Ex-Billionaire Lebedev Seeks ‘Risk-Free’ Debt Over Russia Assets

Russian newspaper tycoon Alexander Lebedev, whose fortune has fallen to a few hundred million dollars from $2 billion, plans to invest almost all of his money in bonds as he sells off most of his domestic assets.

“You get a coupon of 8 percent and it’s risk-free,” Lebedev, 53, said yesterday in an interview at the Moscow mansion he uses as an office. He said he’d buy $300 million of Russian government and corporate bonds as well as Kazakh debt.

Lebedev said he’s sold his shares in state-run carrier OAO Aeroflot, where he once owned more than 25 percent, as well as a stake in a state-controlled aircraft leasing company. He also disposed of his Russian budget airline, Red Wings, and has closed nearly all operations of his National Reserve Bank.

The tycoon, who finances the U.K. Evening Standard and Independent newspapers as well as Russian opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta, accuses the authorities of driving him out of business in retaliation for his anti-corruption campaign.

“I underestimated the Kremlin’s reaction to things,” Lebedev said. “The system is completely controlled by corrupt bureaucrats.”

Berlin-based Transparency International’s 2012 Corruption Perceptions Index ranked Russia as the world’s most corrupt major economy. It ranked 133rd out of 176 countries worldwide, alongside Honduras and below Uganda and Nicaragua.

Avoids Prison

Lebedev escaped a prison sentence after a Russian judge found him guilty of assault for punching property developer Sergei Polonsky on national television, sentencing the former KGB agent to 150 hours of community service in July.

Lebedev, who served in the Soviet Embassy in London during the Cold War, faced as long as five years in prison over the 2011 incident until prosecutors dropped the more serious charge of hooliganism. He’s appealing his sentence.

The newspaper owner has said crooked businessmen in collusion with public officials have “embezzled and siphoned off” at least $700 billion from Russia during the last 15 years, citing data from the Tax Justice Network.

Lebedev said his U.K. newspaper holdings, run by his son Evgeny, remain unprofitable because the Independent is “still making big losses.” Still, the Evening Standard now earns “a couple of million pounds” a year and i, his U.K. mass-market newspaper, is breaking even.

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