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Profile: Alexander Lebedev

Two national newspapers - the Independent and the Independent on Sunday - are to be sold to a former KGB agent.

Alexander Lebedev
Alexander Lebedev is becoming an influential Russian voice in London.

Alexander Lebedev already owns the London paper, the Evening Standard, which he distributes free.

The Independent titles - which have been making losses - were sold for £1. But their current owner will pay Mr Lebedev more than £9m to take on the future liabilities of the papers.

What motivates a Russian oligarch to buy a British paper? What kind of man is he?

Alexander Lebedev, who turned 50 in December, was a middle-ranking KGB analyst in London 20 years ago.

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."

But there may be more to it than pure philanthropy.

Mr Lebedev has had 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 Mr 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.

View of the Kremlin's Spasskaya tower
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.

Last 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 into British newspapers may be his boldest move yet.



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SEE ALSO
London Evening Standard goes free
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Lebedev barred from Sochi contest
14 Apr 09 |  Europe
Profile: Alexander Lebedev
21 Jan 09 |  UK
Ex-KGB spy buys UK paper for 1
21 Jan 09 |  UK
Newsnight Lebedev profile (2003)
21 Jan 09 |  Newsnight

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