понедельник, 2 ноября 2009 г.

What could Dostoevsky communicate with Twitter?

The New York Times

One London Paper to Rule Evening Commute

By ERIC PFANNER

In the latest of the great newspaper wars of London, two lions of Fleet Street, Rupert Murdoch and Jonathan Harmsworth (the fourth Viscount Rothermere), have been outflanked by a former Soviet K.G.B. officer, Aleksandr Lebedev.

London Lite, a free newspaper published by Mr. Harmsworth’s Daily Mail & General Trust, signaled its intention last week to shut down. That would leave the London afternoon newspaper market to Mr. Lebedev’s Evening Standard.

In January, Mr. Lebedev, a Russian tycoon, acquired a controlling stake in The Standard, a 182-year-old fixture of London commutes, from the Daily Mail & General Trust. The Standard put intense pressure on London Lite by becoming free three weeks ago, rather than charging 50 pence (80 cents) a copy. This vastly increased its distribution.

The Standard’s move followed the recent demise of another afternoon free paper, The London Paper, published by Mr. Murdoch’s News Corporation. For three years, London Lite and The London Paper fought a battle that ended up bleeding both, as well as The Standard.

Circulation of The Standard had fallen to 225,000 in July, from 443,000 nine years earlier, and many of those copies were discounted or given away.

Since the paper became free, Mr. Lebedev said, its popularity has soared.

Whether Mr. Lebedev’s coup translates into profits is another matter.

“At the personal level, I’m quite happy about what we have done,” he said in an interview. “Whether I will be unhappy someday with the financial results — let’s wait and see.”

The decision to shift to free distribution goes against the grain, at a time when other papers are raising prices to compensate for a plunge in advertising. Across Europe, dozens of free papers, with all their eggs in the advertising basket, have shut down.

Andrew Mullins, managing director of The Standard, said the move would result in lower distribution costs, balancing the effects of lost newsstand revenue. And while printing costs will rise as circulation increases, the paper hopes to recoup that and more by raising ad rates.

“We had to be brave and do something bold,” Mr. Mullins said. “It had become abundantly clear that the paid-for model could not generate the audiences we needed.”

The Standard has increased distribution to 600,000 papers a day, filling the gap left by The London Paper. The Daily Mail & General Trust, which has kept a 25 percent stake in The Standard, is still publishing London Lite for now. But it said it had begun consultations with its staff about the future of that paper, a formality before a shutdown.

While The Evening Standard will pick up many of the other two papers’ readers, advertisers are not guaranteed to follow, said Vanessa Clifford, head of press at the media-buying agency Mindshare in London. Many advertisers, she said, are more interested in reaching specific groups of readers than in reaching the largest possible circulation.

“I hope they aren’t skipping around saying, ‘Yippee, all that money is now going to come in to us,’ ” she said of The Standard. “That would be naïve.”

Mr. Lebedev said advertisers had been reassured by the paper’s insistence on maintaining journalistic quality — something that is not a hallmark of free publications.

“It’s good to see people getting newspaper literature, rather than litter, for free,” Mr. Lebedev said.

The Evening Standard is not Mr. Lebedev’s only media holding. With the former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev, he owns a majority stake in Novaya Gazeta of Moscow.

Mr. Lebedev installed a new editor, Geordie Greig, who was hired away from Tatler, a Condé Nast magazine. The decision to drop the cover charge, Mr. Mullins said, had been personally approved by Mr. Lebedev after a study in which a number of business scenarios were presented to him.

Now, Mr. Lebedev and his London-based son, Evgeny, are keeping a close eye on developments.

“There’s a phone call once a day from one of the Lebedevs,” Mr. Mullins said. “They bought an influential paper and want to make sure it stays an influential paper.”

There have been reports that Mr. Lebedev might move to acquire another paper, like The Independent.

“Most of the speculation has been inaccurate,” he said. “It’s not that I don’t want to, but there’s no substance in it now.”

Mr. Lebedev said that he felt an obligation to support the newspaper business at a time when many were struggling with the challenge of the Internet. Much of what he learned about business and finance on the way to assembling a multibillion-dollar fortune came from reading the papers, he said.

“It’s good that we have online, but there’s so much rubbish in it,” he said. “What could Dostoevsky communicate with Twitter?”

среда, 14 октября 2009 г.

вторник, 13 октября 2009 г.

BBC Profile: Alexander Lebedev

The Russian billionaire businessman Alexander Lebedev is also the proprietor of London's Evening Standard newspaper, which has now become a freesheet.

What motivates a Russian oligarch to buy a British evening paper? What kind of man is he?
Alexander Lebedev, who will turn 50 in December, was a middle-ranking KGB analyst in London 20 years ago.

Alexander Lebedev is becoming an influential Russian voice in London.
Since then, he has built up a business empire that spans banking, energy, aviation, hotels and the media.

He says he is proud to own the Evening Standard: "It is a great privilege to play a tiny role in supporting one of the pillars of British democracy, and not letting it disappear.
"Secondly, it is a great challenge. [The Standard] is an iconic publication, really quite influential, but it is slightly lagging behind and we really need to make it more attractive, more in the spirit of London."

But there may be more to it than pure philanthropy.

Mr Lebedev is having to pour millions of pounds into the Standard, so it is not about profit, either.

Expensive insurance

Patrick Forbes made a BBC television documentary series about the Russian oligarchs. He thinks Lebedev bought the Standard because of a shrewd calculation.

