As the atrocities of war rage on in Ukraine, the presence of Russian money throughout Europe continues to be thrust under a high-resolution microscope. Countries like Germany have been shown to be worryingly dependent on Russia for gas, while the UK has faced criticism for allowing oligarchs to park their money in prestigious real estate.
There is one country in Europe, however, that has been found to have gone further than any others in helping wealthy Russians inject their wealth, secure influence and even obtain citizenship: Malta. When the Maltese people go to the polls on Saturday it will mark the first major election hosted by an EU state since Ukraine was invaded. The eyes of the wider European community will be trained on Malta this weekend to see whether voters make their mark in ending their country’s entrenched place in the Russian sphere of influence.
Sunshine, cocktails, and… embezzlement?
What was once an island renowned for its beaches, cuisine and laid-back lifestyle, Malta has in the past few years become a synonym for all kinds of illicit activities. The watershed moment came in 2017 when the investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia was brutally murdered, directing international attention to the corrupted island nation. The fact that Galizia’s assassination was later found to have involved government officials remains a stain on a once proud country.
Before her death, Galizia had for some time been working on unearthing the ties between the Maltese government and wealthy Russian oligarchs. The establishment of the so-called “Golden Visa scheme” for high-net-worth individuals – offering EU citizenship in exchange for a cash donation – has acted as a backdoor into the EU for the best part of a decade, establishing Malta as the soft underbelly of Europe.
Permissible under Maltese law, Galizia was rooting out a practice rife with cronyism, bribery, and kickbacks. Those applying for passports do not have to spend time on the island – often candidates would rent crumbling houses that qualified as an address to fill out the relevant paperwork. The incentives for the Maltese regime to participate have always been clear. A government spokesperson has gone on record that without golden passports the country would go “broke”.
But it is not just any government official wrapped up corruption allegations. The current Prime Minister Robert Abela been found to have lent his villa to wealthy Russian individuals to help them fulfil their residence requirements on the island. On top of this, Abela’s own wife Lydia has been revealed to have played a part in processing golden passport applications.
Malta has raked in a whopping €1 billion since 2014 via the dissemination of golden visas, with the scheme acting almost as a substitute for income from foreign direct investment; investors know the difficulties of operating in Malta, and many of them stay out due to the island nation’s governance record. This explains the government’s repeated defence of the scheme, ignoring numerous calls from the EU to halt the programme. Eventually, under external pressures including Nationalist leader Bernard Grech, Abela’s main rival for election, the ruling Labour Party caved and temporarily scrapped the passports for Russian and Belarussian nationals.
Golden visas aside, the Ukrainian conflict has directed continent-wide attention to another pressing issue – that of energy security. Russia has been the chief supplier of gas and oil to Europe for decades and in light of the war it is becoming increasingly clear that no political or financial sanctions will land the knockout blow without answers to the energy question.
Germany is almost entirely reliant on Russian gas, but Energy Minister Robert Habeck almost immediately suspended the certificate of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline and is now making every effort to secure his country’s future without Russian gas. In stark contrast, a Russian tanker is reportedly headed to Maltese ports carrying 400,000 tons of Russian oil worth about $280 million. At the same time, Malta has repeatedly refused to seize assets of sanctioned individuals, with several superyachts owned by allies of the Kremlin picking Maltese waters as a safe haven to escape international scrutiny. Malta has seemingly chosen to be on the wrong side of history.
With the elections imminent, time is of the essence to shine a light on the questionable practices of the Abela government. The implications of the Prime Minister operating at the heart of this corruption are far reaching and hold particular significance now that Europe is in the midst of a security crisis, its stability threatened by an unhealthy reliance on Russia. A vote for Abela is effectively turning a blind eye to the poisonous outside influences that are eating away at the heart of the Maltese state. The fate of a nation is at stake.