The European Commission has urged EU member states to explore ways to strip sanctioned Russians and Belarusians of EU nationalities that were acquired in highly controversial "golden passport" schemes.

The legally tricky manoeuvre would punish sanctioned members of the Russian and Belarusian elite who had paid their way to EU nationality with vast investments in countries such as Cyprus, Malta and Bulgaria.

We want EU governments to "determine whether citizenships that were previously granted to Russian and Belarusian nationals subject to sanctions should be withdrawn," said EU commission spokesman Christian Wigand.

Criteria for acquiring - or denying - nationality is a member state competence, but countries that have held the "golden passport" schemes had come under pressure even before Russia invaded Ukraine.

Mr Wigand said the commission, which is also in charge of drawing up EU sanctions, had no precise data on what sanctioned individuals were also holders of a bloc passport obtained through the schemes.

The commission and other member states have long deplored the controversial practice, which is suspected of facilitating corruption and money laundering. Brussels launched disciplinary proceedings against Cyprus and Malta in 2020 over the matter.

Malta last month said it would suspend granting the passports to Russians and Belarusians until further notice following the invasion of Ukraine and Bulgaria's new government has adopted a bill ending its own scheme.

According to the European Parliament, at least 130,000 people obtained a "golden" passport or visa between 2011 and 2019, generating €21.8 billion for the countries concerned.