"If you own a paper in Britain, you have access to the British Establishment immediately," says Mr Forbes.

"You can, and he certainly has recently spent a lot of time with the prime minister, you can spend time with the leader of the opposition, and you are suddenly a player in the country's politics."

But this is not just about influence or prestige.

"It means you have taken out a rather expensive form of life insurance," Mr Forbes explains. "You'd have to be a very brave person in Russia to want to destroy overnight one of Russia's main voices in the West."

Why would Mr Lebedev want this kind of protection?

He stood out from the other KGB guys because he had a sense of humour, and looked like a Westerner

Alexander Nekrassov, journalist

He has shown political ambition, and for some oligarchs political involvement has led to disaster. The oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsy ended up in jail.

Alexander Lebedev held a seat in the Russian parliament, the Duma, from 2004 to 2008.
In the Duma, he developed a reputation as an independent, liberal voice, and, together with Mikhail Gorbachev, set up the Independent Democratic Party to push their reform agenda.
But independent politics in Russia is treacherous territory.

Six years ago, Patrick Forbes was filming Mr Lebedev while the latter was running for mayor of Moscow, standing against the incumbent.

Mr Lebedev got a phone call from the Kremlin.

A call from the Kremlin put an end to Lebedev's mayoral ambitions.

"[Mr] Lebedev said he could not tell me what the Kremlin wanted," Forbes remembers, "but basically they said, 'You stop your campaign, or we'll deal with you.'

"And as a means of showing him what would happen to him, that morning they grounded 40 planes of Aeroflot." Mr Lebedev owns 30% of Aeroflot. He ended his campaign.

Earlier this year, Mr Lebedev wanted to run for mayor of Sochi, the Black Sea resort that will host the 2014 Winter Olympics. But it seems he was thwarted again.

Funky oligarch

Alongside his political mentor Mr Gorbachev, Mr Lebedev has a controlling interest in the independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta.

This paper is known for its investigations and several of its journalists have been murdered. The best known one perhaps is Anna Politkovskaya, whose killers have never been brought to justice.

Mr Lebedev put up a reward of $1m for the capture of her killers. A sign, he says, of his determination to defend the free press.

He was born into a family of the intelligentsia and privilege, unlike other oligarchs.

Alexander Nekrassov has known Mr Lebedev since the 1980s when they were both in London - Mr Nekrassov as a Tass news agency journalist, Mr Lebedev working for the KGB.

It's unclear who his political protectors are. He has a background in secret services which means he can be the business person on behalf of some of them as well

Nicolai Petrov, Carnegie Moscow Centre

Mr Nekrassov calls Mr Lebedev a "funky oligarch", saying he is "more like a rock star, and what distinguishes him is his westernised appearance".

"In the old days in London, he stood out from the rest of the KGB guys, because he had a sense of humour, spoke very good English, and looked like a Westerner."

Mr Nekrassov thinks this helped Mr Lebedev in business later: "He already had a westernised attitude, that's why he found it easier to deal with foreign partners and companies."

And how did Mr Lebedev transform himself from apparatchik to business tycoon?
In government service, he had studied high finance. He then saw huge opportunities in banking when the Soviet Union collapsed.

After three years of apparent lack of success, he bought the small National Reserve Bank and used it to lend and invest in Russia's chaotic marketplace.

The bank flourished and Mr Lebedev could expand his business interests to other areas, such as buying the stake in Aeroflot.

Despite being a billionaire, he avoids ostentation. He does without the super-yacht.
He is said to be connected to certain political clans and have protection that way.

Nikolai Petrov of the Carnegie Moscow Centre says: "It's unclear who his political protectors are.
"He's a pretty closed guy, and he has a background in secret services, which means he can somehow continue to keep in touch with them and be the business person playing on behalf of some of them as well."

Behind Mr Lebedev's piercing blue eyes is an enigmatic mind, and even his boldest moves are extraordinarily calculated. He plays the games of business and politics like a grand master, and buying the Standard may be his boldest move yet.

воскресенье, 11 октября 2009 г.

The spy who loves media

He owns London's leading newspaper, which today goes free, and has been a guest at No 10, but who is Alexander Lebedev? We talk to those closest to him about his rise to prominence

Ian Cobain
The Guardian, Monday 12 October 2009

Alexander Yevgenyevich Lebedev's first foray into the British social scene, with his cheeky smile and laceless Converse trainers, was like a breath of fresh air to a nation that tended to associate visiting Russian businessmen with assassination bids and hyper-inflation in the football transfer market. A former KGB spy he may have been, but he was so charming that his first major social outing – a £1.3m party he hosted for the Raisa Gorbachev Foundation at Althorp, the childhood home of Princess Diana – attracted Salman Rushdie, Elle Macpherson, Quincy Jones and a smattering of minor royals.

Last year his white-tie charity gala dinner switched to Hampton Court Palace, and guests included Lady Thatcher, Naomi Campbell and Elton John. And how he loved all the fuss: "When you're sitting at a dinner with Tom Wolfe on one side and Tom Stoppard on the other, then obviously it's enjoyable."
'
In the last 12 months Lebedev has bought the London Evening Standard, been invited to No 10 to meet Gordon Brown, and is said to be considering the purchase of both the Independent and the Independent on Sunday. But who is this man? Why did he join the KGB and what did he do when he was an agent in London? Is it true, as the Russian saying goes, that there is no such thing as an ex-spy? How did he make so much money in the 1990s in Moscow, a time and place that so closely resembled the Wild West? And what is the nature of his relationship with Vladimir Putin and the modern Russian state?

