The website of “The London Times” today has a story that is full of wonderful ironies. I can’t help but imagine Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin giggling with delight. It seems too fantastic to suggest that he could have planned this, but he definitely kept his eyes open for opportunities and they all fell into place marvelously.
The “Times” story today, which is based on an exclusive interview with oligarch Aleksandr Lebedev, reveals that a Russian state bank that is directly controlled by Putin (he is chairman of the supervisory board, which is made up entirely of his cabinet ministers) will purchase large stakes in the Aeroflot airline and the Ilyushin Finance Corporation from Lebedev. The value of the deal, which will be finalized on February 17, was not disclosed, but the money should come in handy as Lebedev maneuvers to purchase the U.K.’s “Independent” newspaper (even the name of the newspaper is one of those ironies that is too rich for fiction).
But we get ahead of ourselves. The story really begins back in the 1990s, when one-time oligarch Boris Berezovsky was riding high in Moscow and laying waste to all the ideals that had blossomed during perestroika and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Berezovsky was an unscrupulous manipulator who turned political connection into wealth and then wealth into further political connection and more wealth. He was the brains, if you can use that expression, behind the 1996 presidential-election fraud and the gray cardinal behind Putin’s own rise to power.
But he soon broke with Putin, who couldn’t tolerate Berezovsky’s combination of political ruthlessness and economic might, and was forced to give up most of his assets and flee the country. Berezovsky fled to London in 2001, where he managed to get himself political asylum despite repeated Kremlin protests and efforts to have him extradited.
From exile, he has continued to lob broadsides at the Kremlin ever since, which I am sure has done little to warm Putin’s heart toward London. (Somewhere in this story it must also be mentioned that Berezovsky was a friend and promoter of former FSB officer Aleksandr Litvinenko, the harsh Putin critic who died after being poisoned in London by exotic polonium-210. Putin reserves a special hatred for security agents who come out against him.)
One of the assets Berezovsky left behind was, ironically, the airline Aeroflot. That company was at the heart of the first set of criminal charges against him. A Russian court in 2007 convicted him in absentia of embezzling $9 million from the company and sentenced him to six years in prison. Last June, he was sentenced to 13 years on similar charges in connection with his former companies AvtoVAZ and LogoVAZ.
And just so that he knows Putin hasn’t forgotten him, prosecutors filed a new set of embezzlement charges against Berezovsky last September in connection with the SBS-Agro bank.
Enter Lebedev, a former KGB intelligence officer who spied out of the Soviet Embassy in London during the 1980s and who, like Putin, is unapologetic for his role in the Soviet system. As the Times Online article puts it so nicely, “He went into business after the collapse of Communism, becoming rich on complex banking deals.”
Last year, Lebedev bought the U.K.’s “Evening Standard.” He also owns the feisty Russian paper “Novaya gazeta,” and he has tried to form a socialist-leaning party together with former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, an idea that was reportedly quashed by Kremlin domestics-politics overlord Vladislav Surkov.
Lebedev admits that he is loyal to Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev, describing himself as “a modernization force.” “He cites [jailed former Yukos owner Mikhail] Khodorkovsky’s description of him as ‘one of us’ to counter allegations that he is a tame Kremlin Trojan horse sent to buy Western media,” the Times Online article says. “He also attributes gossip that he is a ‘Putin stooge’ to Boris Berezovsky.” While it is true that Lebedev has certain liberal credentials – the record of “Novaya gazeta” is extraordinary and courageous – he is hardly, as the Times Online article claims, “one of [the Kremlin’s] most outspoken critics.”
In fact, in a second Times Online article based on the same interview, Lebedev says: “The only good reforms which happened in this country always came from the top. Maybe we can offer [Putin and Medvedev] a helping hand if they want to…. I think most of the corruption in this country has nothing to do with Putin and Medvedev.”
Another delight in this whole story is that for a brief while back last April, it appeared that Lebedev might be a candidate for mayor of Sochi and that one of his rivals would be Andrei Lugovoi – a former FSB officer who is suspected by British authorities of being the person who gave Litvinenko the fatal polonium-laced tea. In the end, Lebedev was not allowed to run and Lugovoi withdrew, ostensibly to focus on his duties as a deputy in the Duma.
Lebedev claims that the infusion from Putin’s bank will not be used to finance his bid for “The Independent. Lebedev lays out a too-good-to-be-true list of feel-good projects that he intends to pursue with the money. “He plans to invest the funds…into building 20,000 affordable homes, developing agricultural projects and creating a British-style building society to offer low-cost mortgages.” As if that weren’t enough, he also cites his working opening a children’s leukemia hospital in Russia and his fundraising for the Raisa Gorbachev Foundation.
Maybe Lebedev is his own man, maybe he isn’t. But, as “The Guardian” documented recently, the Kremlin is spending $1.4 billion this year on “international propaganda” and it has tripled spending on state news agencies and works with numerous Western PR firms to boost its image in the West.
But if Lebedev is a “Trojan horse,” then how fun it must be for Putin to see the money for subverting the British press coming from the renationalization of one of the flagship companies of his old nemesis Berezovsky.