A few years ago official figures showed a large number of Russian assets in Cyprus, said Justice Commissioner Didier Reyders
An update in relation to how many assets of Russian oligarchs in Cyprus have been frozen, as so far today according to official data, assets worth 104 million euros have been frozen, an amount considered low, Justice Commissioner Didier Reyders will ask during his contacts in Cyprus, according to what he said in an interview with the Cyprus News Agency ahead of his visit on Thursday and Friday.
The Justice Commissioner also referred to the course of the infringement procedure for the golden passports, noting that from the three member states that the Commission focused on, Bulgaria has completely stopped the relevant programs and therefore the process has been closed, Malta continues the program and therefore has been referred to the Court of Justice of the EU, but that Cyprus is in the middle.
As he said, Cyprus has suspended the relevant legislation without repealing it, citing legal reasons related to the review of citizenships that have been granted. According to Commissioner Reiders, a complete repeal of the legislation would be preferable.
Mr. Reyders also expressed his satisfaction with the cooperation so far in relation to the monitoring of the rule of law in the context of the Commission's annual reports (part of the preparation of which is his contacts in various Member States), as well as with the reforms of judicial power in Cyprus.
He stressed, however, that what is important is that authorities like the one against corruption will be able to function in practice and that they will have the necessary human resources and resources.
Finally, Mr. Reyders refers to the state of freedom of the press in Cyprus, focusing particularly on ensuring the independence of the public broadcasting media, on the occasion of the reference to RIK in the Commission's latest report, but also on the Commission's promotion of European legislation against abusive lawsuits against journalists.
Referring to his recent visit to Malta, Mr Reiders said he had contacts with members of the country's government, parliament, civil society and the attorney general's office. As he said, the aim of the visit was to discuss rule of law issues and the development of a series of reforms, stressing that beyond the adoption of legislation, its implementation is what is most important.
Speaking more generally about the process drafting the Commission's annual Rule of Law Reports, Mr. Reiders pointed out that for the first time last year the chapters for each country included recommendations and therefore this year an assessment can be made of the implementation of the recommendations.
In Malta specifically, as he said, he referred to the need for greater cooperation with European organizations such as Europol, referring to the role played by the agency's involvement in the investigation into the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia as well as the European Prosecutor's office.
The visit to Malta was also concerned with the implementation of EU sanctions against Russia for the invasion of Ukraine, particularly asking to be informed of the total value of the assets frozen in the country as a result of the sanctions, noting that in some countries the amounts declared were lower than one would expect.
Giving Cyprus an example, he noted that after years of operation of the “golden passport” program for investments, which often involved citizens of Russia or Belarus, the question arises how relatively low amounts of frozen assets can be recorded.
He pointed out that in some member states, the obligation to inform the Commission of the amounts of assets that have been frozen, has brought about changes in the amounts declared.
“I have seen in Italy, in Spain, after my visit “he said, “a big increase in numbers”, which he said could not be ruled out due to technical issues. He cited Hungary as another example, where initially around 3000 euros were declared in frozen assets, which later reached 870 million.
Freezing of assets in Cyprus
< p>Speaking about his visit to Cyprus, he noted that there will be a dialogue process on the reforms that have been agreed on the rule of law, as well as on the fight against corruption and the freedom of the press.
When asked what information has for the assets of people included in the EU sanctions and frozen in Cyprus by the authorities, noted that these are more significant amounts than those reported in Malta or Greece, reaching 104 million euros.
< p>However, he noted, a few years ago official data showed a large number of Russian assets in Cyprus. As he said, during his contacts he will discuss “why it is difficult to find more” assets, “perhaps in bank accounts or assets in various companies, but also real estate or yachts or other assets of Russian oligarchs”.
He added that the second point of discussion is better enforcement of sanctions, as, he said, “we are concerned about the different possible ways for various oligarchs and entities to circumvent sanctions,” by transferring assets to other individuals or structures. Sometimes, he said, this involves family members or complex international structures in tax havens.
Mr. Reiders also reminded that he has proposed the addition of evasion of sanctions to the crimes recognized throughout the EU, and that consultation with the Council of the EU and the European Parliament is underway. At a future stage, he noted, these assets could be seized and even used to support Ukraine.