In an attempt to answer these questions, the Guardian has traced and questioned people who have known Lebedev for many years, including some who were very close to him. We have also put a series of questions to Lebedev himself and, although he has spoken many times of the value of transparency, for months he attempted to avoid answering most of them.
Lebedev was born in December 1959, the son of two members of the Soviet nomenklatura: Evgeniy Nikolaevich, a professor at the Bauman Technical University, and Maria Sergeyevna, an English professor at Moscow's elite State Institute of International Relations. Lebedev graduated from the Institute in 1982 after studying English, economics and finance. In 1984 he graduated from the KGB's Krasnoznamenniy Institute. Asked why he chose to join the KGB, Lebedev suggests he had little choice. "Choose is not the right word – agreed," he says.

Lebedev was posted to London in 1988, ostensibly as a third secretary at the Soviet Embassy in Kensington. One of his contemporaries recalls: "He came as a junior diplomat. After a few days it was easy to establish that he was from the service, and that he didn't come from our usual department, because he didn't have the usual training."

Lebedev, this man recalls, was a quiet and earnest individual, remaining serious even during the boozy parties that the Soviet envoys and spooks regularly threw at their apartments in Earls Terrace, a row of Georgian townhouses off Kensington High Street. "He had a brilliant memory, like a computer. As a little show he would recite from memory whole pages of a satirical novel called The Twelve Chairs. But he always wanted to prove that he was the best, that he was more intelligent than other people, more cultured, better educated. I had a sense that he always felt undervalued. And he was lonely."

One of Lebedev's KGB contemporaries – a man who was eventually expelled from the UK – recalls him as "a very average" spy. "He was not a remarkable or influential agent. He was just doing his stuff: some financial or economic analysis. He is very talented in business, and as an economist, but as a person he is somewhat maverick and eccentric." On the other hand, Leonid Zamyatin, who was the Soviet Union's last ambassador to London, from 1986 to 1991, says: "I remember Alexander Lebedev very well. An extremely diligent, very clever man. It was a pleasure to work with him. I do not know what he did in intelligence, it is something you had better ask him. As a diplomat, he was responsible for following the political situation in the UK."
Lebedev has always insisted that he did little more than prepare economic analyses. Pressed about this he eventually conceded that his work in London also involved monitoring British "political forces" and "high level meetings", arms control negotiations, trade talks and Nato. He still maintains, however, that he was "too small a fish" to have rubbed shoulders with past or current British politicians. What Lebedev does not mention is that some of his contemporaries say he left the KGB under something of a cloud. For reasons that remain unclear, he is said to have come under investigation by the agency's counter-intelligence division, both in London and in Moscow. He was recalled to Moscow and resigned from the KGB a short while later.

His contemporaries offer various explanations for this. One person says that he expressed his anti-Soviet views a little too forcibly. "It was his big mouth. He was too critical, too liberal – and too arrogant." Another possibility is that he had embarked upon a business career while still serving in the KGB.

Lebedev insists that he left Russia's foreign intelligence service because "there seemed to be no interest in foreign intelligence product inside the country", and the world of business offered greater challenges. Oddly, when asked whether he embarked upon his business career while serving in London, Lebedev emphatically insists he did not. Yet he also says that he left the Russian foreign intelligence service at the end of 1992. And Companies House records show that the young spy was setting up a company in London as early as May 1992. Boris Pankin, the first post-Soviet Russian ambassador to London, who now lives in Stockholm, says: "I know nothing about any of my employees at that time having any business interests. This would be a violation of diplomatic rules. Of course, I would not approve it either now or then."

Even amid the collapse of the Soviet Union, this would have been a serious matter. Another of Lebedev's former associates insists: "He told me that his problem was that he had set up a business while serving in the KGB. He said he was very frightened when he was recalled to Moscow. He thought he might be going to jail."

In the event, any internal KGB's investigation was quietly shelved. According to some contemporaries, Yevgeny Primakov, the future Russian prime minister, who was then director of foreign intelligence - and who knew Lebedev through his daughter — intervened to protect him, although Lebedev denies this.

Whatever the reasons for his departure, Lebedev has remained close to his old friends in the KGB. Not only have some become close business associates, but he also, until recently, attended the KGB's annual get-together at the Kremlin on Chekist Day, 20 December. Asked why he never publicly condemns the Soviet KGB that he served, he avoided the question for more than two months before eventually insisting that there was a difference between the KGB's crimes in the Stalinist era and foreign intelligence work in the 80s and 90s. "There is nothing I did during that time of which I have any reason to be ashamed."

Almost immediately after leaving the KGB, Lebedev turned up in Lausanne, where he had been offered work with a Swiss bank.

The Guardian has asked him why his switch from intelligence work to finance appears to have been so seamless, whether he was helped by contacts made during his KGB service, or whether he was still officially a spy when he began his business career. Lebedev responded by insisting that his early business ventures had not been a success.

What is clear is that Lebedev made a lot of money on the bond market: he was one of the few people in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union who possessed a clear understanding of highly complex debt security deals. Perhaps unusually, he had gained a PhD dedicated to such deals while serving in the KGB.

