Bulgaria offers citizenship to foreign investors

SOFIA, Bulgaria — Here’s one way to boost an ailing economy: Bulgaria is offering citizenship to foreigners ready to invest at least $650,000.

Under a newly approved amendment, the candidates would have to invest in a Bulgarian company involved in a high-priority investment project in industry, infrastructure, transport or tourism. The investors are also required to have had residence status in the country for at least one year.

Bulgaria, which joined the 27-nation European Union in 2007 and is the bloc’s poorest member, is trying to reverse the severe drop in foreign direct investment from $8.5 billion in 2008 to $2.3 billion in 2011.

Bulgaria already is handing out passports to ethnic Bulgarians outside its borders, the main beneficiaries being citizens of Macedonia, Serbia, Ukraine and Turkey — countries with living standards at a fraction of the EU average that are years away from possible membership.

The latest amendments have been criticized harshly by the opposition, and did not get unequivocal support from the presidency or the Justice Ministry, the two institutions that deal with the issue of granting citizenship. According to media reports, the Interior Ministry and the security services have also voiced concerns about potential risks to national security during a closed-door parliament committee meeting.

The political and economic instability in the Middle East following the Arab Spring revolutions could prompt wealthy citizens trying to escape the region’s troubles to qualify for the citizenship-by-investment program.

Other EU countries trying to cut public debt and attract foreign direct investment are also considering economic residency programs.

Spain is studying a plan to give residency to foreigners who buy a house or apartment worth (euro) 160,000 ($207,800) or more. The country has more than 700,000 unsold houses following the 2008 collapse of its real estate market.

Government officials, however, are cautious about the idea.

“It is not government policy. Nor is it likely to become so,” the spokeswoman for Spain’s Economy Ministry said on condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to discuss future policy discussions.

Spain’s residency idea for foreign home buyers would not give permanent residency or the privilege of working.

It still would beat other offers from bailed-out EU countries like Ireland and Portugal, where residency papers are offered to foreigners buying houses worth more than (euro) 400,000 ($519,400) and (euro) 500,000 ($649,300) respectively.

Even though these plans increase the number of people who have an EU passport, the EU says citizenship issues are the responsibility of national governments.

Latvia, an EU nation on the Baltic coast, offers a deal where property buyers are eligible to receive residency permits if they buy real estate in the capital Riga worth (euro) 140,000 ($181,800) or places worth (euro) 70,000 ($90,900) in the countryside.

Hungary’s parliament has begun debating a proposal that would give foreigners purchasing at least (euro) 250,000 ($324,600) in special bonds the possibility of obtaining residency rights but not citizenship. Lawmakers who drafted the proposal, which could be approved this year, say Chinese investors are among the groups targeted.

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Alan Clendenning and Harold Heckle contributed from Madrid; Pablo Gorondi from Budapest.

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