Saturday, January 31, 2009

Lebedev: the spy who came in for the gold


Mission accomplished?
Jan 29th 2009

An oligarch buys influence for a pound

HOW about this for a thriller plot: an ex-KGB officer in London in the Soviet era returns 20 years later to buy the capital's main newspaper. Trained at the Red Banner Institute to find out secrets and exert influence at the highest levels of the British establishment, he is now part of it.

Such a plot could be said to exemplify the success of the ex-KGB regime now running Russia. In the old days, the best they might have been able to do was to bribe or blackmail an individual journalist, and perhaps plant the odd bit of dezinformatsiya as a result. Now, however, dressed in capitalist clothes, they don’t need to infiltrate the western media: they can buy it outright.

Such worries come to mind amid the takeover of London’s Evening Standard by Aleksandr Lebedev (pictured), an “economics attaché” at the Soviet embassy in London in the late 1980s. He is a retired lieutenant-colonel from the Sluzhba Vneshnei Rozvedki, the successor to the First Chief Directorate of the old KGB. A billionaire thanks to his holdings in Aeroflot and other leading Russian businesses, he has bought the paper for £1: the price of just two copies.

But Mr Lebedev is not one of the steely tycoon-spooks around Vladimir Putin, such as Igor Sechin, the mastermind of Russia’s overseas energy diplomacy. They lurk in the shadows. He courts publicity, and comes across as urbane, amusing and liberal-minded.

Nor is Mr Lebedev a mere tycoon-playboy, cruising the streets of London or the ski-slopes of Switzerland with a musclebound entourage and highly decorative women. He shuns ostentation and is a conspicuous supporter of good causes.

Asked about his KGB past, Mr Lebedev speaks fondly of the English way of life and insists that his job was mainly to monitor the British press, particularly for economic news. The foreign-intelligence service of the KGB, he maintains, had nothing to do with the Gulag and domestic repression.

Indeed, he has a fair claim to be countering that era’s dark legacy in Russia now. He is a co-owner of Novaya Gazeta, which is the most widely read opposition newspaper in Russia. He is an outspoken defender of its brave journalists (one of whom was murdered earlier this month).

In short, if any former KGB officer should be allowed to buy an influential London newspaper, surely it should be him. But whatever Mr Lebedev’s motives now, his business interests in Russia could—at least in theory—make him vulnerable to Kremlin pressure in future. His blithe dismissal of his KGB past does not square with the evidence we have of that organisation from other sources. In the early 1980s, as Mr Lebedev was signing up for the KGB, Oleg Gordievsky, its station chief in London, was already risking his life to warn the West about the true nature of the Soviet system.

The only legal restriction on taking over a newspaper in Britain comes from the last-resort powers vested in the Secretary of State for Business, Peter Mandelson. Just this summer he was enjoying, controversially, the hospitality of Oleg Deripaska, another Russian tycoon (who is unable to visit the United States).

There is no reason to question Lord Mandelson’s integrity (he insists his much-discussed visit to Mr Deripaska’s yacht was entirely personal). But the whole saga shows the way in which Russian business influence has seeped into Western public life. Probably it is all fine. But, just theoretically, suppose it isn’t. Some may be less confident that a Russian-owned Evening Standard will investigate that subject with the fullest possible vigour.


trilirium said...

If Lebedev is so nasty... well, just think about ME.

My bid for "Evening Standard" is £2. Twice more, isn't it... ;)

Martin said...

Mr. Lucas,

Events such as these represent globalisation in action. Those who pushed that unmandated policy, now in the process of public and satisfyingly spectacular collapse, should have been careful for what they wished for - because they got it, and now they have to live with it.

Out of interest, is Gorbachev still another co-owner of Novaya Gazeta?

Your comment that a Russian-owned 'Evening Standard' might not investigate Russian business practices as vigourously as in the past reminds one of GK Chesterton's observation, made over a century ago, that in the UK we do not have freedom from censorship of the press, but freedom of censorship by the press. With that in mind, I look forward to 'The Economist' publishing the tax returns of all members of the Rothschild and Cadbury families, for no reason other than to satisfy its readers' prurience, with great interest.

Lebedev might yet prove to be a capable and perfectly competent press baron in the great British tradition - over the past century, we've had three Canadians (Beaverbrook, Thomson of Fleet and Black) and an Australian (Murdoch) deciding what we can know about and read, so why not a Russian instead?

But let's look on the bright side. If our newspapers must be owned by Russian oligarchs, at least he's not Boris Berezovsky.