Italy seizes $156 million in oligarch wealth, pressing Putin

MILAN (AP) — European governments are moving against Russian oligarchs to pressure Russian President Vladimir Putin to back down on his war in Ukraine, seizing superyachts and other luxury properties from billionaires on sanctions lists.

Italy since Friday has seized 143 million euros ($156 million) in luxury yachts and villas in some of its most picturesque destinations, including Sardinia, the Ligurian coast and Lake Como.

“We must be able to stop Putin’s attack, bringing him to the table, and he won’t go with niceties,” Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio told Italian state TV on Friday, announcing Italy’s plans to begin the seizures of property belonging to oligarchs close to Putin.

Italian financial police moved quickly seizing the superyacht “Lena” belonging to Gennady Timchenko, an oligarch close to Putin, in the port of San Remo; the 65-meter (215-foot) “Lady M” owned by Alexei Mordashov in nearby Imperia, featuring six suites and estimated to be worth 65 million euros; as well as villas in Tuscany and Como, according to government officials.

The villa of Russian-Uzbek business magnate Alisher Usmanov also was seized along the tony Emerald Coast in northern Sardinia, long the playground of the world’s wealthiest.

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German officials this week denied reports that they had seized Usmanov’s yacht in the port of Hamburg. According to the British government, he also owns Beechwood House in Highgate, worth an estimated 48 million pounds, and the 16th-century Sutton Place estate in Surrey.

Activists say that going after the oligarchs is tantamount to going after Putin.

“Vladimir Putin keeps all his money with the oligarchs,” said William Browder, a U.S.-born and London-based financier and human rights activist who was once a major investor in Russia but ran afoul of the government in the late 2000s.

“And this is a very effective psychological warfare, to start seizing yachts. I think it’s demoralizing for the oligarchs, and it’s demoralizing for Vladimir Putin. And he’s a guy who … rules by image, you know, is the person who has pictures of himself with the shirt off on a horse. And so it’s a bad image to have one of his best friends’ yacht seized in the south of France,” Browder said.

Germany’s Economy Ministry said it was in the process of “swiftly and effectively implementing the Russia sanctions” but declined to say publicly which assets had been seized, if any.

So far, French authorities have seized a yacht linked to Igor Sechin, a Putin ally who runs the Russian oil giant Rosneft, in the Mediterranean resort of La Ciotat where it arrived in January for repairs. French officials said Thursday that the crew was preparing for urgent departure when they arrived, even through the repairs were still underway.

Soprano Anna Netrebko withdrew from her future engagements at the Metropolitan Opera rather than repudiate her support for Russian President Vladimir Putin, costing the company one of its top singers and best box-office draws.

“It is a great artistic loss for the Met and for opera,” Met General Manager Peter Gelb said in a statement Thursday. “Anna is one of the greatest singers in Met history, but with Putin killing innocent victims in Ukraine, there was no way forward.”

Gelb had said Sunday that the Met would not engage artists who support Putin.

The Met made repeated efforts in recent days attempting to convince Netrebko to repudiate Putin but failed to persuade her, a person familiar with the developments said, speaking on condition of anonymity because that detail was not announced.

The Met’s decision followed the collapse of the international career of Russian conductor Valery Gergiev, who has been close to Putin as artistic and general director of the Mariinsky in St. Petersburg.

Britain, long a haven of oligarch wealth is under pressure to do more. Putin confidant Roman Abramovich, who owns the top-flight football club Chelsea, said this week he would put it up for sale. He has not been sanctioned, but opposition politicians and members of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s party have asked why not.

The invasion of Ukraine has led to a show of solidarity in the arts and culture world with Ukrainians and a backlash against the Russian government and those with ties to it that won’t reject Putin’s actions. The ripple effects have also reached the international sports world.

Netrebko, a 50-year-old from Krasnodar, received the People’s Artist of Russia honor from Putin in 2008.

She was photographed in 2014 holding a Novorussian flag after giving a 1 million ruble donation (then $18,500) to the opera hose in Donetsk, a Ukrainian city controlled by pro-Russia separatists.

On Tuesday, Netrebko withdrew from all her upcoming performances. Her next listed performance was at Barcelona’s Gran Teatre del Liceu on April 3, followed by three concerts with her husband, Azerbaijani tenor Yusif Eyvazov, and an April 13 concert with the Berlin Philharmonic.

“I am opposed to this senseless war of aggression and I am calling on Russia to end this war right now, to save all of us. We need peace right now,” she said. “This is not a time for me to make music and perform. I have therefore decided to take a step back from performing for the time being. It is an extremely difficult decision for me, but I know that my audience will understand and respect this decision.”

The UK has frozen the assets of the individuals on its own list and is making changes to the law to make it easier to go after those on the lists of allies after criticism that it has been too slow to act. Still, it will take a long time to unravel, as many assets are in shell companies.

Trisha Thomas in Rome, Danica Kirka in London, Aritz Parra in Madrid, Frank Jordans in Berlin and Barbara Surk in Nice, France, contributed to this story.

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