Vossiusstraat 16 under threat - Removal of Russian oligarch Arkady Volozh from the sanctions list

Nieuws, gepost door: nn op 13/03/2024 03:08:24

Waar: Amsterdam, Netherlands
Wanneer: 13/03/2024 - 19:26

The Russian oligarch and founder of Yandex, Arkady Volozh, the owner of the squatted building Vossiusstraat 16, was removed from the European sanctions list on the 12th of March 2024. This is likely to lead to a new court case and the eviction of the squat. 

This statement begins with a legal overview of the Vossiusstraat 16 case, and then summarises the changes that led to Volozh's removal from the sanctions list. Finally, we present reasons why his removal from the list should not have taken place.

General context

In October 2022, Vossiusstraat 16 in Amsterdam was squatted. This action took place in the context of the continually worsening housing crisis in Amsterdam, where prices keep increasing, making it tremendously difficult for anyone with a regular salary to find housing, and nearly impossible to live anywhere close to the centre when most work and social activity takes place. Since October, Vossiusstraat 16 has housed many people that spent some time there and otherwise would have been without a home at all. This statement was written by the current residents of Vossiusstraat 16. The two people who were involved in the two court cases about the building in fact no longer live in the building, yet are still being sued, as Volozh has attempted to fight this court case in the highest court.

The squatting of Vossiusstraat 16 was, and continues to be, a statement against Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Indeed, the owner of the building is a Russian oligarch, Arkady Volozh, the co-founder and former CEO of the Russian search engine Yandex. In 2022 Volozh was put on the European sanctions list because Yandex was promoting Russian state narratives about the war in Ukraine and was accused of removing search results related to Russia's involvement. 

Being on the sanctions list has meant that Volozh has been restricted from travelling to the European Union. In addition, his economic assets have been frozen and he has been prevented from spending or earning money in the EU.

The freezing of his assets also meant that the renovations of Vossiusstraat 16, which were taking place in 2022, could not continue. However, even several months after the sanctions had been passed, construction was still taking place. In October 2022, the NRC published an article revealing that renovations were still going on, showing that the sanctions were not being properly enforced. Shortly after, the building was squatted.

The court cases

In November 2022 a first court case took place, which the squatters won. This was followed by an appeal procedure in April 2023, where the judges also ruled in favor of the squatters, again due to Volozh being on the sanctions list. 

During the first court case, the lawyers defending the squatters argued that the renovations were illegal under the conditions of the sanctions as they would lead to an increase in the value of Volozh's assets. The lawyers also argued that the building could not be evicted as the eviction would result in emptiness, something Amsterdam has traditionally been against due to the ongoing housing crisis - although, under Mayor Halsema, this approach has rarely been upheld in practice.

The lawyer representing Volozh and the contractor who was leading the renovations argued that the renovation contract could be fulfilled as it had been signed before the sanctions were imposed, and argued that the building was intended to be used by Volozh's family, who are not sanctioned. 

The court concluded that even though construction would be a reason to evict under normal conditions, the sanctions require the renovations to end as they would indeed increase the value of Volozh's assets. The court also concluded that the house was intended for renting after the renovations were complete and was not for private use as Volozh's lawyer claimed. 

The verdict of the appeal, in April 2023, confirmed these decisions. If you want to know more about the court cases you can read the verdicts here:

Verdict of the first court case: https://uitspraken.rechtspraak.nl/details?id=ECLI:NL:RBAMS:2022:6687&showbutton=true&keyword=Amsterdam%2Bkraken&idx=3

Verdict of the appeal: https://uitspraken.rechtspraak.nl/details?id=ECLI:NL:GHAMS:2023:1058&showbutton=true&keyword=Amsterdam%2Bkraken&idx=4

The hypocritical statement against Russia's war in Ukraine

In August 2023, Arkady Volozh issued a statement declaring: "Russia's invasion of Ukraine is barbaric, and I am categorically against it." He then acknowledged having a "share of responsibility for the country's actions". This statement is part of a wider strategy to distance himself from Russia and get himself removed from the sanctions list. 

While Volozh renounced his position as CEO of Yandex as soon as he was placed on the sanctions list, he still owns shares in the company and has continued to develop Yandex's international sector. 

