MOSCOW (Reuters) - Banker and media magnate Alexander Lebedev said on Tuesday he fears he will soon face criminal charges and jail because he thinks Russian President Vladimir Putin mistakenly believes the tycoon is funding his opponents.
The 52-year-old backer of the British newspapers The Independent and London’s Evening Standard, whose net worth was put at $1.1 billion by Forbes magazine in March, is rare among the so-called Russian oligarchs in openly criticizing the Kremlin, but he denied any involvement in opposition politics.
“I know the position of the president,” he asserted at the Reuters Russia Investment Summit, despite the Kremlin’s repeated denials that it was pressuring Lebedev or other wealthy Russians over business interests.
“He thinks it is true that I have been funding (the opposition), so I was violating rule No. 1 - if you have money you should not interfere (in politics).”
Prosecutors opened an investigation last year into Lebedev for throwing a punch at property developer Sergei Polonsky, himself a one-time billionaire, while they were on a primetime television talk show.
Lebedev thinks he could be charged with “hooliganism” for that incident, an offence that can carry a 7-year jail term. He thinks the investigation has been politically motivated because he has a stake in the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta.
The paper, also owned by former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, has criticized the Kremlin, exposed corruption in Russia and four of its journalists have been killed between 2001 and 2009.
Most wealthy Russian businessmen have avoided criticizing the Kremlin since the arrest in 2003 of former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky after he defied Putin by taking an interest in opposition politics. He is still in prison.
Asked if he thought he would be jailed, Lebedev said: “I don’t see any reason for anybody fabricating a case like that unless they want to put you into prison.”
A former KGB spy, Lebedev said on Tuesday that efforts to sell his business assets in Russia have so far failed because investors had been scared off by a Kremlin “smear campaign”, which threatened him with heavy losses.
Lebedev’s National Reserve Bank was searched by security service agents in February, and Lebedev on Tuesday frequently made references to being under surveillance.
The Kremlin has repeatedly denied putting pressure on Lebedev or other wealthy Russians over business interests, and has said that it does not comment on legal cases.
Describing the Polonsky case as a pretext to punish him, Lebedev said he had started trying to sell his assets in Russia, which include a potato farming business and a stake in the airline Aeroflot (AFLT.MM).
He said no one was interested in buying the assets for fear of upsetting Putin, whose support is widely seen as vital for all big business deals in Russia.
“They treat me as a politician and a dissident, and I‘m still doing business”, he said. “I wish I could be not a businessman anymore, but how do I do that? It is new even for me. I never thought things were controlled so tightly.”
Lebedev said the judiciary system had “nothing to do with justice,” citing the 2-year jail sentences handed down to three members of the Pussy Riot punk band after they protested in a Russian Orthodox cathedral against Putin.
Lebedev considers himself a victim of increasingly aggressive tactics to silence Kremlin critics since Putin returned to the presidency for a 6-year term in May.
Writing by Timothy Heritage; Editing by Richard Chang