Russian businessman says campaign to destroy businesses has left him with 'some potato and cereal production'
There was a time when Alexander Lebedev's fortune ran into billions, but these days his claims are rather more modest. "We are now the biggest exporter in the whole of Russia of the flakes used to make mashed potato," said the former KGB operative, now a businessman and newspaper owner.
Last year Forbes estimated his wealth and assets at $1.1bn, but Lebedev says that a concerted campaign to destroy his businesses by angry victims of his anti-corruption investigations has left him with "some potato and cereal production" in the Russian regions, and little else.
"They have got everything they want," he said, during an interview at his mansion in central Moscow. "They have destroyed my bank and rescinded the licence for my airline, but I still have my potato production, which is going extremely well. There will be a $2m profit this year, but that's not even enough to fund the papers."
Lebedev declined to answer further questions on the potential repercussions for the Independent and Evening Standard, the two British newspapers he owns jointly with his son Evgeny.
Lebedev will soon begin several weeks of community service for punching fellow tycoon Sergei Polonsky during a 2011 television show. At the last minute the prosecutors dropped charges of hooliganism motivated by political hatred, which could have seen him jailed for several years.
The sentence delivered by a Moscow court earlier this year will be served in the village of Popovka, a drive of several hours from the Russian capital, where the headquarters of his potato farming operation are based. He says the work will most probably involve helping out in a kindergarten, although it will be up to local authorities to select the punishment. He has to work 150 hours over the course of several weeks, during which time his passport will be confiscated and he will be banned from travelling.
Lebedev changed his official place of residence from Moscow to Popovka earlier this month, to ensure that the punishment would be doled out there and not in the capital.
"In Moscow, all the Russian media would be following me around with a broom, whereas this will be a good chance to throw some light on provincial life in this country," says Lebedev.
The businessman previously said he believed the case was brought against him due to anger among Russian officials at his quasi-opposition stance and the personal hatred of Russia's chief investigator Alexander Bastrykin towards the Russian newspaper he part-owns, Novaya Gazeta. Now, however, he insists this is "maybe one percent" of the reason, and is sure that "the Kremlin has nothing to do with it".
Instead, he blames a cabal of Russian businessmen scared by his investigations into their ill-gotten gains.
He says the court case was "a tiny part" of a well-financed conspiracy against him.
"Some of my investigations have come to the point where they could have very serious consequences for people," he said. "If you've stolen a couple of billion then you can afford to spend a few million on this stuff."
Lebedev says he wants to renew his focus on global anti-corruption initiatives as well as his potato farming, and has written a letter and repeated Twitter messages to the US ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, asking US authorities to set up an international body to fight corruption.
Lebedev says he wants to set up "a kind of Interpol" that would stop fraudsters and corrupt businessmen from laundering their money in offshore havens and western countries.