Cyprus: A disastrous decade where the elites tightened their grip

Even as Anastasiades’ presidency comes to an end, the endemic incompetence, nepotism and corruption in the Cypriot political system means hopes of a brighter future are bleak

Cyprus is set for a long awaited change of presidency on February 12, yet political nepotism and public apathy makes it the perfect haven for a corrupt oligarchy to enjoy free rein. Any hope of change is unfortunately a pipe dream, however Sunday’s election turns out.

And while the Mediterranean island may be of little concern or knowledge to most Europeans, its role as a hub for hiding dirty money and as a key geopolitical outpost lead to a strong residual impact on many of the continent’s primary issues.

As Nicos Anastasiades’ 10-year presidency comes to an obligatory end, it is worth reflecting on the magnitude of deliberate incompetence and shadiness that typify the corruption that runs endemically in the Cypriot political system.

An unprecedented bank heist

The opening months of his presidency set the tone for what lay ahead, in the most brutal fashion. Anastasiades signed off on a €10 billion bail-out by the Eurogroup, European Commission, European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

What we saw was an unprecedented robbery of people’s bank accounts to rescue the dying Cypriot banking system.

Accounts in Cyprus’ second largest bank at the time – Laiki Bank – saw anything in excess of 100,000 euros taken, while 47.5 percent of deposits in excess of that amount in leading lender Bank of Cyprus were also trimmed, as part of the county’s bailout agreement with the EU and IMF.

It was a move with geopolitical motives from the EU given the island’s strong dependence on Russia, but it wasn’t only wealthy Russians who were affected.

This theft meant that countless families who had fled Cyprus under British colonial rule, or after the Turkish invasion of 1974, and worked hard for decades in order to retire in their homeland and leave something behind for their children, woke up to their years of labour being stripped due to the new government’s need to fulfil the demands of the EU banking cartel.

There were even widespread suggestions at the time that the president had tipped off close friends of the coming financial crisis so they could move their money abroad, while he too was alleged to have funnelled millions of his own wealth to the UK prior to the bank closures.

The bidding of foreign companies for its wealth of recently-discovered natural gas reserves arrived conveniently at the same time as its financial crisis, meaning that the US and EU cronies who guided the island to bankruptcy could pick up these resources at a majorly discounted rate.

Golden passports – the oligarchy’s cash cow

Cyprus is known as the crossroads between three continents, and the outgoing president quite literally opened that path to anyone by selling Cypriot passports – and thus EU citizenship – for an investment of two million euros.

Anastasiades, along with a host of other Cypriot lawyers and politicians, cashed in on the scheme, signing off the sovereignty of Cyprus in exchange for their own personal wealth.

Cyprus has long been renowned as a haven for wealthy Russians, and no other nationality purchased more passports under his reign. Among the beneficiaries were tycoons Oleg Deripaska and Igor Kesayev although, due to the war in Ukraine, many are beginning to see their citizenship retrospectively stripped.

A host of the Ukrainian elite also benefited from this scheme: Arguably the most powerful Ukrainian oligarch, Igor Kolomoisky, used his golden passport to set up a Cyprus branch of PrivatBank and funnelled $5.5bln out of Ukraine – a third of the Ukrainian population’s deposits.

Another Cyprus ‘golden passport’ recipient was Mykola Zlochevsky, owner of Ukrainian gas company Burisma (registered in Cyprus). He has been investigated for money laundering, bribery, tax evasion and awarding government contracts to Burisma while Ecology Minister from 2010 to 2012.

Some of the Saudi Arabian elite didn’t miss out either. Prince Saud bin Abdulmohsen bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, nephew of Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, applied for a passport for himself, his wife and five of his children.

In 2015, Abdulrahman bin Mahfouz, son of deceased Saudi banker Khalid bin Mahfouz, bought a Cypriot passport for himself and 36 family members. He even owns a home situated next to Cyprus president Anastasiades.

Among the most controversial figures to have received a Cypriot passport is Malaysian fugitive businessman Jho Low, who stole billions from Malaysia’s sovereign wealth fund in what is now known as the ‘1MDB scandal’.

Family members and allies of long-time Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen also bought Cypriot passports.

Between 2017 and 2019, 482 Chinese nationals applied for passports via the scheme, more than any other nationality apart from Russian. They include several members of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, an advisory body to the Communist Party.

97 per cent of the 6,546 ‘golden’ passports issued between 2007 and August 2020 were issued under Anastasiades’ reign.

