Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades is firing back at critics saying his use of a private jet owned by a Saudi billionaire has actually saved the state a lot of money, while opposition parties raise fears of dependency and quid pro quo with foreign donors.
A recent report by the auditor general’s office provided details on the president’s foreign trips in 2016, 2017, and between January 2018 and September 2019, including travel on official state business.
Last year opposition parties raised multiple questions over Anastasiades’ use of private planes owned by wealthy businessmen, following an incident in New York when the president’s flight had to turn back to JFK airport when a crack appeared on the windshield in the cockpit.
The report pointed out that the president was able to save tax-payer money in his air travel but also pointed to some irregularities.
On Friday, Diko opposition party issued a statement siding with the auditor general’s calls for the establishment of institutional rules that would regulate the acceptance of foreign gifts.
“It is crystal clear that gifts without rules and restrictions in place put the state at risk of corruption and dependency,” the statement said.
The party argued that the presidency should have taken an initiative on the issue in response to a decision years ago to begin accepting gifts in the form of the president’s air travel arrangements.
No misuse of public money
But the report did not identify any misuse of funds in making arrangements to transport the president, with the auditor general recognizing the need for flexibility in the president’s air travel.
The audit office said “the chartered flights took place at low or very low cost,” adding that the actions of the presidency saved the state a total of €3.5 million.
Anastasiades says a presidential jet is needed in order to help any president of the Republic of Cyprus meet high demands of the office
In his report, Auditor General Odysseas Michaelides found that there were 35 trips in 2018 and in the first three quarters of 2019, with 19 flights taking place while on official state business last year, and 17 of them taking place free of charge in a private jet owned by a personal acquaintance of the president.
Anastasiades said his personal friend, the late Cypriot-born wealthy property developer Chris Lazari, had loaned the president a plane to use on foreign trips while the heirs of the self-made billionaire continued the favour after their father’s death in 2015.
But media reports suggested a number of trips were made on a luxury Boeing owned by Saudi Arabian billionaire Khalid bin Mahfouz, whose plane is usually parked at Larnaca International Airport.
According to daily Politis, a comparison between details in the audit report and photos on social media suggested the president was on the luxury Boeing at least three times, flying to Serbia, Jordan, and Slovenia.
Empty leg flight to Seychelles
Anastasiades reportedly had informed the auditor general that he had friendly relations with the Saudi banker, pointing out that the president and his family caught an empty leg flight in August 2018 to Seychelles, where the Boeing was going to pick up the billionaire and his family who were already on vacation.
On another trip to New York in September 2019, when the president’s flight had a safety incident and returned to JFK, it was reported that the administration chartered the flight for €60,000 after JetStream Aviation managed to easily outbid the competition which was over €300,000.
Akel party MP Irene Charalambides last year called for transparency following the incident, asking the government to identify the owner of the plane.
According to the report, the president had written a letter to Michaelides pointing out that the Saudi owner of the private jet had made the low-cost gesture “to make his own contribution to the Republic of Cyprus and its people,” while calling out the auditor general for adopting an attitude of suspicion over the good intentions of the plane owner.
But questions have also been raised over reports that the Saudi businessman and three dozens of his relatives had received Cypriot passports in 2015 under the island’s passport-for-investment programme involving a total of three primary male applicants.
The report pointed to irregularities in the passport application process over qualifying criteria and investment thresholds, as well as loss of revenue in the years that followed. The auditor general also said the Unit for Combating Money Laundering (MOKAS) should have been called in to consider possibly investigating local agencies after some real estate prices appeared to have been inflated.
The Green party has also weighed in on Twitter, accusing the President of “high level bribery” in a possible quid-pro-quo with a foreign donor.
Anastasiades says a presidential jet is needed in order to help any president of the Republic of Cyprus meet high demands of the presidency.
Akel leader Andros Kyprianou said he would support efforts to obtain a presidential plane.
In the meantime, reports said a special task force committee will be formed to help balance flexibility and transparency in the president’s air travel.