Photo illustration by John Lyman

World News


Malta has a Soft Spot for Russian Money

A fish rots from the head. The same can be said for the island nation of Malta. The country’s seedy political underbelly was thrown into the international spotlight in 2017 when journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia met her demise at the hands of criminals. Lengthy investigations revealed the murderers’ connections went right to the highest level of the Maltese state. The collapse of that corrupt government has birthed another, except that now instead of simply being a haven for criminals, Malta has become a chink in Europe’s united front against the Vladimir Putin regime.

Malta’s golden passport scheme has been a window for Russian dirty money and influence to pour into Europe since 2014. The scheme has been used prolifically by wealthy Russians, many with connections to the Kremlin. At €900,000 a pop, it has been a good source of revenue for Malta’s government, with the wife of Prime Minister Robert Abela even profiting from the process directly.

Last year, Abela reluctantly suspended the golden passport scheme for those facing international sanctions, citing the war in Ukraine. However, the move only came after severe political pressure and the threat of legal action from Brussels.

The approval process for the scheme is now less relaxed than before, requiring applicants to live on the island for at least twelve months, on top of their monetary investment. This does make it more difficult for the scheme to be abused as it was before, but with Russian oligarchs having already made use of the scheme in droves for the past decade, the damage is already done.

Furthermore, once the war is over, who is to say the suspension won’t be lifted? With the rats fleeing Putin’s sinking regime seeking welcoming shores on which to land, Malta would no doubt make a hefty profit from doing so.

Many of Putin’s cronies have their tendrils in Malta already. One such example is Igor Levitin. Levitin is a former Russian Transport Minister who has supplied drones for the Russian war effort in Ukraine. Levitin’s brother, Leonid, is a Maltese passport holder, meaning he and his family have freedom of movement throughout the EU. The circumstances under which he obtained his passport have come under significant scrutiny in recent months.

It has been alleged that Chris Fearne, Malta’s deputy prime minister, profited from the sale of the Maltese passport to Leonid through payments made to the daughter of his chief-of-staff, who subsequently found herself with a plush government job, which raised further questions. Fearne’s interest in the passport scheme has been well documented, with him known to be a “friend and associate” of the former head of the scheme, Jonathan Cardona. Fearne has also been vocal in his support of the scheme, lauding them for the investment they bring to Malta, even as the Ukraine war raged and pressure mounted to end them.

Deputy Prime Minister Fearne has long been a pro-Russia fifth column within the EU. During the pandemic, Fearne advocated for the Bloc to use Russia’s Sputnik vaccine, clearly believing that Europe’s reliance on Putin for its energy isn’t quite enough.

Fearne has long been known to keep questionable bedfellows, his old pal Konrad Mizzi has been persecuted domestically and banned from the United States for his part in the corruption that resulted in the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia. It’s a wonder as to how his political career has managed to rattle along unscathed for this long. The people of Malta can only be reconciled by the fact that Fearne was unsuccessful in getting the top job himself, losing to Abela in the 2020 leadership contest to become prime minister.

The potential profiteering of a high-level Maltese politician in the sale of a passport to a Kremlin-connected Russian surely requires EU action. Malta needs to be cleaned up and Fearne’s position is completely untenable.

The EU cannot allow the rot to continue festering within its ranks. Once the Ukraine war has come to an end, the EU must ensure that things don’t go back to dodgy business as usual and the cash for passport programs are ended for good. Not just for Russians and Belarusians.

Hostile actors aren’t limited to states on Europe’s periphery. China is also a close ally of Malta, being one of the few European countries to have signed up to Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative. There has also been an increase in wealthy Chinese purchasing Maltese citizenship in recent times. With concerns over Taiwan, we could see the passport problem further undermine European security.

Ending the golden passport scheme is the only way of ensuring that no nation can become a safe haven to political and economic agents of hostile nations, seeking to exert malign influence, as has happened in the case of Malta. The political class of one small island is betraying not just its own citizens but all the citizens of Europe.