Eastern Europeans buy up property in the West as Putin steps up ‘war on nerves’

By Christian Edwards, CNN

CNN  — 

Agnes Marciniak-Kostrzewa’s phone won’t stop ringing. She’s been in the property business for 25 years, helping Poles to buy homes on Spain’s southern shores, but the past few months have been “really crazy.”

There are lots of reasons why people might trade the Baltic coast for the Mediterranean. More than three decades after the collapse of communism, Poles are richer than ever before. Many who started businesses in the early 1990s are now looking to retire. And remote work, ushered in by the pandemic, has allowed many to live more rootlessly and opt for warmer climates.

But several realtors told CNN that their clients are now citing another reason: Russia’s war in Ukraine, and the fear that the conflict could spread.

“I experienced two waves of rapidly growing interest in buying properties. The first was in February 2022, immediately after the outbreak of the war. The second has been since February 2024,” Marciniak-Kostrzewa said.

The mood has darkened in recent weeks, as Russia seeks to build on recent battlefield gains, testing for weak spots along the frontlines and pummeling Ukraine’s cities with airstrikes. President Volodomyr Zelensky warned this week that, if the United States Congress fails to approve military aid, Ukraine “will lose the war.”

And the comments of prominent Western figures are causing jitters elsewhere on Europe’s eastern flank. Former US President Donald Trump in February said he would encourage Russia to do “whatever the hell they want” to any NATO member not paying their due. Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk last month warned Europe is in a “pre-war era.”

“After Trump’s statement and after Tusk’s interview, we got calls – I don’t even know how many – with people asking if they can come within three days and buy the property, and how long the whole procedure takes to get the keys,” Marciniak-Kostrzewa said.

A record-breaking number of Poles bought property in Spain in 2023, topping the previous record set the year before, according to Polish outlet Bizblog.

Maria Ruiz Lopez, a notary based between Spain and Warsaw, said demand has been “increasing incredibly” since the start of the year.

“Very often, our clients tell us that the reason for which they’re buying real estate is because they’re afraid of the war, they’re afraid of Russia, so they would like to have some place where, eventually, they could leave for fast, if there was such a need,” she said.

Some buy in a slight panic. Lopez said a client last month bought a property because they wanted to avoid being conscripted into the Polish military. Marciniak-Kostrzewa recalled another who, spurred by fears of the war spreading, last month bought an apartment in Spain and asked to rent it out, on the condition that they could access it swiftly if needed. When she explained that removing tenants from a property takes time, the client said: “OK, let’s keep it empty, just in case something will happen.”

Others buy with an eye to their investments. For Wieslaw, a retired Pole in his 70s, the prospect of war coming to Poland is a “black swan:” a low-probability, high-impact event. Still, he wants to hedge his bets.

“When I heard stories of Ukrainian people being forced to leave their country within an hour, taking with them all their belongings, I realized then that all my property is in Poland,” said Wieslaw, who preferred to give only his first name to maintain his privacy. He still lives in Warsaw, but bought a small property in Andalucia, southern Spain. “The trigger, really, was the war in Ukraine.”

But most buy just for peace of mind – a back-up plan, for those wealthy enough to afford one. Another Polish buyer, who wished to remain anonymous to discuss a private transaction, told CNN the war was “definitely the main reason for making a quick purchase decision.” A father of two children, he said “the most important thing” for him and his wife “is that we know we have a second home if we need it. This gives us a great sense of comfort.”

A woman hangs a sheet from an apartment balcony in Malaga, Spain.

Poles may be a special case. After its post-Communist economic “miracle,” more Poles are able to buy second homes abroad than before. And, due to its borders with Ukraine and Belarus, Poles may feel more need to do so.

But other Eastern European countries are also buying in the West. Liivia Illak started her business 20 years ago, mostly selling expensive Spanish properties to clients from her native Estonia. But this year, she’s received more requests than ever – and many of her clients are looking for smaller properties.

“Three months ago, I started to get requests for really small apartments, as people don’t want to keep all their eggs in one basket in Estonia. They just want to get something here, so if the situation gets a little bit more serious, then they have a place to come,” Illak told CNN.

“Obviously, we are in NATO, but I must say there’s a big amount of people who are really, really afraid,” she said. This year, she says she has also helped Lithuanians to buy properties in Spain.

The spike in demand comes as Russia has stepped up its “war on nerves,” projecting an image of its own inviolability while Europe appears to dither on matters of its own defense.

In Russia, Putin’s grip on power is tighter than ever after his rule was extended another six years in widely discredited elections and the death of opposition figure Alexey Navalny.

And abroad, Putin is keeping Europe guessing. Missiles heading for Ukraine have strayed into Polish airspace. Belarusian troops – at the Kremlin’s behest – have built up on Poland’s border. Estonia has warned of “shadow war” attacks on its soil. And in Lithuania, one of Navalny’s aides was bludgeoned by a hammer – a message that even home soil is not safe.

“It seems like they’re doing a good job, because if – at the level even of real estate – we have people justifying their lifestyle choices and their decision to leave a country or a region, because they fear there could be World War III or there could be a nuclear holocaust or there could be Russian tanks, then they’ve already won, in many ways,” he told CNN.

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