Like many oligarchs, Volozh has been collecting passports. He attained a Maltese golden passport, a passport you can buy without having to actually be a resident, and since 2014, he gained an Israeli passport. He currently lives in Tel Aviv and on his personal website Volozh describes himself as a Kazhak-born Israeli. 

This angle of self-presentation is misleading given that Volozh lived in Russia most of his life and developed his entire business in Russia, and is well-connected to the Russian ruling class. It is well known that Israel commonly grants passports to Russian billionaires, but it is outrageous to see that it is possible for anyone to gain more legitimacy in the eyes of the West by becoming a citizen of a genocide-committing apartheid regime.

For more details, read our previous statement: https://www.indymedia.nl/node/53816

The deal 
On February 5th, Yandex announced in a press release that a deal had been made between Yandex's Netherlands-based parent company and a consortium of Russian investors. The main-money making part of Yandex will remain Russian and the international part will be based in the Netherlands. Volozh will keep hold of some of these international assets. In order to finalize this deal, the Russian investors will pay 475 billion rubles (€4.7 billion) to Yandex's current shareholders, including Arkady Volozh.

The new owners

The investors include some well-known Russian financiers, such as the oil company Lukoil and a former top manager of Gazprom. The Russian independent newspaper  The Bell points out that none of the investors are under Western sanctions and suspects that some of them are acting as intermediaries for sanctioned individuals. They base this suspicion upon the network of connections linking people who have shown interest in taking over Yandex's Russian business over the past year and those involved in the current deal. This includes investors who were representing the interests of Russian businessman Yury Kovalchuk, a close associate and friend of Putin. However, all these investors fell under Western sanctions and could not join the deal anymore. Instead, two of Kovalchuk's long-time associates and investors got involved. 

The Bell finishes its article by explaining that it is still difficult to see whose interests are being represented in this deal, but that it is clear that it is bringing Yandex closer to the Kremlin. These changes are important to keep track of as the war in Ukraine has shown us what an important role a search engine and tech company can play in filtering access to information and shaping opinions.

The delisting

On the 21st of February, Reuters published an article announcing that Volozh would get removed from the sanctions list on the 15th of March. In fact, he was removed three days earlier, on March 12th. The EU has not issued an explanation on why the delisting has taken place. We can only assume that it is linked to him stepping down from his position as CEO of Yandex, as well as his statement criticizing the war.

However, this choice by the European Union makes it seem like one "anti-war" statement is enough to erase years of collaboration with the Russian government and the development of technologies which aim at increasing population control. When the war started, he was CEO of Yandex, a company that censored news of the war and promoted the official position of the Kremlin. He only left his position once he got sanctioned. This shows that he did not resign as a CEO for some moral reason, but only because of economic interests, both his and Yandex's. 

His years as CEO of Yandex, and his actions at the beginning of the war in that position, are enough to justify being put on the sanctions list. His recent statements and the changes within the company do not erase these years of political collaboration with the Kremlin and do not diminish his responsibility concerning the way Yandex has been and is still supporting war propaganda. His role as CEO for over two decades has strongly shaped the way the company is working and the narratives it is promoting. We therefore condemn the delisting of Volozh and find it shocking that one single statement against the war and stepping down from your position as CEO is enough to clear your image in the eyes of the West.

And how is all this related to the squatters in Amsterdam?

The past two court cases have been won based on the fact that Volozh was on the sanctions list. His removal from the sanctions list is therefore very bad news for the squatters as he is expected to start a new court case against them very soon. 

More news to come, so stay alert!


Yandex press release: https://ir.yandex/press-releases?year=2024&id=05-02-2024

Council implementing regulation by the EU: https://eur-lex.europa.eu/eli/reg_impl/2024/849/oj

Russian independent newspaper The Bell : https://en.thebell.io/yandex-gets-a-new-set-of-owners/

Russian-English independent newspaper Meduza: https://meduza.io/en/feature/2024/02/05/yandex-parent-company-announces-5-2-billion-deal-to-sell-russian-assets

Reuters: https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/yandex-co-founder-arkady-volozh-be-removed-eu-russian-sanctions-list-sources-say-2024-02-21/

Verdict of the first court case:

Verdict of the appeal: https://uitspraken.rechtspraak.nl/details?id=ECLI:NL:GHAMS:2023:1058&showbutton=true&keyword=Amsterdam%2Bkraken&idx=4


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