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Bulgaria Withdraws Citizenship Of Russian Tycoon Amid EU Criticism


Sergei Adonyev in 2011
Sergei Adonyev in 2011

Bulgaria has revoked the Bulgarian citizenship of a Russian millionaire amid EU criticism of a scheme known as the "golden passport."

Sergei Adonyev's citizenship was withdrawn over a 20-year-old fraud conviction in the United States, Bulgaria's Justice Ministry said on January 23.

The announcement came after Sofia on January 22 said it intends to put an end to the practice, which allows wealthy foreigners buy citizenship in return for investment.

Bulgaria has been a member of the European Union since 2007 and its citizens can move without a visa within the European Union. However, Bulgaria is keen to also join Europe's passport-free Schengen Area.

A ministry spokeswoman confirmed an RFE/RL report that Adonyev's citizenship, which he acquired in 2008, had been revoked in May following notification that he had been convicted in the United States 20 years ago for money laundering.

The Justice Ministry also said it is planning to reform its nationality laws, including scrapping the "golden passport" scheme, as the EU Commission, in a first-ever report on such schemes, warned that passports issued in one member country of the bloc can open a back door to citizenship or residency in all 28 states.

EU Justice Commissioner Vera Jurova said at the launch of the report on January 23 that golden visas are the equivalent of "opening the golden gate to Europe for some privileged people."

"We want more guarantees related to security and anti-money laundering. We expect more transparency," she told reporters in Brussels.

EU members Cyprus and Malta, along with Bulgaria, give passports to non-EU nationals who make sufficient investments in their countries. The scale of investment required to obtain a passport there ranges from 1 million to 2 million euros ($1.1 million to $2.3 million).

They and 17 other member states also grant residence rights to investors. That right puts an individual on the path to citizenship.

The European Commission is setting up a special team to monitor the schemes and boost information-sharing.

Adonyev, 57, co-founded the Russian mobile operator Yota, which he sold to Russian billionaire Alisher Usmanov’s Megafon. He also owns a stake in the Russian smartphone maker Yota Devices.

The Russian edition of Forbes magazine ranked him as the country's 147th richest businessman in 2018, with an estimated net worth of $700 million.

Adonyev was a donor to the campaign of one of the candidates in last year's Russian presidential election, Ksenia Sobchak.

Adonyev was not immediately available for comment.

Bulgarian NGO Anti-Corruption Fund (ACF) alerted authorities to Adonyev's conviction one year ago. ACF also questioned whether foreigners were being properly vetted before granted citizenship.

Since 2013, Bulgaria has made it possible to apply for citizenship in return for at least 500,000 euros ($568,000) of investment.

The EU has voiced concern that such schemes could pose a security risk and foster corruption.

ACF says Bulgaria has granted 225 passports to foreigners for special contributions in the past 10 years, 125 of them to Russian citizens.

In a report published in October, NGOs Transparency International and Global Witness said such schemes -- run by Austria, Bulgaria, Hungary, and Latvia among others -- posed the risk of money laundering and were "an attractive prospect for the criminal and the corrupt."

The report said that across the European Union 6,000 passports and 100,000 residency permits had been granted in the space of 10 years.

With reporting by Reuters, BBC, AFP, and Rikard Jozwiak in Brussels
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