Asked to comment on the recent addition of individuals and legal entities from Cyprus to US and UK sanctions for allegedly helping Russian oligarchs circumvent sanctions, Mr. Reiders did not comment specifically on the case but referred to the fact that the discussion on the next package of sanctions is now even more focused on their effective implementation.
As he said, the process to expand the list of crimes recognized by the EU (eurocrimes) is long, while a discussion on expanding the role of the European Public Prosecutor's Office.
When asked about this, Mr. Reiders added that he will request information and specific data from the Cypriot authorities regarding the sanctions against Cypriot citizens from the USA and the UK.
On the broader issue of sanctions enforcement, he referred to the mission of the EU's sanctions enforcement envoy, David O'Sullivan, and his contacts with third countries. In particular, he referred to the issues concerning Turkey to ensure that there is no circumvention of sanctions with the participation of Turkish companies, as well as with Georgia and countries of the Western Balkans, especially Serbia which does not apply the sanctions.
Acknowledging that of course the candidate countries for EU membership can say that they will not apply the sanctions themselves, he added that “if they do not apply them, they must act against the circumvention of the sanctions”.
“This moment the main message is, please explain the figures and what you are doing about the sanctions from the EU, the US, the UK, all the different partners,” he noted.
“We are trying to ask various partners and third countries to align their policies with the sanctions decided not only by the EU but also the US, the UK and others,” he added, speaking of a real diplomatic effort.
< p>Regarding the candidate countries for membership, he emphasized that “it is logical that we ask for alignment in foreign policy, alignment with EU foreign policy is a rule”.
Specifically, for Cyprus, he emphasized that “if there are connections between companies in Cyprus and in a third country to circumvent sanctions, we not only have diplomatic actions, but also the possibility of acting against a criminal offense”, adding that in such cases it may have a role and the European Public Prosecutor's Office in case some actions affect EU funds.
When asked where the infringement procedure against Cyprus is for the “golden passports” “, Mr Reiders reiterated in principle that it is clear that, as Ursula von der Leyen also mentioned, “EU values are not for sale”.
“We have had discussions about the so-called golden passports with three of the 27” member states, he pointed out. In the first case, of Bulgaria, it is now established that “there is no intention to promote new legislation”, referring to such programs and therefore there is no longer an infringement procedure.
In Malta, however, he continued, “they continued to receive applications” with the difference that “they only decided to suspend (the program) for Russian and Belarusian citizens”.
“But the message was clear, that it is done for budget reasons”, and for this reason the Commission took the case to the Court of the EU and awaits its decision, as “we are sure that there is a lack of honest cooperation with all the member states”, as the Malta not only provides a national passport, but access to EU citizenship.
“In between we have Cyprus”, he said, adding that he had many discussions with members of the government and the Attorney General. “What we have requested is to stop the process and to review the old applications. And I have seen real work being done to review the implementation” of legislation in the past, he continued, referring to the review of citizenships granted under the Cyprus Investment Program.
However, he continued, regarding the abolition of the program, “the decision was to suspend the program, which they explained to me was done as we need to preserve the law so that we can review past decisions. We are looking into that.”
“I would prefer to see the law one day withdrawn” and “ensure that the law can be withdrawn and not be enforced,” he noted, adding that he would discuss the matter with the Attorney General.
“We don't want to stop the procedure (on violation) without the final certainty that we can have the legislation repealed and not simply suspended,” emphasized Commissioner Reiders.
Asked if the Commission has been informed about the numbers of cases that have been reviewed, Mr. Reyders stated that they have received some data, but he prefers to be informed about the latest data during the visit before commenting.
Commissioner Reiders also linked the process of reviewing citizenships granted through the golden passport program to oligarchs' assets frozen as a result of the sanctions. As he pointed out, the Cyprus Investment Program was not just about paying for a passport but “real investment in assets in the country”. “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”.
Referring to the European Parliament's proposal for a complete legislative ban on programs that grant citizenship against investment, he noted that the Commission's response is that this is not necessary as “we will ask the Court (of the EU) to declare that this is now prohibited due to how such procedures affect European citizenship”.
Regarding the criteria that the government has set for the permanent residence of investors, he noted that he will discuss what the criteria are at the moment in order to understand exactly the situation.
He stated that his office, in cooperation with the Commissioner for Home Affairs, has stopped similar procedures from third countries and underlined that in the EU “there is a difference between citizenship and residence permit”, but that “we must be sure that there is real investment and real economic activity in the country”.