More than half, or 3,609, were for family members of investors and executives of companies and who were granted citizenship without actually meeting the legal criteria.

The scheme came to an end in August 2020, following an undercover report by Al Jazeera which exposed how a number of high-level Cypriot officials had abused the scheme to secure passports for several thousand foreigners who did not meet the legal requirements.

The chief protagonist in the Al Jazeera exposé was Dimitris Syllouris, who as speaker of the parliament at the time was the country’s second highest-ranking official after the president.

Syllouris was caught helping to fast-track a Cypriot passport for a fictitious Chinese businessman despite being told the applicant had a criminal record and was therefore barred from a ‘golden’ passport under the rules of the scheme.

And what was Syllouris’ punishment for his role in this whole affair? Upon resigning amid the controversy, he received a 100,000-euro lump sum payout, 3,000 euros for a secretary, a car, and a pension worth 5,100 euros per month.

And what was Anastasiades response when facing the media shortly after Al Jazeera’s expose?

“Don’t mention Al Jazeera otherwise the demon will take you,” roughly meaning that he would come down hard on anyone who pursued the matter.

Yet the threat was rather unnecessary, not only for its malice but rather because the Cypriot media is an authoritarian’s dream.

The fact that the majority of scandals of the last ten years, from the Panama Papers to the Cyprus Files, were exposed by foreign publications, speaks volumes of the state of the Cypriot media, who rarely dare to challenge the political and business elite of the country.

The media: An authoritarian’s dreams

The Cypriot media and politicians enjoy a closed-circle relationship that resembles more a Sicilian mafia than an EU state. To list all of the links would require an essay of its own, although a snapshot paints a sufficient picture:

Christos Tsouroullis, CEO of the largest media group, DIAS, is married to Emily Yiolitis, justice minister from 2020-2021. In January 2021, Yiolitis ordered a home raid of the person who created a parody Twitter account that mocked her lavish lifestyle, confiscating phones and laptops under an illegal warrant. Yiolitis had no political qualifications – her father is close friends with Anastasiades.

Tsouroullis sister, Fani, also worked as an advisor to Anastasiades.

Constantinos Ioannou, who was Health Minister during the COVID-19 crisis and threatened anyone who wasn’t vaccinated with exclusion from daily life, is the founder of IMH, which owns prominent news outlet Reporter.cy. Other publications of IMH, like magazines In-Business and GOLD, host events and award shows for the upper circle of Cypriot society.

The late Socratis Hasikos (2021), who served as Minister of Defence, Minister of Interior and as an MP for DISY from 1991-1996 and 2006-2011, was Chairman of the Board of AlfaMediaGroup (2003-2013) as well as the owner of the newspaper “Alithia” and a shareholder of the television station Omega. As recently as 2019, his sister Eleni Hasikou worked as an advisor to Anastasiades.

Owner of Kathimerini, Christis Lottides, is the husband of Maria Stylianou-Lottidou, who is Commissioner for Administration and the Protection of Human Rights.

The Editor-in-Chief of newspaper Kathimerini in January 2021 wrote a piece about the president flying millions of euros generated from golden passports to the Seychelles on private flights. The paper wrote a letter of apology to the president and the editor resigned.

Law firm Andreas Neocleous LLC (which oversaw 100 golden passport applications from 2017 and 2019) along with son Panagiotis, were found guilty of bribing the deputy attorney general in 2017.

Panagiotis was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in jail but, just a year later, received a presidential pardon. Andreas Neocleous became owner of the Cyprus Mail newspaper in 2019, and articles regarding the family’s corruption cases have been erased from the digital version.

The main candidates – branches of the previous leadership

Anastasiades will finally leave office after a torrid decade, yet will this also mean the end to all of the corruption? Absolutely not.

The top three candidates in the 2023 elections – Nikos Christodoulides, Andreas Mavroyiannis and Averof Neofytou – were all key supporters of the Anastasiades government for the majority of his tenure, working closely with him on the continuous half-assed attempts to solve the Cyprus problem.

In the presidential debates, all boldly vowed to solve the issues of the past government – issues they failed to solve together in the last decade.

Cyprus may be blessed with 300 sunny days per year but the future is anything but bright, as a bumbling oligarchy continues to control the most important aspects of society, uncontested by a dormant population either unaware on uninterested in the stranglehold that these ‘elites’ have on them.

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