MOSCOW (Reuters) - Banker and media magnate Alexander Lebedev says he could sell his business assets in Russia after coming under pressure from the Kremlin, adding he feared he might be jailed in a criminal case he regards as politically motivated.
Lebedev also said Russia could face a wave of political repression following a series of moves since Vladimir Putin returned to the presidency on May 7 that opposition leaders have described as a crackdown on dissent.
“I think the biggest problem is the country is being run on the model of personal power,” Lebedev, whose net worth was put at $1.1 billion by Forbes magazine in March, told Reuters in an interview at his Moscow office.
“I hope I’m mistaken when I said we’re on the brink of political repression.”
Asked what his long-term plan was, Lebedev said in immaculate English: “Roll back my businesses just completely to zero, frankly, just roll back, try to roll back everything. Just to get out of business.”
The 52-year-old billionaire backer of two British newspapers - The Independent and London’s Evening Standard - gave no further details, though he said he did not believe he would have much time to sell his assets if pressure on him continued.
Opposition leaders say the Kremlin has started a crackdown to silence Putin’s critics following the biggest protests since he first rose to power in 2000, including pushing through laws increasing fines for protesters, tightening controls of foreign-funded campaign groups and toughening Internet rules.
Lebedev’s business interests in Russia include banking, agricultural and construction assets.
He also has a stake in Novaya Gazeta, a campaigning newspaper that has criticized the Kremlin and exposed corruption in Russia, and is a shareholder in state energy company Gazprom and state-controlled airline Aeroflot.
Although he says he is not involved in opposition politics, Lebedev is unusual among wealthy Russian businessmen or oligarchs in criticizing the Kremlin.
Most have avoided doing so 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 jail.
Lebedev may be at risk of going to jail himself after being shown almost a year ago throwing punches during a television talk show at another guest, businessman Sergei Polonsky, while discussing the economic crisis. Putin at the time called the action “hooliganism” and prosecutors opened an investigation.
The Kremlin denied putting pressure on businessmen over their political interests, although Putin clipped the wings of the oligarchs during his first term as president after they amassed influence as well as wealth.
“The Kremlin does not put pressure on business, the Kremlin has never interfered, is not interfering and will not interfere in corporate affairs,” Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said.
Softly spoken with white hair and turquoise-rimmed glasses, Lebedev said he may now face a similar fate to protest leader Alexei Navalny, who was charged with theft on Tuesday and barred from leaving Russia.
Navalny could face a 10-year prison sentence and says he believes he will go to jail.
“Probably the procedure will be the same as Navalny, which is restriction on (my) travel outside the country,” Lebedev said in the interview, during which he sometimes paced the room and spoke passionately. “According to my lawyers that will happen either in August or September.”
Asked if he expected to go to jail, Lebedev said with a laugh: “Well, if you’re facing charges being brought against you ...”
Dressed in grey jeans, sneakers, a dark blue jacket and tie, Lebedev believes the investigation against him - and a separate inquiry conducted into his National Reserve Bank - is motivated by his outspoken views and investigations he said he is undertaking into corruption.
He said he was concerned the Russian authorities would try to “bulldoze my businesses to zero”, and that he would not leave the country for fear of arrest.
He would try to keep The Independent and Evening Standard, which he backs but are owned and run by his son Evgeny, he added.
But he denied he would try to expand his media empire in Britain by buying any of media magnate Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers if they were put up for sale, saying they would need someone with “a bigger pocket”.
Lebedev made it clear he believed it was time for Russia’s opposition leaders to form a united front, put aside their differences and speak with one voice on issues such as corruption.
The opposition protests that began last December have continued even though fewer people have been turning up and the rallies have been less frequent.
The opposition has not evolved into a more organized political movement and has no single leader, though Navalny has emerged as the most charismatic of them.
Asked whether he could be the person who unites them, Lebedev laughed and said: “I haven’t been a practicing politician.”
He says his passion is battling corruption, and that he believes an international body is needed to dig out money stashed offshore.
“Chasing the money has become a process that is next to impossible,” he said.
Additional reporting by Gleb Bryanski, Writing by Megan Davies,; Editing by Timothy Heritage