After making money buying and selling South American and African bonds – high risk, high rewards deals which, by his own estimates, earned him around half a million US dollars in commissions – he bought his own small finance house, the National Reserve Bank (NRB) in 1995.
He teamed up with two of his old neighbours from Earls Terrace: Andrei Kostin and Anatoliy Danilitskiy, who had both been diplomats at the Soviet embassy, just as the starting pistol was being fired on a race to transform Russia. The current chairman of the NRB, Yuri Kudimov, is another veteran of London, although he had returned to Moscow three years before Lebedev's arrival in the UK, after being unmasked as a KGB spy, masquerading as a journalist.
Old Soviet enterprises were being snatched up by a small number of private individuals; people were experimenting with capitalism for the first time – and some were making extraordinary fortunes. One company that they formed in London was called The Milith plc.

Lebedev, Kostin and Danilitskiy quickly forged highly profitable alliances with some of the emerging economic potentates of this new order. One of them was Andrey Vavilov, the deputy finance minister, who was later found to have embezzled hundreds of millions of dollars from state funds.

There is no suggestion that Lebedev, Kostin, Danilitskiy or Kudimov were involved in this matter – and Lebedev insists: "I did not pay any commissions to Vavilov." Nevertheless, according to a report by the Russian parliament's anti-corruption commission, Vavilov played a key role in the deals that allowed the bank to expand.

NRB also worked closely with one of its major shareholders, Gazprom, the gigantic Russian gas company – so closely that a former bank executive says it was effectively launched to serve the company's interests. "We had a privileged position vis-a-vis the Ministry of Finance in this particular area of foreign debts trading," one close former colleague adds.

That position changed almost overnight, he added, when Lebedev and Vavilov fell out. Some time after this falling out – as was perhaps inevitable in the world of 1990s Muscovite business – a number of problems arose for NRB. During 1996 and 1997, for example, there were gun and grenade attacks on Lebedev's offices, in which one man was wounded. The police never identified the perpetrators.

"Lebedev never dealt with criminals," the close former colleague insists. "It was a matter of principle. We never had a relationship with organised crime, because once you ask for assistance you can never get out of it. As Lebedev and other colleagues near to him were ex-service, we would rather go to them and ask for help because it was much easier."

Incidents such as the gun attacks were rare, he says. "Everyone knew the NRB shouldn't be touched because of its involvement with the intelligence service. Ordinary gangsters would say: 'Ah, better not to go there'."

There was one particularly messy dispute, however, with a business associate in the US. Igor Fyodorov was a former officer in the Soviet Union's submarine fleet who had settled in Virginia. When Fyodorov ran off with more than $7m of the NRB's money, Lebedev pursued him through the courts. But at the same time a number of Russians, and American private detectives, also began looking for him in the US. Fyodorov and his wife went into hiding in Texas, with the help of a private detective called Donald Danielson.

Fyodorov counter-claimed against Lebedev and the bank in the US courts, and also contacted the FSB, one of the successors to the KGB, to complain that his life was being threatened. In an attempt to help Fyodorov and his wife, Danielson swore an affidavit which was sent to the Prosecutor General of Russia, Yury Skuratov, in which he said: "I became convinced that these two people were genuinely fearful for their lives." He retained an English barrister practising in New York, William Pepper, who said in another affidavit, lodged with the New York state supreme court: "I have reluctantly formed the opinion that this activity by Defendant (NRB) is very much business as usual. I believe this to be the case because in a recent visit to Moscow, I spent five hours in the office of the General Prosecutor of the Russian Federation, where I learned that the chairman of the defendant — Alexander Lebedev — and another senior officer ... were under investigation for criminal activity. At the time, hereof, that investigation is continuing." That investigation never resulted in charges being brought.

A Russian journalist called Yulia Pelekhova began to make her own inquiries about the dispute, travelling to the US to question Fyodorov, and subsequently complained that employees of a security firm called Konus, which was working with the NRB, were making threatening telephone calls to her newspaper, Kommersant. Shortly afterwards, while she was away from home, a 7.62 sniper round was fired through her living room window, lodging in the opposite wall. Lebedev is dismissive of any suggestion that he was involved in any attempt to intimidate Pelekhova, pointing out – correctly – that she was later convicted of blackmail over an unconnected matter.

"This respected journalist Yulia Pelekhova was in fact arrested and spent a year in jail. I never fired at her apartment. She accused me of various crimes, amongst them poisoning her horse and stealing her car."

Lebedev then suggested that elements within the FSB were behind the affair. "The case is the typical of way the law-enforcement structures here work: they protect felons, not their victims," he said.

Skuratov and his staff pressed on with their inquiry into the dispute with Fyodorov, who died earlier this year, despite Lebedev's protestations. Skuratov recalls that the investigation began with Fyodorov's complaint but quickly expanded. "Once one case started, other episodes come into the circle of attention too. Soon after my resignation the case was stopped. What I can say for sure is that Mr Lebedev used significant resources to counteract the investigation. His acquaintance with work for the special services let him use various methods." Some of his investigators realised they were being followed, he says, and information about his son, his home and a firearm that he possessed appeared on the internet. Technicians from the Ministry of Internal Affairs were asked to find out who was behind the posting, says Skuratov, and "due to a glitch on the part of those who were spreading this information on the internet", it was traced back to servers used by NRB's security advisors at Konus.

