November 30, 2023


Swiss authorities have seized a luxury mountain home believed to be owned by a Russian oligarch as bankers and officials work overtime to track assets of people linked to Moscow in retribution for the invasion of Ukraine.

The Bern canton’s property office said it believed the flat belonged to Petr Aven, identified by Switzerland as a close confidant of President Vladimir Putin and a major shareholder of the group that owns Russia’s biggest private bank, Alfa.

The three-bed flat is on the fifth floor of a luxury complex at a golf resort in the picturesque Bernese Oberland, surrounded by snowy peaks, according to the NZZ am Sonntag newspaper.

Aven, 67, did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment but last month he said he would contest “spurious and unfounded” European Union sanctions adopted by Switzerland.

Priding itself on being neutral in international affairs, Switzerland has an outsized wealth management business and is a major trading hub for Russian commodities.

Its banks hold up to $213 billion of Russian wealth, the bank lobby estimates.

After initial hesitation, Switzerland embraced EU sanctions on hundreds of Russians on Feb. 28. It has since expanded its list to comply fully with the EU’s measures.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on Saturday urged Switzerland to confiscate assets of people he said were helping wage war. Poland echoed that on Monday.

However, actually finding properties to freeze is a bureaucratic headache.

Banks are combing through records to ensure no one under sanctions slips through the cracks. Credit Suisse (CSGN.S), for instance, has sought permission to let 20 compliance staff work nights, weekends and holidays.

The State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO), responsible for enforcing sanctions, has been swamped with reports of Russian assets.

Property registrars across Switzerland have been laboriously trying to match sanctions lists against property records name-by-name, often with various spellings.

Anti-corruption expert Mark Pieth, chair of the Basel Institute on Governance and a former member of the Financial Action Task Force on Money Laundering (FATF), took Switzerland to task for dragging its feet then assigning the job to an understaffed government agency.

“They could have practiced a bit at SECO,” he said, referring to sanctions on Russia for its 2014 annexation of the Crimean peninsula. “And now what is really amazing is that they seemed overwhelmed, they seem shocked.”

Switzerland did not join the 2014 sanctions, instead trying to ensure it was not a conduit to circumvent others’ measures.

Pieth cited at least one case in which a Russian oligarch with a company in Switzerland was put on the Swiss sanctions list a week after he was slapped with EU sanctions.

This let him sell his interests in Switzerland.

“It is either a form of incompetence or they wanted to allow these Russian interests to flee the country,” Pieth said.

“The international image of Switzerland is again being reinforced, a country that is yet trying to cut a last deal before they have to put people on the sanctions list. It’s a very strange understanding of neutrality.”

Earlier this month, Italy sezied a building complex on the Mediterranean island of Sardina that Aven partially owned.


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