Alexander Lebedev: A man who gets what he wants

Alexander Lebedev makes headlines in both the West and Russia. Whether it's for his (failed) bid to become mayor of Moscow or Olympic-host-to-be Sochi, or for buying a British newspaper. The former KGB man's interests include everything from airlines to construction. Is he a bored billionaire, building a legacy, or is he the "capitalist-idealist" he claims to be?
Before meeting Lebedev, I had been warned he was not an easy man to get answers from. "You'll ask a question, and he'll talk about whatever he feels like. Be persistent," colleagues told me.

And so I sat on a plush couch, waiting for the billionaire, surrounded by Italian furniture and Renaissance paintings, with Lebedev's renowned security services in the next room.

Lebedev returned to the Russian capital after a 10-year KGB career in London in 1992, with - by his own assertion - $6 in his pocket. Unlike many people wielding influence in Russia today, he did not use ties to the security services to sink into a comfortable position of power in one of the more lucrative sectors of the new economy. He sold barbed wire to Africa, worked as an interpreter and imported Vietnamese tennis shoes. At one point, Lebedev mentioned donating blood in order to feed his family.But his real fortunes were to come later - in finance.

The 49-year-old arrived wearing a sports jacket and his famed sneakers (rumoured to be worth $20,000), shook my hand cautiously and sat down across the table. When I asked my first question - about how a career in the KGB had helped him in business - his face gleamed. "If I had been a gynaecologist, would you ask me the same question?" he asked.

"The KGB was an excellent opportunity to learn about the West, read banned literature and learn about financial markets. Above all it was an education that was unavailable to most of my countrymen, which was valuable later in life."

Alexander Lebedev first made national headlines in 1995, when the National Reserve Bank, which he co-owned with another entrepreneur, Oleg Boyko, was bought out by the natural monopoly Gazprom.

In a 2002 interview with the Russian magazine Company, Lebedev asserted that Gazprom had paid for its portion with Moldovan stocks, which were soon frozen and became useless.

He admitted, however, that the image of being "Gazprom's bank" had been helpful in attracting partners. Back in the '90s, the National Reserve Bank came to be viewed as a growing monster in the financial world, its good fortunes due to either the financial resources of Gazprom or Lebedev's own cunning as a former KGB operative.

Throughout our conversation, Lebedev's veiled energy and exuberance were obvious. He was humble, yet made note of his achievements: "I haven't built hundreds of schools, libraries and hospitals, but I have built some. I'd be happy just to be met by Putin in the White House (the seat of the Russian government) and told: `Sasha, you did a good job!'" Lebedev's current projects include a state-of-the-art St Petersburg clinic to treat children with cancer, low-rise housing for the poor, and recycling facilities.

His ambitions, however, far outweigh what he has already achieved. "I spent three-and-a-half years writing a law on combating organised crime, which is now being considered by our upper house of parliament. I was also happy to participate in discussions surrounding the government's `anti-crisis initiative', which showed, by the way, that Putin is starting to listen to us. I raised the question of why it made sense to bail out (Oleg) Deripaska instead of thousands of ordinary Russians who can't pay back credit. They gave him some money, then stopped."

Many attribute the anti-gambling law now coming into force (see below) to Lebedev's lobbying. "I have no problem with casinos for the wealthy," he explained. "If you have a lot of money, do what you want with it. I just proposed moving casinos from cities. They're usually crooked establishments that end up robbing the poor of their savings."

Nevertheless, I struggled to understand Lebedev's motivation. Is he simply a successful businessman, bored with his profession? How much does he worry about his legacy? If Lebedev is an "idealist-capitalist", as he claims on his Livejournal blog, it's clear he maintains a healthy sense of cynicism that has allowed him to succeed in business.

Lebedev recently co-founded an opposition party, the Independent Democratic Party of Russia, with ex-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. "Because of the current law on political parties, we'll have to hold meaningless rallies and gather signatures in half of Russia's regions," commented Lebedev, "then our application will be rejected because of some misspelt word, as happened in Sochi.

"I don't do these things as a politician. I'm not looking to score any points," he maintained. "I'm a reformer. I want to teach people that government shouldn't be afraid of its own constituents, of free elections."

This would explain some of Lebedev's activity, but what does purchasing the London Evening Standard have to do with reforming Russia's political system? The billionaire's often-cited response - that he wanted to save a struggling British newspaper - doesn't fit the picture of a patriotic philanthropist obsessed with building a sound civil society in Russia.

Lebedev recently attracted even more attention in the U.K. following rumours that he was about to buy another British newspaper - the Independent. While initially denying these speculations, Lebedev has since refused to comment. Again - no one quite understand the point.

The Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta - which Lebedev also co-owns with Gorbachev - is another story. Fiercely critical of the Kremlin, and specifically some of Putin's closest associates, the paper has seen a fair share of its journalists openly threatened or, in some cases, murdered (such as the late Anna Politkovskaya, Anastasiya Baburova and Igor Domnikov). Lebedev has always stood by the editors, insisting he has no right to infringe on their independence.

Novaya Gazeta became so prominent that, in a sign of solidarity, President Dmitry Medvedev chose it for his first printed interview. Some Russian experts speculate that an opposition movement in the form of Lebedev, Gorbachev and Novaya Gazeta may be more tolerable to the powers that be than, say, former world chess champion Gary Kasparov and his Other Russia party.

"Many of our opposition figures have one simple slogan: `Out with Putin'," said Lebedev, "but I think a more productive approach is to work on building a system where the Government is open to constructive criticism, one that allows citizens to meaningfully fight corruption."

In this sense, he is not much different from Nikita Belykh, an opposition politician who was recently named governor of the Kirov region by President Medvedev. Albeit, Lebedev is the wealthiest of these "friendly opposition" personalities.

"What choice do I have?" exclaimed Lebedev, spreading his arms. "Go to the Kremlin in 30 years, hunched over a cane, and muster through my toothless mouth: `Can I run an opposition party now?'" If a successful liberal movement eventually appears in Russia - as many on both sides of the Atlantic are hoping - Alexander Lebedev could easily emerge as of its leaders, at least on the financial side.


In his own words

I served in the KGB between 1982 and 1992, resigning with the rank of lieutenant colonel. I ended up back in Moscow with almost no money or job and a family to feed. I did various jobs: worked at a foreign company, gave blood for money, sold barbed wire to Africa, worked as a translator, unloaded freight cars - all just to survive. In two years I had a small investment bank (the National Reserve Bank), which is now a part of the National Reserve Corporation today and has stocks worth more than $1.5bn. The government didn't privatize any of this and we never had access to national resources. We work with socially significant projects and we see this as our mission as socially responsible businessmen. I'll remind you of what Vladimir Putin said: government officials need to learn to help businessmen, and this applies to Moscow, as well. Businessmen, for their part, need to understand there are socially oriented goals that should be more important than making a huge profit. The most important thing is not personal consumption, but strong citizenship. Moskovsky Komsomolets

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