In the event the investigation went nowhere. Early in 1999 a government-controlled TV channel aired a grainy video which purported to show Skuratov cavorting in bed with a couple of prostitutes. Shortly afterwards the head of the FSB – one Vladimir Putin – held a televised press conference at which he announced that expert analysis had concluded that the man in the picture was Skuratov – an allegation that Skuratov denied.

Nevertheless, the country's chief law enforcement official, a man who had made clear his determination to shed light on wrongdoing in high places, was forced from office. At the time of his resignation he had far more weighty matters filling his in-tray than the NRB case, not least a probe into alleged corruption among some of Boris Yeltsin's close relatives. But the inquiry into Lebedev and Fyodorov was one of many that were quietly shelved, never to be reopened, once he departed.

Ten years on, Skuratov is something of a fan of Lebedev. "He gives quite a precise and unbiased description as far as the economic and political situation in Russia is concerned," he says. "I think I share certain opinions of his, for example he was saying that the results of the last elections were totally distorted." But does he believe Lebedev was involved in the video that triggered his downfall? "I can't confirm Lebedev was the man who organised the video. But as for his involvement in shadowing me and my family via Konus – this fact was proved during the investigation."

Asked whether he played any part in Skuratov's downfall – and about the way in which the prosecutor and his family were "shadowed", the Evening Standard's new owner says: "I wish I could boast about bringing down [Skuratov] bare-handed. I hope to have played a modest responsible citizen/journalist role in ferreting out facts, evidence, giving interviews and making public statements." In any case, the former KGB agent went from strength to strength once this episode was safely behind him. His business empire now embraces housing, boutique hotels, airlines — he owns around a third of Aeroflot, the part-privatised national airline — textiles, tourism, telecommunications and newspapers.

According to one ex-colleague, the assets under his control are now probably worth around $2bn. He says he has no liquidity problems, although earlier this year there were reports – which he denied – that he had been unable to pay journalists working for Novaya Gazeta, a newspaper he part-owns, and the German aviation authority withdrew his local airline's licence, citing "business problems". Those problems are now thought to be resolved, and most of his empire is said to be good shape.

In recent weeks he is said to have abandoned plans to dispose of a number of his assets. In particular, the NRB bank – whose registered London office, curiously, is the north London home of Alastair Tulloch, a solicitor who acts for him – is understood to be thriving, despite the recession. Although he spends most of his time in Moscow, he owns a stately home in the grounds of Hampton Court Palace, homes in Italy and France, and travels only by private jet.
Today Lebedev remains close to Kudimov, one of the original gang of four from Earls Terrace, Kensington, who helped him launch his business career, although he has fallen out with both Kostin and Danilitskiy. One person who knows all four men says that Lebedev's capricious nature makes him a difficult person with whom to maintain close business links. Indeed, when making inquiries about Britain's latest press baron, words like "erratic", "unpredictable" and "uncontrollable" crop up as frequently as "smart" or "astute".

"Alexander Yevgenyevich is a very talented and gifted man," said one person interviewed by the Guardian, "but sometimes he is very inconsistent in his actions."

Lebedev is widely reported to be close to Mikhail Gorbachev, who is the co-owner of Novaya Gazeta, and whom he hails as "one of the greatest politicians in the history of mankind", but Gorbachev seems a little cool at times. Asked whether he would make a few comments about Lebedev, Gorbachev's chief press secretary replied that the former president's "schedule is too full", and that although he was well disposed towards the Guardian, he would be more likely to talk to its journalists "if you had a more serious subject". Pressed further, the press secretary says: "They have some interests together, but not that much that Mikhail Sergeyevich would give an interview specifically about him. This is not interesting for him."

Nor is Lebedev any longer close to Putin, according to those who know him well, although they are said to have been allies during the time when Putin rose to power. Nevertheless, he remains one of the few prominent Russians who seems able to make personal attacks on Putin in public without fear of recrimination and, because of this, some have speculated that he is at the centre of some sort of double bluff: that he is actually the Kremlin's man, a licensed opposition figure who knows that he can say what he likes, within limits.

Not so, according to some who have been close to Lebedev. "Putin doesn't care too much what he says," says one. "Lebedev's regarded as being like a child in school trying to get attention," says another. "Or like a small dog barking — it's so childish."

This, according to some sources, partly explains his decision to buy the Standard, and may explain any purchase of the Independent titles. "Putin is always telling the oligarchs that they should go and invest in the west, and in Ukraine, instead of waiting for the west to come to Russia," one close associate says. "He says we should have footprint in the west. Lebedev wants to prove to Putin that he can control parts of the western media, in order to project a better image of Russia. He has said to me many times that this is his motive. It is not a commercial investment. It's all about proving a point to Mr Putin. He's saying: 'I've achieved it, you should commend me.'

"You have to understand that Lebedev is a liberal, but in reality he's not a supporter of the west. He's a typical Soviet person: he's a product of Soviet society."

So will this work, using his money to participate in Russia's strategic investment in key western industries? Will it win him the approval of Putin and the Kremlin that he is said to crave? Or could his high profile in the west have the opposite effect?

Lebedev says he has twice been offered protection by the FSB, once in 1997, and again last year, although he adds he remains untroubled by thoughts of any serious threat to his safety. Oddly, Lebedev is also under investigation by the FSB. It is said to be a discreet inquiry, which may come to nothing, but which may escalate.

