The European Commission is perplexed by the low number of Russian oligarchs' frozen assets in Cyprus, said European Commissioner for Justice Didier Reynders on Wednesday, a day before his visit to the island.
Official numbers reveal that so far, assets worth €104 million have been frozen, which is considered a low sum, and Reynders added that during his contacts in Cyprus, he will inquire about how many assets of Russian billionaires have been blocked.
During an interview, he also mentioned the development of the infringement proceedings on golden passports, which he stated is linked to asset freezing. He stated that, of the three member states targeted by the Commission, Bulgaria has totally halted the relevant programmes, and thus the matter is closed. Malta continues with the programme and has thus been referred to the EU Court of Justice, but Cyprus is caught in the middle.
Cyprus has paused the relevant legislation but has not repealed it, claiming legal issues connected to the assessment of citizenship grants.
According to Commissioner Reynders, a total repeal of the legislation would be preferable.
However, he expressed his satisfaction with the cooperation so far in terms of monitoring the rule of law in the context of the Commission's annual reports (part of which are his contacts in various Member States), as well as the judiciary reforms in Cyprus.
However, he emphasised that what matters is that authorities such as the anti-corruption one can function in practise and have the necessary human and resource capacity.
The European Justice Commissioner linked the process of assessing citizenships granted under the golden passport initiative to oligarchs' assets being frozen as a result of penalties. As he put it, the Cyprus Investment Programme was about more than just paying for a passport; it was about "real investment in assets in the country."
He used Cyprus as an example, noting that after years of the so-called golden passport programme, which frequently featured Russian or Belarussian citizens, the question of how relatively small amounts of frozen assets might be recorded emerges.
He noted that the duty to notify the Commission of the quantities of frozen assets has resulted in revisions in the amounts stated in several Member States.
“I have seen in Italy, in Spain, since my visit, a big increase in the numbers,” which he said could not be due to technical issues. He cited Hungary as another example, where initially about €3,000 in frozen assets were declared, which then rose to €870 million.
Although the assets of individuals subject to EU sanctions that have been frozen in Cyprus are greater than those reported in Malta or Greece, totaling €104 million, this is still regarded as low.
Official numbers from a few years ago revealed a substantial amount of Russian assets in Cyprus. As a result, during his visits to the island on Thursday and Friday, he would explain "why it is difficult to find more" assets. These are "possibly in bank accounts or assets in various companies, but also in real estate, yachts, or other Russian oligarchs' assets."
“We are trying to better understand why at the end of such a long process we have 100 million euros in frozen assets and not more.”
He went on to say that the second point of contention is how to best implement punishment. "We are concerned about various oligarchs and entities circumventing sanctions" by moving assets to other individuals or organisations. He claims that this sometimes involves family members or complicated international structures in tax havens.
Reynders also reminded the EU Council and the European Parliament that he has suggested adding sanctions evasion to the list of offences recognised across the EU, and that dialogue with the EU Council and the European Parliament is ongoing. He emphasised that in the future, these assets could be taken and even utilised to support Ukraine.
When asked about the recent inclusion of natural and legal persons from Cyprus to US and UK penalties for allegedly supporting Russian billionaires in bypassing sanctions, the European Justice Commissioner declined to comment. He did, however, mention that the conversation about the next set of sanctions is now more focused on their successful execution.
He stated that the process of enlarging the list of EU-recognized offences (eurocrimes) is lengthy, and that discussions to increase the role of the European Public Prosecutor's Office are now underway.
Referring to the condition of press freedom in Cyprus, which was also on the agenda, Reynders emphasised the importance of protecting the independence of public broadcasting media, as well as the Commission's promotion of European legislation against abusive litigation against journalists. He also highlighted how the commission's most recent report mentioned Cybc since it revealed some flaws in the appointment and discharge of its board members.
By fLEXI tEAM