After making an unusual disclosure about the amount of Russian financial assets being housed in Swiss banks, the government of Switzerland has taken yet another step in the effort to crack down on Russian wealth within the country. The target this time around: the "luxury mountain home" of billionaire Petr Aven, a Russian businessman with alleged ties to Vladimir Putin, according to a recent Reuters report.
Said to be a "close confidant" of Putin, Aven is also a major shareholder in a conglomerate that counts Alfa, the largest private bank in Russia, among its holdings.
Now, a three-bedroom luxury unit located inside a golf resort complex in the Bernese Oberland region that Swiss authorities say belonged to Aven is the property of the Swiss government. Aven hasn't commented publicly on the action as of this writing, but last month he reportedly denied any wrongdoing and announced his intention to dispute what he called "spurious and unfounded" sanctions being imposed by the European Union.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has caused Switzerland to part with its traditional position of international neutrality, and now the country has begun to comply with all EU sanctions on hundreds of Russian oligarchs with property within its borders. As a popular tax haven and trading center for international wealth, there are untold assets being held within Switzerland, and imposing all these new sanctions is proving to be a bureaucratic and legal challenge. According to the Reuters report:
"Property registrars across Switzerland have been laboriously trying to match sanctions lists against property records name-by-name, often with various spellings."
Some within Switzerland are criticizing the government for its delay in complying with EU sanctions, accusing the country of purposely facilitating the sale of Russian assets to circumvent sanctions and seizures. Mark Pieth is chair of the Basel Institute on Governance, and he cites the case of one unnamed Russian oligarch who owned a company in Switzerland. He was reportedly placed on the list of Swiss sanctions a full week after the initial EU sanctions, which gave him time to sell off his interest in the company before his assets were frozen. Pieth says:
"It is either a form of incompetence or they wanted to allow these Russian interests to flee the country…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."
Still, the seizure of Petr Aven's vacation home is a sign that Switzerland is ready to enforce these international sanctions – and it appears that those efforts will continue for some time.