Lebedev says he is aware that he is under investigation. "These things are standard here. It may mean nothing, it could be business games of some FSB mavericks, could be something more serious, for example 'the big man', irritated by my outspokenness. Qui vivra verra."

среда, 7 октября 2009 г.

Opposition despairs as Moscow 'tightens the screws'

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Two leading opposition figures say they have given up on Russia's election system altogether ahead of regional polls on Sunday, saying it makes a mockery of President Dmitry Medvedev's pledge to boost democracy.

Former prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov and former KGB spy Alexander Lebedev, now a banking and media tycoon, told Reuters that the campaign for Moscow city council elections had helped convince them it no longer made sense to run for office.

Some 30 million Russians are due to vote on Sunday in a series of regional elections, but the focus will be on Moscow, where the capital is holding its first polls since Medvedev came to power in May last year.

"In all of the last 10 years they have tightened the screws and the last year is no different," said Ilya Yashin, one of a dozen opposition figures denied registration as independents. "The political stage has been cleared."

Kremlin officials say that nobody wants to support the opposition because it has failed to offer voters a convincing alternative to successful government policies.

Opinion polls predict the pro-Western opposition will lose the last of its seats on the Moscow council, which controls a $40 billion budget. It also has the power to approve or veto Kremlin appointees as Moscow's mayor, a position held since 1992 by Yuri Luzhkov.

"In Soviet times elections were decorations, now they are imitations," said Sergei Mitrokhin, leader of the Yabloko party, the only pro-Western opposition group standing in Moscow. "In Russia every election is worse than the one before."


KREMLIN PLEDGE

Medvedev has pledged to strengthen Russian democracy, which critics say was undermined by his predecessor Vladimir Putin, now prime minister. But the opposition says the situation has deteriorated since Medvedev came to power in May 2008.

"New democratic times are beginning," Medvedev said in August, promising to break the near-monopoly of ruling party United Russia over the political system -- something which has not happened.

Six parties are registered for Sunday's Moscow vote, but the only posters in the city are for United Russia and the central electoral commission, which use similar colours and fonts.

Sixty-two percent of Muscovites polled by the Levada centre described the vote as "simply an imitation of a battle" and said they expected the seats to be distributed by the authorities.

"There's no one to choose from," said 30-year-old bank worker Ira Gaidarova, who vowed not to vote.

The Kremlin blamed local officials, saying it had failed to convince Luzhkov, a prominent member of the ruling party, to liberalise Moscow elections.

"Moscow authorities are not ready to live under new standards," Medvedev's chief spokeswoman Natalya Timakova told reporters this week. "We will continue encouraging them."

Alexander Lebedev, a banking entrepreneur and owner of Russia's main opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta, said the opposition was "weak and demoralised" after a year under Medvedev.

A series of poorly attended but high-profile opposition marches in 2007 were broken up by police, but demonstrations have been subdued since the pro-Western opposition lost its last seats in parliament in elections that year.

Lebedev ran against Luzhkov in elections for Moscow mayor in 2003 and spent a few years as a pro-government deputy before leaving and setting up a new opposition movement.

He said the rejection of his registration in an election in April this year for the mayor of 2014 Winter Olympic host city Sochi helped convince him to give up his electoral ambitions.

"Sochi was the last piece of evidence that the electoral system in this country has evaporated for any independent politician," he said. "There is no election. This is just Luzhkov appointing people."

Kasyanov, who failed in his bid to stand against Medvedev in 2008, said he came to the conclusion that participation in elections was "simply impossible" when authorities blocked a dozen independent candidates he was backing for the Moscow vote.

"We have no influence over what is going on at all," he said. "Our work is simply to give citizens the possibility of alternative points of view."

воскресенье, 4 октября 2009 г.

The London Evening Standard will go Free 12 October 2009

On 12 October 2009 The London Evening Standard will become the first quality newspaper in the world to go free. The number of circulated copies of the London Evening Standard will more than double from 250k a day to more than 600k a day.

Alexander Lebedev, Chairman of Evening Standard Ltd, said: "I am confident that more than doubling the London Evening Standard's circulation and maintaining its quality journalism is what London deserves. An essential fabric of a free and democratic society is high quality journalism. It acts as a deterrent against corruption and is a way to highlight what is beneficial and worth celebrating. I want to invest in newspapers in general for this purpose and in the London Evening Standard in particular. The Standard has been producing exceptional journalism since 1827 and that is not going to change under my ownership. The London Evening Standard is the first leading quality newspaper to go free and I am sure others will follow."

Geordie Greig, Editor of the London Evening Standard, said: “This is an historic moment and great opportunity for the London Evening Standard. Its owners will be funding the distribution of over 600k copies of the newspaper, making it available to more Londoners than ever before. And most importantly this will be a quality newspaper. "The Standard has an exciting and secure future with this new, pioneering strategy of more than doubling our distribution. We will remain the only London newspaper committed to a tradition of high quality journalism with the finest writers and undiminished commitment to the best reporting of news, business and sport. "I also want the paper to continue being a cheerleader for London, the greatest city in the world. We will celebrate where we can but also criticise and expose those who are not doing what is best for London and Londoners."

