More than 400 applications are still being processed through a controversial passport-for-pay scheme in Montenegro that, after pressure from the EU, officials said had been shut down.
The Montenegrin Investment Agency (MIA), which manages the oft-criticized program, told RFE/RL's Balkan Service that out of 1,100 applications for such passports between 2019 and the end of last year, there are 413 applications "in various stages of processing" that are still pending.
Podgorica shuttered its so-called citizenship-by-investment program in December 2022 after repeated urgings from the European Union over the potential for abuse and, more recently, risks that it could help Russian nationals evade international punishment for the ongoing invasion of Ukraine.
Out of the 1,100 applications, the MIA said Montenegro has green-lighted passports -- which allow visa-free travel to 124 countries -- for 484 of those people. The majority of the scheme's applicants are Russian and Chinese nationals.
Experts say more than a dozen countries provide around 50,000 so-called golden passports each year in what has been dubbed the "citizenship industry." The people spending tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars to invest their way to citizenship are frequently seeking the benefits of travel, business, or taxation, or even a safeguard to evade state or government controls at home.
'Easy Source Of Income'
Kristin Surak, an associate professor of political sociology at the London School of Economics and author of a new book, Golden Passports: Global Mobility For Millionaires, calls it a global industry worth some $4 billion.
She says the passport market is "a very easy source of income" for states like Montenegro.
With only around 620,000 citizens and a narrow tax base centered on tourism, energy, and some agriculture, the draw is obvious for Montenegrin policymakers of a passports program to encourage investment.
Moreover, its location on an external EU border with the prospect of potentially becoming a new member, Surak says, would effectively "turn Montenegrin [citizenship] into European" citizenship.
Montenegro's citizenship-by-investment program required applicants to invest at least 250,000 euros ($271,000) in Montenegro, mostly by purchasing short-term rental and hotel properties.
Montenegrin officials have boasted that the program yielded some 300 million euros in investment and about 100 million euros in budget revenues.
But the European Union has repeatedly warned Montenegro against what it calls a "controversial" program and highlighted the key role that Russian investment plays in the scheme.
In its latest report on Montenegro, the European Commission cited security and other risks including of money laundering, tax evasion, corruption and organized crime, and the financing of terrorism.
News of hundreds of pending applications for the golden passports could contribute to distrust just as the new government of Prime Minister Milojko Spajic is seeking to burnish its pro-European credentials.
Failing On Asset Seizures
The previous caretaker government of Dritan Abazovic announced to fanfare in February that it had abolished the passports-for-pay scheme and informed the EU of its discontinuation.
It was, the Montenegrin European Affairs Ministry said, "officially completed on December 31, 2022, which is in line with the recommendations of the European Commission, regarding the risks that this program carries with it."
Montenegro is among the leading candidate countries for EU membership and has been a member of NATO since 2017.
Some countries, including all EU members, have closed their borders to Russian nationals as part of the unprecedented international sanctions to punish Russia for its invasion of Ukraine.
The lingering queue of such passport applications could spell further disappointment in Brussels following recent revelations that Montenegro has so far failed to follow through on Russian asset seizures.
Instead of the dozens of Russians whose properties Podgorica claimed to have targeted for confiscation early in the 20-month-old war in Ukraine, RFE/RL learned that the authorities had actually seized only an apartment and a storage space held by one Russian on the EU sanctions list.
The 400-plus passport applications that were filed before the Montenegrin program was closed are being considered through a decision-making chain that includes confirmation that the investments came from legal sources and a review by a due-diligence agent. That agent should ensure that an applicant has a clean record and "good reputation" and is not wanted by international law enforcement or the International Criminal Court, for example.
Montenegro uses the services of two companies -- one British and the other Canadian -- to conduct the screenings. "Very few countries have the ability to do a thorough check on their own, especially if you are a microstate with less than 1 million inhabitants," Surak says.
According to an Interior Ministry document, some Russians were cleared by the outside screening companies but then rejected by Montenegrin authorities due to security concerns.
In the first weeks after the full-scale invasion of Ukraine was launched on February 24, 2022, the previous Montenegrin government adopted measures to implement international sanctions and other war-related decisions. The restrictions included identifying and temporarily confiscating 44 properties in Montenegro owned by 34 Russian nationals.
Russian ownership is a sensitive topic following years of investment by Russians looking to keep their assets abroad and lured by Montenegro's beachfront beauty and its relative lack of scrutiny. The result, according to Montenegro's land registry, was around 19,000 apartments and other properties in Russian hands in 2022.