Robert Abela has refused to say whether Malta will continue to allow Russian nationals to buy Maltese citizenship, as the west imposes sanctions on Russia in the midst of the Ukraine crisis.
Replying to questions Abela would only say on Wednesday that the Individual Investor Programme is 'robust' and operates strong due diligence policies.
The US, EU, Britain, Australia and Japan have imposed sanctions on Russia targeting banks that finance Russian operations, and some of Russia's richest persons, seen to be close to Russian President Putin.
Maltese citizenship could be a way how rich Russians sidestep possible EU sanctions since they would legally also be considered as Maltese citizens.
On Tuesday, the Maltese foreign ministry issued a statement condemning Russia's decision to recognise Ukraine's breakaway republics. It reiterated its "strong support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity within its internationally recognised borders, as well as its sovereign right to choose its own foreign and security policy path".
Also on Tuesday, Abela told journalists that Malta shares the EU's view on the situation in Ukraine.
But when asked whether Maltese passports would be sold to Russians, he defended the IIP's integrity and due diligence.
"Consequently, our rejection rate is very high. A strong percentage of applicants are refused citizenship, and that proves how robust the programme is," he said.
He then went on to speak about the benefits of the IIP, saying Malta had seen hundreds of millions of euros in revenue through it.
"It was partly thanks to those funds that we could help our businesses and families during the pandemic. Not to mention the donations to Puttinu Cares and the many social projects through NDSF funds," he said.
The National Development and Social Fund (NDSF) is the agency that administers income from the sale of passports. The agency has so far received €599.8 million from the Individual Investor Programme.
Abela urged the press not to harm a scheme that 'is working diligently', saying the country should unite in preserving what is beneficial.
Russians have been among Malta's best clients in the IIP. In 2015, then Home Affairs Minister Carmelo Abela said that 56 per cent of applications were from Russia or former parts of the Soviet Union. That number has since dropped sharply, but last year, the Passport Papers exposè revealed that still, over the course of the programme, the largest proportion of people successfully applying for Maltese, and therefore, EU citizenship were, in fact, Russian (37 per cent).
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