MOSCOW - Banker and media magnate Alexander Lebedev says he could sell his business assets in Russia after coming under pressure from the Kremlin, adding he feared he might be jailed in a criminal case he regards as politically motivated.
Lebedev also said Russia could face a wave of political
repression following a series of moves since Vladimir Putin
returned to the presidency on May 7 that opposition leaders have
described as a crackdown on dissent.
“I think the biggest problem is the country is being run on
the model of personal power,” Lebedev, whose net worth was put
at $1.1 billion by Forbes magazine in March, told Reuters in an
interview at his Moscow office.
“I hope I’m mistaken when I said we’re on the brink of
Asked what his long-term plan was, Lebedev said in
immaculate English: “Roll back my businesses just completely to
zero, frankly, just roll back, try to roll back everything. Just
to get out of business.”
The 52-year-old billionaire backer of two British newspapers
– The Independent and London’s Evening Standard – gave no
further details, though he said he did not believe he would have
much time to sell his assets if pressure on him continued.
Opposition leaders say the Kremlin has started a crackdown
to silence Putin’s critics following the biggest protests since
he first rose to power in 2000, including pushing through laws
increasing fines for protesters, tightening controls of
foreign-funded campaign groups and toughening Internet rules.
Lebedev’s business interests in Russia include banking,
agricultural and construction assets.
He also has a stake in Novaya Gazeta, a campaigning
newspaper that has criticised the Kremlin and exposed corruption
in Russia, and is a shareholder in state energy company Gazprom
and state-controlled airline Aeroflot.
Although he says he is not involved in opposition politics,
Lebedev is unusual among wealthy Russian businessmen or
oligarchs in criticising the Kremlin.
Most have avoided doing so since the arrest in 2003 of
former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky after he defied Putin by
taking an interest in opposition politics. He is still in jail.
Lebedev may be at risk of going to jail himself after being
shown almost a year ago throwing punches during a television
talk show at another guest, businessman Sergei Polonsky, while
discussing the economic crisis. Putin at the time called the
action “hooliganism” and prosecutors opened an investigation.
The Kremlin denied putting pressure on businessmen over
their political interests, although Putin clipped the wings of
the oligarchs during his first term as president after they
amassed influence as well as wealth.
“The Kremlin does not put pressure on business, the Kremlin
has never interfered, is not interfering and will not interfere
in corporate affairs,” Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said.
FEARS OF JAIL
Softly spoken with white hair and turquoise-rimmed glasses,
Lebedev said he may now face a similar fate to protest leader
Alexei Navalny, who was charged with theft on Tuesday and barred
from leaving Russia.
Navalny could face a 10-year prison sentence and says he
believes he will go to jail.
“Probably the procedure will be the same as Navalny, which
is restriction on (my) travel outside the country,” Lebedev said
in the interview, during which he sometimes paced the room and
spoke passionately. “According to my lawyers that will happen
either in August or September.”
Asked if he expected to go to jail, Lebedev said with a
laugh: “Well, if you’re facing charges being brought against you
Dressed in grey jeans, sneakers, a dark blue jacket and tie,
Lebedev believes the investigation against him – and a separate
inquiry conducted into his National Reserve Bank – is motivated
by his outspoken views and investigations he said he is
undertaking into corruption.
He said he was concerned the Russian authorities would try
to “bulldoze my businesses to zero”, and that he would not leave
the country for fear of arrest.
He would try to keep The Independent and Evening Standard,
which he backs but are owned and run by his son Evgeny, he
But he denied he would try to expand his media empire in
Britain by buying any of media magnate Rupert Murdoch’s
newspapers if they were put up for sale, saying they would need
someone with “a bigger pocket”.
Lebedev made it clear he believed it was time for Russia’s
opposition leaders to form a united front, put aside their
differences and speak with one voice on issues such as
The opposition protests that began last December have
continued even though fewer people have been turning up and the
rallies have been less frequent.
The opposition has not evolved into a more organised
political movement and has no single leader, though Navalny has
emerged as the most charismatic of them.
Asked whether he could be the person who unites them,
Lebedev laughed and said: “I haven’t been a practicing
He says his passion is battling corruption, and that he
believes an international body is needed to dig out money
“Chasing the money has become a process that is next to
impossible,” he said.