One of the men behind Hungary’s “golden visa” program, which has provided residency permits to foreigners who invest large sums in the country, is reportedly a Georgian-Israeli.
Direkt36, an investigative journalism website, reported that a man named Shabtai Michaeli, a Georgian-Israeli living in Hungary, sold residency bonds, as they are known, to individuals in Russia and other countries in the former Soviet Union.
The revelation comes amidst growing concerns in the West over Russian support for right-wing governments in NATO countries. The “golden visa” allowed Russian oligarchs and crime figures to gain access to the EU and Schengen Area. The report that an Israeli was involved in this activity raises the question of what role Israel may play in Russian influence campaigns on the West.
Michaeli is very close to Árpád Habony, Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán’s top adviser, as well as to Antal Rogán, Orban’s communications czar, who is responsible for media campaigns denouncing billionaire George Soros, the UN and refugees, the report said. Similar campaigns in Israel have sought to denounce organizations like the New Israel Fund.
The program was approved by the Hungarian parliament in 2012. It offered residency to anyone who invested 300,000 euros ($345,000) in a bond that would repay its cost after five years. The government suspended the sale of such “golden visas” in 2017.
The program was considered particularly susceptible to corruption because the bonds were not sold directly by the state, but through offshore companies chosen by the Economic Committee of the Hungarian Parliament, headed by Rogán.
One of those companies was VolDan Investments Limited, which is registered in Liechtenstein, a secrecy jurisdiction, said the investigative report, published last week.
The Economic Committee initially said that VolDan was directed by two men from Liechtenstein, but it later emerged that it was owned by Michaeli, who is also the CEO of a dental implants company known as SGS International Ltd, the report said.
According to Hungarian media reports, Habony, the adviser to Orban — who co-owned a company with Arthur J. Finkelstein, the late spin doctor for Orban and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — was also very close to a Georgian-Israeli group of businesspeople connected to the Princess Bakery chain in Budapest.
Michael Gagel, one of Princess Bakery’s managers, is one of the Israeli-Georgian businessmen who is reportedly close to Habony.
Under the Hungarian government’s visa program, some 20,000 residency bonds were distributed between 2013 and 2017, according to the Direct36 report. Most were issued to Chinese nationals, while hundreds were issued to Russians, including to the son of the head of Russian foreign intelligence and to businessmen close to the Kremlin.
Israel has a law that is similar in effect, if not intent, to the “golden visa” laws in Hungary and elsewhere; in Israel’s case, anyone eligible to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return receives a 10-year exemption from taxes and reporting on income from abroad.
A tax lawyer at a Big-4 firm recently told The Times of Israel that he believes the Israeli law, known as the Amendment 168 or the Milchen Law, was a key factor behind the relentless rise in real estate prices between 2008-2018.