Alexander Lebedev, the billionaire newspaper owner facing criminal charges in Moscow, said he’s collected proof that Russian officials stole tens of billions of dollars and he plans to share it with U.S. and U.K. authorities.
Lebedev said he’s already moved some of the evidence of corruption he’s gathered since 2006, including the theft of $1 billion of state pension funds, outside of the country and expects foreign governments to investigate because much of the money was laundered abroad.
“I want an international investigation into tens of billions of U.S. dollars stolen from banks and companies in this country,” Lebedev said by phone from Moscow on Aug. 4. “I know where the money is. I’ve been on it for many years and I think this is probably the No. 1 reason for the attack on me.”
Russian investigators opened a criminal case against Lebedev for hooliganism after he punched property developer Sergey Polonsky during a television show last September. The former KGB agent, who served in the Soviet Embassy in London during the Cold War, faces a maximum sentence of five years if convicted. He said he expects to be indicted and barred from leaving the country within a month. Lebedev may also be charged with money laundering because his bank, National Reserve Bank, is under investigation by the central bank, he said.
Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said the Kremlin would welcome any proof of graft by Russian officials. Russia is the world’s most corrupt major economy and ranks alongside Nigeria at 143rd of 182 countries in Berlin-based Transparency International’s 2011 Corruption Perceptions Index.
“We remember many figures in the history of our country who talked for years about holding suitcases full of various kinds of dirt but nobody ever saw these suitcases,” Peskov said in a telephone interview yesterday. “If somebody can help uncover corruption, especially large-scale corruption, such a man deserves all honor and praise -- but shame on slanderers.”
Lebedev, who owns the Evening Standard and Independent newspapers in the U.K. and Novaya Gazeta in Moscow, is the highest-profile businessman to oppose President Vladimir Putin, 59, since Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former Yukos Oil Co. billionaire serving a 13-year sentence from two convictions for tax evasion and fraud. Lebedev helps fund Alexey Navalny, 36, an anti-corruption activist and leader of the opposition rallies that erupted last year as Putin prepared to return to the presidency for a third term.
Navalny himself faces 10 years in prison after being charged last month with embezzlement from a state company while he was an unpaid adviser. In June, Lebedev used his shareholding in OAO Aeroflot, the country’s largest airline, to elect Navalny to the state-run carrier’s board of directors.
Lebedev, a co-owner of Novaya Gazeta with former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, said the evidence he’s collected “is probably what put me on a collision course with some people in the top echelons, in the law enforcement agencies, because they are very worried.”
Five Novaya Gazeta reporters have been killed since 2000, including Anna Politkovskaya, who was shot in the head in her apartment building on Putin’s birthday in 2006. The newspaper in June accused the country’s chief investigator, Alexander Bastrykin, of threatening the life of its deputy editor. Bastrykin later admitted having an “emotional conversation” with the editor, though he denied making threats.
Lebedev, 52, said last week that he would cede his stake in Novaya Gazeta and sell all of his Russian assets to end the “full-scale campaign” against him, though he vowed to continue to support the publication financially. His assets include National Reserve Bank, about 15 percent of Aeroflot, budget airline Red Wings and construction, real estate and agriculture holdings. He said he would provide Russian authorities the same information he shares with foreign officials.
“They are listening to my phones,” said Lebedev, a former member of Russia’s lower house of parliament and a failed Moscow mayoral candidate. “They have devices everywhere, in my car, my house, everywhere. I know that, I used to be trained for that. But what can I do? I am completely helpless.”
Peskov said nobody in Russia gets harassed for funding “legal work.”