Prime Minister Robert Abela on Saturday insisted the decision to suspend Russian applicants from Malta's cash-for-passport scheme was not a u-turn but instead proof the authorities are serious about due diligence.
Malta on Wednesday announced it had suspended all applications by Russians and Belarusians from the controversial scheme, in a dramatic change of stance.
The announcement came on the back of mounting pressure from the international community not to give wealthy Russians a backdoor into Europe.
Global leaders are pushing through a raft of sanctions against Russia following its invasion of Ukraine.
Previously, Abela had insisted Malta's scheme was robust while the junior minister responsible for it, Alex Muscat, argued that Malta's scheme does not qualify as a "golden passport" one.
Fielding questions from reporters on Saturday, Abela said the suspension of Russians from the scheme was “not a u-turn” even though just 24 hours early the government had defended the scheme.
“On the contrary, the decision [to suspend] was taken by the authorities after they carried out the necessary assessment and came to their conclusion. This shows that the authorities do their work well and that the country is serious,” he said.
Abela later added that the decision to suspend Russian applications showed that the scheme’s due diligence is top rate.
The government's official line is that it suspended the scheme after complications related to "recent developments" - a reference to Russia's invasion of Ukraine - made it impossible to properly carry out due diligence on applicants from the country.
The suspension applies to both Malta's citizenship-by-investment scheme as well as a residency through investment scheme, which must be renewed on a yearly basis.
Renewal applications will be considered on a case-by-case basis and subject to fresh due diligence checks, the government said.
The sale of citizenship to non-EU nationals allows such investors to become EU citizens, obtaining the freedom of movement and access to EU financial systems. Malta is among countries that sell citizenship to such investors.
Both the European Commission and the United States said this past weekend that they would be taking measures to stop such 'golden passport' sales to wealthy Russians, as part of a raft of sanctions against that country following its invasion of Ukraine.