The Finnish authorities, acting on EU sanctions levied against Russian oligarchs and friends of the Kremlin in June, have seized the assets in Finland of Russian billionaire and Maltese-citizen-since-2016 Arkady Volozh.
The Finns were acting on EU sanctions against Yandex founder Arkady Volozh, who acquired Maltese citizenship in 2016 through the highly contentious Individual Investor Programme, known as the cash-for-passport scheme.
The Maltese-Russian oligarch, best known for co-founding the top Russian internet search engine, Yandex, is known to have close ties to the Kremlin and Vladimir Putin.
In fact, just two years after acquiring his Maltese citizenship Volozh featured on the so-called ‘Kremlin list’ that the US government published in January 2018. The list identified 96 Russian oligarchs and 114 senior politicians close to Putin and who were in some way associated with the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The EU later took steps of its own, and last June sanctioned Volozh and two others over their actions related to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Volozh resigned as Yandex’s chief executive officer in June after being added to the EU’s list in the sixth round of sanctions against Russia for its invasion of Ukraine.
“As founder and CEO of Yandex, he is supporting, materially or financially, the Government of the Russian Federation and is responsible for supporting actions or policies which undermine or threaten the territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence of Ukraine,” the EU sanction cites.
The EU also accuses Yandex of “promoting State media and narratives in its search results, and de-ranking and removing content critical of the Kremlin, such as content related to Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine.”
In its formal sanction notice, the EU notes how Russian state-owned banks such as Sberbank and VTB are Yandex shareholders and investors.
In 2019, when Volozh was enjoying the fruits of Maltese, and European Union, citizenship, the EU sanction cites how, “As founder and CEO of Yandex, he is supporting, materially or financially, the Government of the Russian Federation and is responsible for supporting actions or policies which undermine or threaten the territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence of Ukraine.
“Volozh is a leading businessperson involved in economic sectors providing a substantial source of revenue to the Government of the Russian Federation, which is responsible for the annexation of Crimea and the destabilisation of Ukraine.”
Adding to the EU’s decision to sanction the Maltese citizen, it also underscores how Yandex’s complex ownership structure means the Russian government can veto the company’s activities if they are felt to counter the national interest.
Yandex had agreed to a restructuring that gave a ‘golden share’ to a newly-formed Public Interest Foundation, which it says was “built to defend the Russian Federation interests”.
Through this Public Interest Foundation, the EU specifies, the Russian government is able to have a veto over a defined list of issues, such as the sale of material intellectual property and the sale or transfer of Russian users’ personal data to foreign companies, both of which are deemed to affect Russia’s ‘national interest’.
This lines up with a statement by EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell explaining how one of the aims of the additional sanctions is “banning more disinformation actors actively contributing to President Putin’s war propaganda”.
According to reports in the Finnish media, the assets of brothers Boris and Arkady Rotenberg, who hold significant business interests in the country, were also seized.
This week’s confiscations come after Finnish authorities took asset seizure decisions in August and early September, acting on the EU sanctions list. They have now frozen the accounts of the local division of Moscow-based Yandex as well as the Yango.Taxi service and a data centre it operates in Finland.
Yandex, owned by the Russian-Maltese Volozh, is Russia’s largest Internet company and, known as ‘the Google of Russia’, is the country’s most popular search engine. In addition to Yango.Taxi, Yandex also owns online marketplace Yandex.Market and had an overall market value last November of €27 billion.
It is not known what, if any, assets Volozh holds in Malta, or what shares in any companies, shell or otherwise, he may have registered in Malta.
But there could very well be assets in Malta to confiscate. In order to have qualified for his Maltese passport in 2016, Volozh should have spent at the very least one tax year residing in Malta, and paid a flat €650,000 for the privilege of Maltese, and European Union, citizenship.
Moreover, he would have also made some investments in Malta as a requisite of the IIP, mainly a €150,000 investment in government bonds and the purchase of property worth at least €350,000, unless the billionaire chose the more short-term, cost-effective option and leased a property for a minimum of €16,000 a year for five years.
It is not publicly known which property option Volozh went for in the end, and he could have since disposed of those assets upon becoming a Maltese citizen, but a move along Finland’s lines could be expected from Malta.