morning feeling pangs of guilt over the citizenship scheme believing the patient needed major surgery or it would die a slow and shameful death.

Being one of the very few EU countries that place its passport in the shop window, Cyprus should have been extra vigilant in who it opened the door to.

Granted, no system is fail-safe, but we entered into this scheme as naively as those firefighters at Chernobyl, it was never going to end well.