NewsA million Russians freely roam around Europe. "I was surprised that they could come here"

A million Russians freely roam around Europe. "I was surprised that they could come here"

Russian tycoons feel comfortable on the Côte d'Azur.
Russian tycoons feel comfortable on the Côte d'Azur.
Images source: © Getty Images
7:42 PM EST, December 3, 2023

Many Russians feel at home on the French Riviera. They experience the same welcome in numerous European Union countries, which continue to grant them visas in exchange for substantial investments, against the recommendations of the European Commission. Recently, Viktor Orbán announced the return of the golden visa program.

"I recently attended a wedding. Among the guests were Russians from Moscow," confides us a former deputy minister in the Law and Justice government, wishing to remain unidentified. He was surprised at their presence and inquired how they legally crossed our border.

It turns out they entered Poland on Hungarian Schengen visas. "The Hungarians issue tourist visas to Russians, who can then freely travel throughout Europe," reports our source.

The Hungarian government not only eagerly issues short-term visas to Russian tourists but has just announced plans to resurrect the so-called golden visa program or investor visas.

It's worth noting that a year ago, the European Commission advised member states to suspend such programs concerning Russians, but several countries did not comply.

Orbán swims against the tide: he reopens his program

The new Hungarian program for "investor-guests" offers ten years' residency, with the option to extend, to those investing at least 250 million euros in local real estate funds or half a million euros directly in real estate.

To qualify for a golden visa in Hungary, one can also donate the equivalent of one million euros to institutions selected by Orbán.

Remember, Hungary shuttered a similar program in 2017. It entitled residence and unrestricted EU travel to purchasers of government bonds worth 328,000 euros.

Between 2013 and 2017, Budapest profited by 1.5 billion euros from this program, but it also triggered a massive influx from China and Russia.

The scheme was terminated following media narratives of possible corruption and poor vetting of candidates, potentially helping spies and individuals from Eastern services infiltrate the EU.

Orbán's decision to reinstate the golden visa for Russians is purely political. Orbán has regular dealings with Putin, with whom he met in Beijing in mid-October.

Hungary is increasingly deepening its economic alliance with the Kremlin, boosting Russian gas imports. The Russians are also the primary investors in their nuclear power plant in Paks.

French "sanctions" and Russian influx at resorts

Also, Mr. Jack, one of our readers who recently returned from a business trip on the French Riviera, conveyed his surprise at the proliferation of Russians in the area and their comfort level.

He revealed that Russians congregated at Nice's most luxurious hotels, including the well-known Le Negresco hotel, where the least expensive room is priced at 400 dollars per night. "They indulged in luxury shopping, enjoyed drinks on hotel viewing terraces, and then left in their private jets," he reports.

He also noticed the warm reception at these luxury establishments. "Even the Christmas tree at Le Negresco displayed a red star," reminiscences Mr. Jack.

However, he adds, not all hotel guests appreciated the wealthy Russians' company. He overheard one English-speaking man requesting the hotel staff to relocate his breakfast to a different table after some Russians took a seat next to him.

A lavish Christmas tree at the Le Negresco hotel with a red star.
A lavish Christmas tree at the Le Negresco hotel with a red star.© arch. priv. | arch.pryw.

Mr. Jack noted that these were not "local" Russians – Nice has long been home to a large Russian population – but transient visitors in town for a brief holiday or business purposes.

While France doesn't offer golden visas to affluent Russians, its retaliation after the attack on Ukraine was a simple fee hike for visa application processing, from 38 to 88 Euros. Russians now also experience longer wait times for visa decisions – "up to" 45 days.

A million visas for Russians

A private jet was waiting to take the Russians home.
A private jet was waiting to take the Russians home.© arch. priv. | arch. pryw.

At the end of 2022, almost a million Russians possessed a valid Schengen visa, with Italy, Spain, and Finland issuing over 600,000 of these documents, as per data on the schengenvisa.info.com website.

Despite pleas from the European Commission, Spain continues to run its golden visa program for Russians.

As disclosed by "The Moscow Time" a few days prior, Russians purchased 2137 properties in Spain from January to June this year. This figure is a record since Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014 and 50% more than during the same period in 2022.

Anna Larina, the CEO of NF Group dealing with Spanish real estate, believes these purchases constitute an investment in the Spanish "golden visa" granting them and their entire families three-year residency in Spain, along with unrestricted movement within the Union.

According to Larina, these people have no intention of settling in Spain permanently.

It's worth adding that between 2017 and 2022, Spain netted 3.7 billion euros from golden visas for Russians. Although the official Spanish government has agreed to comply with the European Commission's recommendations, golden visas continue to be discreetly issued to Russians.

Besides Hungary and Spain, Montenegro, Portugal, and Greece also offer golden visas, which are utilized by Russians.

Meanwhile, Italy suspended the issuance of investor visas to Russians in July this year. Last year, they issued 32 golden visas to Russians – more than to all other third-country nationals combined.

Commission says "stop". Allegations of corruption, money laundering

The European Commission recently announced it will officially ban member states from issuing visas to Russians in exchange for their investments and generous donations.

Brussels holds that these programs can be exploited by individuals "who are sanctioned or considerably support the war in Ukraine" to gain EU citizenship or to move freely in the Schengen area, and for money laundering purposes.

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