Freeze And Seize? EU Struggles To Target Oligarchs’ Assets

PARIS, France – Oligarchs’ wealth remains largely untouched in the European Union, weeks after Brussels approved measures to freeze the assets of dozens of billionaires and top officials linked to Russia following its invasion of Ukraine.

Every week since war broke out on Feb.24, the E.U. has introduced new sanctions on Russia, adding nearly 700 top politicians, businessmen and military staff to its blacklist – including 42 super rich ‘oligarchs’ such as Chelsea soccer club owner Roman Abramovich and banking tycoon Mikhail Fridman.

Listed individuals are meant to have their bank accounts and assets frozen, but so far only a small fraction of their funds have been affected amid legal constraints and effortcement challenges, according to EU officials and government data from a dozen E.U. countries.

Germany, the E.U’s largest economy, has declined to give details of any assets frozen so far. It set up a taskforce last week to enforce sanctions, and the economy ministry told Reuters it expected to report progress in one to two weeks.

Austria and Ireland also declined to specify whether they had frozen any assets, as did Cyprus and Malta, which in recent years have both issued ‘golden passports’ to wealthy individuals, including Russians.

Some countries that have reported freezing assets say they have only hit a small part of the wealth subject to sanctions.

The Dutch finance ministry, for example, said it had frozen about 390 million euros ($428 million) in transactions and financial deposits. That is only about 1% of the wealth of sanctioned individuals in banks account, trusts and other financial vehicles in the Netherlands and in offshore centres linked to the country, according to government estimates.

Italy, one of EU’S most active countries in seizing physical assets, having taken yachts and villas worth about 800 million euros so far, has yet to hit oligarchs’ liquid wealth because much of it is believed to be stored in the bank accounts of third parties or in trusts with no clear beneficial owner, said the head of the Italian tax police Zafarana.

Spain has also not frozen any bank accounts, authorities said, but it has detained at least three luxury yachts linked to blacklisted individuals.

Neighbouring Portugal has blocked only one account owned by a sanctioned individual, with just 242 euros in it, banking source familiar with the matter said.

Belgium appears to have been the most successful EU country so far. It has frozen about 2.7 billion euros in bank accounts and 7.3 billion euros in transactions, but has not identified any property belonging directly or indirectly to a blacklisted person, the finance ministry said.

Abramovich and Fridman were not immediately available for comment. Fridman has previously described the sanctions against him over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which Moscow calls a special military operation, as ‘spurious and unfounded’.

The United States, which has imposed similar sanctions on Russia, is also facing difficulties in freezing assets amid legal hurdles. Oligarchs are believed to hold most of their assets outside the EU and United States, including in offshore jurisdictions, Britain, Switzerland and the Gulf.

Switzerland said on Thursday it had frozen $6.2 billion of sanctioned Russian assets. its bank lobby estimates Swiss banks hold up to $213 billion of Russian wealth.

UPHILL STRUGGLE

The EU has struggled for years to implement sanctions because enforcement rests on member states, which often lack the legal tools, personnel and, in some cases, political will to target wealthy investors, a senior EU official said.

‘Historically, enforcement throughout the EU has not been consistent. What is agreed to be implemented at an EU level is not necessarily implemented as required at the member state level’, said David Savage, a sanctions expert at law firm Stewarts.

To address this, the European Commission set up a ‘freeze and seize’ taskforce this month specifically to enforce sanctions against oligarchs.

So far, however, the task force has not identified any asset that needed to be frozen urgently because it could be sold or moved away from the EU, the senior EU official said on condition of anonymity.

A Commission spokesperson said EU members were obliged to report measures taken to implement sanctions, but declined to say whether they all did, and did not give a value for assets frozen so far.

Last year, the Commission proposed setting up a ‘Sanctions Information Exchange Repository’ by the end of 2021 to facilitate the process. That repository ‘is currently in the development phase’, the spokesperson said.

Even when there is political will to act, it is not easy to find oligarchs’ wealth.

After four rounds of sanctions, the EU is still working to close loopholes that allow targeted individuals to shield money via third parties, trusts or crypto transactions, diplomats said.

FREEZE, PERHAPS, BUT NO SEIZE

Even when applied in full, EU sanctions can usually go no further than freezing assets.

In most countries, this means the assets cannot be sold, but can still be used. An oligarch could in theory live in a ‘frozen’ villa.

Despite the Commission’s ‘freeze and seize’ taskforce, seizing – or the state taking control of an asset and even profiting its sale – is usually a non – starter.

‘In most remember states, this si not possible and a criminal conviction is necessary to confiscate assets’, the Commission said in a statement to Reuters.

In Poland, one of the staunchest supporters of sanctions, seizing assets would require a change to the constitution, government spokesperson Piotr Muller said.

France has frozen around 850 million euros of blacklisted individuals’ assets, including properties and yachts, the finance ministry said. But physical assets can still be used by their owners.

Italy, which has some of strictest legislation among EU countries to recover criminals’ assets, is also stopping short of appropriating yachts and villas.