Russia’s monolithic secret services are back in the media spotlight. And once again, the reason has nothing to do with spying.
On September 13, banker and media mogul Aleksander Lebedev filed a lawsuit against the Federal Security Services (FSB) for financial damages he allegedly incurred after masked special forces armed with machine guns searched the premises of his National Reserve Bank (NRB) in November 2010.
Many speculated the raid was a so-called "mask show," an act of intimidation and pressure designed to extort money from the businessman on the receiving end.
Armed men at the entrance to Lebedev's National Reserve Bank in Moscow on November 2, 2010.
The Russian business daily "Vedomosti" reports that 2 billion rubles ($66 million) were withdrawn from the NRB in the three weeks after the raid.
Lebedev is asking for 350 million rubles ($11.5 million) in damages and filing a lawsuit against Department K, the FSB directorate responsible for combating economic crimes, which he says was responsible for the raid.
Department K is no stranger to scandal.
Officials from Department K are at the center of allegations of fraud and murder in the case of Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer for the Western investment firm Hermitage Capital, who died in a Russian jail in November 2009
Yevgeny Chichvarkin, the exiled telecoms tycoon who fled Russia in December 2008, has also accused Department K of fabricating the criminal case against him.
“Department K of the FSB is not governed by any laws and it can do whatever it wants,” said Jamison Firestone, a lawyer at Hermitage Capital and a former colleague of Magnitsky. “It’s the department for partaking in economic crime. It’s not investigating economic crimes at all, but committing them.”
Lebedev says a report signed by a certain “Captain Volotovsky” of Department K was crucial to the decision to approve the police raid of his bank’s offices. He says the report that linked his bank to the theft of 450 million rubles ($14.8 million) was fictitious.
The accusations have since been dropped, the "Financial Times" reports, citing the National Reserve Bank’s spokesperson.
It is unclear how much luck Lebedev will have in suing the secret services – possibly for the first time ever in Russia – in the country’s courts. Nor is it clear to what extent the lawsuit is a publicity stunt by Lebedvev, a shrewd former KGB agent who has remained on good relations with the Kremlin, despite owning Russia’s only fiercely oppositionist paper.
But Department K, for one, is confident.
an FSB spokesperson as saying there is no “cause-and-effect relationship” between Department K’s report and Lebedev’s bank losses.
-- Tom Balmforth