As he noted, in several member states there is an investment criterion for residence and activity in a country. “We want to be sure that whether through a third country or a member state, it will be impossible for someone to come to the EU without a real investment or reason to be in the EU,” he added.
Rule of law and justice
With regard to the rule of law, the Justice Commissioner expressed his satisfaction with the cooperation with the authorities in preparing the annual report on the rule of law, noting that it is now the norm for Member States to be involved in the process, but also to cooperate with various parts of society .
“What is very clear is that we have seen a real package of reforms for the judicial system and the fight against corruption,” he said.
“The main message is that they must continue to apply new legislations, but not only through their approval in the Parliament, but also with their very correct implementation”, he emphasized.
Mr. Reiders particularly highlighted the issue of resources, in terms of personnel and technical assistance, for the justice system, referring to the ongoing reforms, among others, for the digitization of justice and Cyprus' commitments through the Recovery and Resilience Fund.
Among the reforms he considers important, he continued, they concern the role of the Attorney General and the limitations on possible actions against the decisions of the Attorney General, as well as better monitoring of the prosecution of high-level corruption cases.
“To be specific, and I also said this in Malta, I am not asking for convictions, I am asking if there is an investigation, where are the final decisions”, he continued, pointing out that this does not concern the content of the decision.
Mr Reiders also referred to the need for “a real dialogue at national level with all stakeholders”.
Referring to Cyprus' ranking in Transparency International's corruption perception indicators, Mr. Reyders noted that there is a lot of work to be done on this issue.
“As in other member states, we discussed the creation of an independent anti-corruption authority. They are important elements of the recent Recovery and Resilience Plan,” he noted.
He added that it is also extremely important that such a service has “appropriate technical and human resources”. He cited as an example the case of France, where after the creation of a principle for transparency in public life, and the direction of significant resources in this direction, more and more cases are coming to light.
“We have seen very good progress with the establishment of the authority. We want to be sure that it is truly independent in its operation,” he noted, adding that this is however not enough. “We need to be sure that he has enough resources to take initiatives against high-level corruption cases,” he added.
The Commissioner also pointed out the importance in this context of transparency regarding the assets of government officials so that “there can be a comparison of the financial situation of the officials at the beginning of their term of office, during their term of office and after their term of office ».
“The most important element is the real implementation and the real operation” he noted, adding that in his contacts he will ask to be informed what resources the anti-corruption authority will have, and the real intentions to develop a culture of transparency regarding assets.
Freedom of the Press
Mr Reiders finally referred to issues of freedom of the press and in particular to references in past reports on ownership transparency legislation of the media, as well as the status of the RIK.
“It is not the same to discuss media freedom and pluralism in a very large country and a smaller one,” said Mr. Reiders, noting that in small markets “it is increasingly important to pay attention to public media services.”
If the public media, he said, “are in the hands of the government, this is a problem everywhere, but in other member states there is competition and without delay a reaction”. For this reason, he recalled, he himself dealt with the issue that had arisen regarding the state agency in Slovenia.
Mr. Reiders referred to the possibility of a public dialogue with different member states of a similar size to Cyprus in order to discuss the challenges arising from the existence of a small market at national level.
In this context, he continued, the transparency about media ownership is very important, but the role of public media in smaller countries “has become perhaps the most important issue”.
Mr. Reiders also made special reference to the protection of journalists, referring to the ongoing process to approve an EU Anti-Abusive Lawsuits Directive (SLAPP) aimed at journalists and rights defenders.
The proposal, he noted , envisages a balanced approach as “it must be possible to sue for defamation”, but that at the same time it is difficult to justify 40 lawsuits against the same journalists for different reasons, as was done in the case of Daphne Guarana Galizia, with the aim of stopping investigative efforts.
For this, he continued, the goal is for the judge “to be able to stop the prosecution from the beginning by saying there is no case”.
Regarding the war in Ukraine and the EU's contribution to the prosecution of war crimes allegedly committed during the Russian invasion, Mr. Reiders noted that Cyprus is very active in discussions in the relevant dialogue group.
“It is very important that there is real support not only for investigation but for trials for international crimes”, he noted, referring among other things to the importance that the international arrest warrant against Vladimir Putin concerns the abduction of children from Ukraine.
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