MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian media magnate Alexander Lebedev goes on trial on Tuesday in a case he portrays as President Vladimir Putin’s revenge for criticizing the Kremlin and a warning to other rich businessmen.
The financial backer of Britain’s Independent and London Evening Standard newspapers faces up to five years in jail if he is convicted on charges of hooliganism and political hatred over a televised punch-up in 2011.
The powerfully built multi-millionaire jumped out of his chair and hurled punches at property developer Sergei Polonsky who had goaded Lebedev during the recording of a television talk show. Polonsky was knocked backwards and off the studio podium.
Lebedev, who co-owns Russia’s main campaigning newspaper with former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, says he acted in self-defense. But, he says, the scuffle is being used as a pretext to silence him and he expects to go to jail.
“I have to be ready for that or why did they come after me with hooliganism charges?” Lebedev said in a recent telephone interview as he prepared for the trial in a Moscow court.
He is rare among the rich businessmen known as oligarchs in speaking out against the Kremlin since the imprisonment of oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who was arrested in 2003 after he fell out with Putin and remains jailed.
Lebedev says the case is part of a broader clampdown on Putin’s opponents, and accuses criminal investigators of acting on the Kremlin’s orders to punish him for campaigning against corruption and showing sympathy with the opposition.
“I know the position of the president,” Lebedev said in another interview with Reuters. “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).”
Lawyers for Polonsky, a one-time billionaire, have described Lebedev as a fantasist. But Polonsky could also go to jail - he was detained in Cambodia in January, accused of assault and illegal detention after an incident on a boat there.
Putin referred to Lebedev’s behavior as “hooliganism” soon after the punch-up, playing on many Russians’ resentment of the oligarchs who made vast fortunes as most others struggled during and after the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991.
Such resentment means few Russians are likely to have sympathy with Lebedev.
Putin, who returned to the Kremlin a year ago after the biggest protests of his 13-year rule, has also denied using the courts for political ends even though several opponents face criminal charges which they say are politically motivated.
“Those who fight against corruption must be crystal clean themselves, otherwise they just engage in political self-promotion,” Putin said in comments shown nationwide last month.
Lebedev is a former KGB agent who made billions trading stocks and bonds after the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991 but he fell off Forbes magazine’s list of billionaires this year. It had put his net worth at $1.1 billion in 2012.
His business interests in Russia include a bank, National Reserve Corporation, real estate assets and a potato farm. He has said he is looking to sell his Russian assets because of pressure from the Kremlin but made clear he was having trouble doing so because he had fallen out of favor.
He and the newspaper he co-owns, Novaya Gazeta, have spoken out against state corruption and criticized the Kremlin, ignoring the fate suffered by Khodorkovsky, who was jailed on charges of fraud and tax evasion. Khodorkovsky’s Yukos oil company was broken up and sold off, mainly into state hands.
Since then, other oligarchs have chosen to toe the Kremlin line or flee the country. Big legal cases involving the oligarchs have mostly been fought in foreign courts.
Additional reporting by Megan Davies; Editing by Jon Hemming