Evgeny Lebedev, Executive Director of the London Evening Standard, said. "I have always wanted the Standard to be far-reaching, bringing news to as many people as possible in the capital with the highest quality reporting and influential comment pieces. This new model with at least 600,000 copies being brought to London every day will make a great newspaper accessible to more Londoners than ever before. I especially want to ensure that my family underwrites the continuation of its broad and brilliant coverage of the arts, where London dominates the world with theatre, live performances and the visual arts. It is key to my family's thinking to have a great newspaper, celebratory of London but also fearless in its desire to report the news, business and sport brought to as many people as possible. The great advantage of this plan is that we are committed to maintain the quality of the Standard as the premier paper in London but with more than twice its current reach."

Andrew Mullins, Managing Director of the London Evening Standard, said: “ Sustaining a paid-for afternoon newspaper had its challenges even before the freesheets were launched in 2006. There are so many competing distractions to potential readers, particularly with new technologies. Being a quality newspaper with large scale and reach should transform our commercial fortunes. Our London reach will be at multiples of the quality national titles and our London classified business will once again have significant scale. It’s all very good news.”

вторник, 22 сентября 2009 г.

Reforms, traffic on Sochi agenda

Moscow News, by Ed Bentley:

Elsewhere, oligarch Alexander Lebedev was already dangling the carrot for foreign investors, offering to give away shares for free. Before a disorderly queue developed, however, he laid down the sort of person he was looking for.

"If Warren Buffett agrees to take a 2 or 3 percent stake in my housing company free of charge for one rouble, that would bring me expertise," Lebedev said in an interview with Reuters earlier in the week.

пятница, 18 сентября 2009 г.

New generation

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Tycoon Alexander Lebedev has proposed his newborn son to replace him on the board at Aeroflot (AFLT.MM: Quote, Profile, Research, Stock Buzz) in a tongue-in-cheek attempt to highlight what he says is continued weak corporate governance at Russia's state-run corporations.

Lebedev, an outspoken former KGB spy who made his fortune in banking, told the Reuters Russia Investment Summit this week he believes corrupt officials and state executives have pocketed $500 billion in bribes over the last few years.

The situation is not improving, he said, as the state has failed to implement a mechanism to control its bureaucrats and executives.

"Can I put my three-month-old son, Nikita, on Aeroflot's board in place of myself?" said Lebedev, who owns 30 percent of state-run Aeroflot, Russia's national flag carrier.

"Guys, you don't need me. Let my son work there. It wouldn't be a problem -- he's a clever guy," Lebedev said, quoting from a letter he sent to Aeroflot's new president, Vitaly Savelyev.

Lebedev, rare among Russian businessmen in daring to criticize the Kremlin, said he was angered by Aeroflot's decision to shun dividend payments while splashing millions of dollars on non-core projects.

The airline has rented an expensive new office in central Moscow and sponsored leading Russian soccer club CSKA Moscow and the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.

Britain

Today I am on the conference of "The Economist" in London

Of bees, bribes and bureaucrats

Exclusive outtakes from industry leaders

Posted by: Melissa Akin

Russian banking and aviation magnate Alexander Lebedev, owner of London’s Evening Standard, estimates that Russian bureaucrats have pocketed $500 billion in bribes in the past four years and corruption and red tape make Russia one of the worst places to invest on earth.

On the scale of bureaucratic outrages, Lebedev hit a personal low when the authorities asked him to produce a 100 page report on bee poo. They claimed to be concerned about the excrement produced in the hives at one of his farms.

“The conditions for entrepreneurship in Russia are simply horrible,” Lebedev told the Reuters Russia Investment Summit.

Lebedev has plenty of suggestions how to cure the disease. One of them would be to fire at least half the bureaucrats. “They are wealthy people. Let them go to Saint-Tropez,” he said.
One could wonder how billionaire Lebedev gets away with criticism of the Kremlin while his peers who had dared to challenge authorities had to flee to London or are serving prison terms in Siberia, like the oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

Lebedev, a former KGB agent like Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, says Putin is open to criticism and these are mainly mid-level bureaucrats who are causing trouble. “Putin is a hostage to the tradition of a corrupt country,” says Lebedev.

But he says Khodorkovsky must be freed and often repeats “God Forbid” when mentioning other fallen oligarchs.

Perhaps having a critic like Lebedev is valuable for Putin — if the prime minister does launch a fresh crackdown on corruption or major regulatory reforms, he will immediately have a cheering section. And without Lebedev, the Russian corporate landscape would be too dull.

Sun, sea and excess on the Côte de Crime

Diary: Alexander Lebedev
Alexander Lebedev

Published 17 September 2009

As I have recently become a father again at the age of 49 - my son Nikita is now four months old - my choice of where to holiday this summer was somewhat limited, as I often like to travel way off the beaten track. As a child I wanted to go and live with tribes in Borneo or Papua New Guinea whose way of living has been uninterrupted for thousands of years. We chose this year to rent a villa in Villefranche in the south of France.

The time away gave me the opportunity to do some thinking, and I tried to find the answer to the $500bn question: where did the money stolen from the Russian people in the greatest-ever era of corruption disappear to? And so, as Nikita enjoyed his first holiday, I realised that in France I could do my own investigation on this matter for Novaya Gazeta, the Moscow paper I co-own with Mikhail Gorbachev. My task was a simple one - to work out the extent and nature of corruption today and where the stolen money has gone. I always assume that vast sums of money have been siphoned from my country and are being laundered in some "tax haven".

