GENEVA — Three Alpine nations moved Friday to block assets that Ukraine's fugitive president Viktor Yanukovych and some of his associates might have stashed away there, and Swiss authorities opened a money-laundering investigation into Yanukovych and his son.
Switzerland, Austria and Liechtenstein all have banking systems that have in the past been favored by investors as a place to hide funds. All are at pains to prevent their banks being used to hide and launder ill-gotten funds.
In a statement, Switzerland's governing Federal Council said it "wishes to avoid any risk of misappropriation of Ukrainian state assets."
And in a separate move, the Geneva prosecutors' office said it has opened an investigation of suspected "aggravated money laundering" against Yanukovych and his son Aleksander. Documents were seized, but the prosecutor said no further details of the investigation would be provided.
Austria also said it is freezing any bank accounts it finds for Yanukovych, his son Aleksander, and 16 others linked to Ukraine's former government.
Martin Weiss, spokesman at the country's Foreign Ministry, said the move is meant to ensure that no money is withdrawn from their accounts pending a European Union decision on whether Yanukovych and his closest associates should face financial and other sanctions. Weiss did not name all those affected and said he could not say how many on the list of 18 had accounts in Austria or how much money was involved.
The government of Liechtenstein — a tiny principality sandwiched between Switzerland and Austria — said it had ordered the freezing of any assets owned by 20 people who were members of the old Ukrainian government or their associates. It did not name any names or specify whether there are believed to be any such assets.
Oleksii Khmara, executive director of Transparency International Ukraine, said it's important that governments move fast to freeze assets because someone who wants to hide money can set up an anonymous shell company online in less than 10 minutes.
"It is important to remember that freezing assets is only the first step in a long complex process that should result in any ill-gotten gain being returned to the public purse," Khmara said. "The freeze is a good sign, but it raises big questions about the international financial system. Every time a head of state falls to public protests, we seem to see assets being frozen in other countries."