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Red flag

Red Flag: Turn oligarchs’ villas into refugee housing!

One of Putin's favourite billionaires appears to own an empty villa in Schmargendorf, southwest Berlin.

Arkady Rotenberg has been on the EU sanctions list since 2014, but his Berlin villa sits empty. Photo: IMAGO / Russian Look

Everyone knows that Russian billionaires snap up the fanciest mansions in London and the biggest penthouses in New York City. Less well-known is that they also use villas in Berlin’s leafy southwest to deposit illicit funds. Realty investments in the German capital, after all, are more stable and discreet than most bank accounts. There is even a word for this in German: Betongold or “concrete gold.” 

DER SPIEGEL has discovered one such villa belonging to Arkady Rotenberg. The billionaire is a close associate of Vladimir Putin, even practicing Judo together with the Russian president. The Russian edition of Forbes magazine called Rotenberg the “king of state orders”: his company built the bridge from the Russian mainland to the Crimean peninsula. Rotenberg has been on EU sanctions lists since 2014. 

The villa is behind a gate on a street called Wildentensteig in the district of Schmargendorf, just a few meters from Grunewald. The lot was purchased in 2008 by Rotenberg’s daughter Lilia for 1.8 million euros — the owner is a company called Rotex, which is owned by a company from Cyprus that is believed to be controlled by the oligarch.

There is no name on the bell. According to neighbors, no one has ever lived there — only a gardener and a housekeeper drop by occasionally .

Here is a perfectly good and absolutely enormous house belonging to a criminal that has been sitting empty for years. At the same time, Berlin is desperately looking for space to house the 15,000 refugees arriving from Ukraine every single day. How long will it take the city to put Eins and Eins together to make Zwei?

The city claims it’s difficult to enforce EU sanctions, as Russian names can have different transliterations. Rotenberg’s villa is in his daughter’s name, and she is not technically on the list. Villas like this are often hidden behind a web of deliberately murky shell companies that can be almost impossible to entangle.

This isn’t a problem limited to a couple of villas. Berlin’s government doesn’t know who actually owns between a quarter and half of the properties in the city. Think about that. If you are a renter, your landlord can demand to know anything about you: how much you earn, what pets you own, who lives with you… But the same landlord can remain anonymous, hiding behind lawyers and straw men. It’s up to independent researchers to figure out who owns what. (When Köpi-Platz was evicted last year, the man presenting the case used forged signatures, and might not actually exist at all.)

It would be easy to pass a law requiring that anyone plunking down €10 billion for an apartment building would have to show some ID — after all, that’s what required just to buy a SIM card in Germany. But no such law is on the horizon. Too many people are profiting off of Germany’s world-class money laundering industry. This includes Olaf Scholz, the capo of this criminal enterprise, who as finance minister worked for years to block financial transparency rules.

In the El Dorado for realty speculators that we call home, many of the biggest houses and apartments in Berlin are permanently empty. They are gobbled up by investors who might drop by once a year, if at all. Berlin is in the middle of a housing crisis, which is being exacerbated by a refugee crisis. Is it a radical demand to say that houses should not be standing empty?

Some of these anonymous speculators are Russian oligarchs. It’s obvious their properties need to be seized and used to house Ukrainian refugees. This demand has been raised by the UK’s deputy prime minister as well as Manhattan’s borough president — two politicians free of suspicion of communist sympathies. So let’s grab Rotenberg’s villa right now.

But what about properties being kept empty by billionaires of other nationalities? What about the villas of German oligarchs? It doesn’t seem right that they should be allowed to stand empty either.

Nathaniel has written an anticapitalist Berlin guide book that is being published by Pluto Press on April 21.