This got me thinking how easy it is to see why the Côte d'Azur became the place for Russian "high society" to spend their summers. It was, after all, Somerset Maugham who noted that it was full of "shady people in sunny places". In many ways I think it is also like a sort of modern-day Vanity Fair, but one consisting of oligarchs, half-oligarchs, nearly-oligarchs, state officials and their numerous servants. It's like the ski resort Courchevel at Christmas: excess spending and then more spending. Sometimes it seems that the crafty French authorities specially arranged for it all to be just so - all this extravagance and decadence on display - ready, one fine day, for them to send in their special forces by helicopter and make embarrassing arrests (as they did with spectacular effect in Courchevel).

The indigenous French are often dazed and confused by the Russian visitors, looking at them with ironic sideways glances. All this makes me think back to my dream of one day going to Papua New Guinea, where social status is also ludicrously on display. The people wear holim - pumpkin-skin sheaths covering the genitalia - and the size of each shows the social status of each male. Not so different, now I think about it, from the Russian bureaucracy on Moscow's streets with special sirens and blue lights on their BMWs, speeding at up to 140 kilometres an hour.
On the Côte d'Azur a similar visual hierarchy thrives. Local people are surprised by the Russians' garish status symbols - châteaux, yachts, Bentleys with Moscow registration plates and a slew of very single girls. Partying goes on from morning till night, but there is a feeling that this whole dolce vita is a sham - a futile, empty show in which the actors themselves are bored. We see cynicism and jealousy, hatred and servility and eternal human fear.

Fear because at the back of the mind of some of those partying in St Tropez is the knowledge that what they have does not legitimately belong to them: it has been purchased with money stolen either from the treasury, or from the owners. Or they have taken out a dodgy loan. And there is the thought that at any time, both in Russia and France, the police may come knocking at their door.

Some Russians can already only view their palaces on Cap Ferrat from London as a search warrant is out for them. The "new Russian" architecture of the Côte d'Azur shows a lack of taste. Everything that was built by the Americans, British and French in the past 60 years has been wrecked by new buildings. The marinas are filled with floating gin palaces, so there is now no room to swim. All this is done in the name of vanity and social status. A lot of people who usually stay in the shadows suddenly come into focus in exotic places, where they think no one will recognise them. But the truth is, there is no place to hide. Incidentally, talking of the worst architecture, I am still glad the 1.2 kilometre-high skyscraper in Moscow by Norman Foster has not yet stained the skyline.

Among Russians on the Côte d'Azur there is a small number of those who have earned something legitimately and created added value for their country (mostly bankers). But on the whole it is those "businessmen" who come to spend money taken from their state's coffers. This is criminal.

I think all this cannot go on. The world has changed. If you look at people who steal money, you can trace where their money is. President Obama's administration has got information on the secret accounts of Americans at UBS in Switzerland. The British government is battling to close the loophole of "tax havens". Who knows, we may soon see the G20 set up a special organisation to fight corruption. Is corruption less harmful to society than apartheid? No. But the system of apartheid was destroyed only when international pressure squeezed it into extinction.

Alexander Lebedev is co-owner of Novaya Gazeta and the London Evening Standard

Ken Livingstone: the Lebedev connection

Dave Hill's London Blog

I'm in a coffee shop called Snacklite across the road from Palestra, where I've just watched my first meeting of the LDA board. One thing all agreed on - and there wasn't very much - is that the £160 million Olympic land purchase overspend - or "over-run" is it was delicately renamed by chairman Harvey McGrath - was entirely the fault of the previous LDA regime under the previous mayor.
That's not the only reason I've been thinking about Ken Livingstone this morning. His (once and future?) chief of staff Simon Fletcher has reported that Ken's forthcoming guest editorship of New Statesman will feature a Diary column written by the new owner of the New Evening Standard, Alexander Lebedev.
Vintage Ken. What could be cheekier than to invite the new publisher of the erstwhile Evening Boris to grace his special edition of the political weekly that joined in with the old Standard's pre-election trashing of him? Not that all traces of the gruesome old regime have yet been cleansed. Consider last week's "Baby P Social Workers Fed Child To Terror Plotter (Well, Sort Of)" front page. That said, it's hard to disagree with the Standard's recent editorial arguing that the Olympic land purchase affair is a further indictment of the way the agency was run when Livingstone was Mayor.
It is a very different story from the LDA grants affair that did damagingly good business during the election campaign (the telling of it was a classic case of overselling and "monstering" in the service of political spite). The Olympic overspend is not about public money being misspent, but about spending decisions not being recorded properly and the financial implications therefore not being known about until much later than they should have been.
To have gone over budget when under pressure to complete hundreds of lands deals so that preparation of the Olympic Park site could go ahead on time may be forgiveable - and not surprising. These things happen in the property trade (and no one is complaining now about the Park's construction being up to speed). But the mysterious failure of the organisation to detect that this was happening and make adjustments at the time renders the view that the LDA was poorly run on Ken's watch that much harder to argue with.
Mayor Johnson's opponents may argue that the Boris LDA isn't exactly ship shape either, and some of Boris's own allies on the board seem to agree. But from where I'm sitting, if and when Livingstone launches his 2012 mayoral bid, he'll need an all-new, improved and suitably contrite story to tell about how he'd have the LDA operate. If not, the Olympic dream he did so much to bring to life may yet turn into an electoral nightmare. And being nice to Lebedev won't make it go away.
PS. This post was augmented and sharpened up at at 14:02. Perfectionism or what?