As It Happens

Judge says squatters can stay in Russian oligarch's Amsterdam mansion

A group of young people who took over a Russian oligarch’s vacant mansion in Amsterdam can stay put — at least for now.

Billionaire Arkady Volozh is under EU sanctions, and his house is a frozen asset

A man in a suit and tie sits at a table in front of a microphone and smiles as he plays with his pen.
Arkady Volozh's Amsterdam house is occupied by squatters, and a Dutch judge says they can stay. (Sergei Guneyev/Sputnik/AFP/Getty Images)

A group of young people who took over a Russian oligarch's vacant mansion in Amsterdam can stay put — at least for now.

A Netherlands judge has ruled in favour of the seven squatters residing in billionaire Arkady Volozh's luxurious, five-storey 1879 home in Amsterdam's city centre.

"They're planning to move in as long as possible because they were very happy that I won the case for them," Heleen over de Linden, the squatters' lawyer, told As It Happens host Nil Köksal.

"And they sent me a bouquet of flowers, and they told me already after the hearing that they are planning to live there as long as possible."

De Linden says Dutch law usually favours homeowners in cases like this. But Volozh is under heavy sanctions in the European Union — and his house is considered a frozen asset.

Protesting the war — and looking for a place to live

The squatters have been largely quiet, refusing to do media interviews or give out their names. They have reportedly strung banners on the house with anti-capitalism and anti-war slogans. 

One of them, when approached outside the house by a Guardian reporter, smiled while smoking a cigarette, and said: "The law is finally on our side."

A stretch of brown, five-storey rowhouses, seen from the street.
Volozh's Amsterdam house, pictured here in 2018 on Google Street View. (Google Street View)

De Linden describes the people in the house as seasoned squatters between the ages of 25 and 30. She says their motivations for occupying the mansion are twofold.

"They are against the Russian aggression in Ukraine, and they hope that [Russian President Vladimir] Putin leaves power. And they are against all the oligarchs who are supporting the regime of Putin," she said.

"And the second reason for them to squat the property was that there is a huge lack of living space in the Netherlands. And so when you look for something, it's very expensive."

Who is Arkady Volozh?

De Linden says the case hinged on sanctions against the homeowner.

Volozh has been under EU sanctions since June for supporting Russia during its invasion of Ukraine while he was CEO of Russia's biggest search engine, Yandex. 

According to the EU and Russian opposition critics, Yandex's news aggregator has been censoring articles critical of Russia while promoting ones that toe the party line.

Volozh called the decision "misguided" and stepped down to protect the company from sanctions.

About eight people are seen walking in the same direction outside. At the forefront are two men in suits, gesturing and talking to each other.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, chats with Volozh as he visits the Yandex headquarters in Moscow in 2017. (Alexei Druzhinin/Sputnik/Kremlin/Reuters)

According to the Guardian, Volozh's lawyer argued in court that the billionaire's house was exempt from the sanctions, because EU law permits individuals under sanctions to use their property for "personal consumption."

Volozh, he said, is renovating the home with the intention of moving in with his family while working in the Netherlands. Yandex's European headquarters is in Amsterdam.

"Their main residence is elsewhere. But because Mr. Volozh's activities take place in Europe, they regularly visit Amsterdam. They think it's a beautiful city," lawyer John Wolfs reportedly said in court.

But the judge ultimately ruled that Volozh was unlikely to move into the house due to the travel restrictions placed on him by the EU, and the fact that he no longer works for Yandex.

As It Happens has reached out to Wolfs for comment, but did not hear back before deadline.

De Linden says she finds it hard to believe he ever intended to move in.

"It's a nice estate, a nice house, but it's not something for an oligarch, because oligarchs normally live in palaces and they have a lot of security around and a lot of cars and private stuff," she said. "That's not possible when you live … in the city centre of Amsterdam."

The Guardian estimates the house is worth £3 million ($4.67 million Cdn). One squatter told Dutch media it has nine baths and a sauna on every floor, according to Business Insider. 

An uncertain future

As for the squatters, it's not clear how long they'll be able to stay. Volozh is appealing the ruling. And the house remains under construction, which is the only reason water, electricity and gas are all working. 

De Linden says the squatters plan to stay as long as possible — but they'll be OK, whatever happens. 

"They have Plan B because they are very experienced squatters," De Linden said. "So then they will find something."

She says the court ruling could even spark a trend as squatters set their sights on other vacant properties with ties to oligarchs.

If that happens, she suspects they'll have the public's support.

"I also noticed that people are really happy that this happens and everybody says, OK, this is good because we have to fight against the oligarchs," she said. "Normally people are very against squatters, but currently they are supporting them in this procedure against oligarchs."

Interview with Heleen over de Linden produced by Chris Harbord.

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