MOSCOW — Russian oligarch Alexander Lebedev has been charged with hooliganism and assault for punching property developer Sergei Polonsky while they were on a TV talk show last year. Lebedev is an outspoken critic of the Kremlin and has said he believes the charges are politically motivated.
The 52-year-old banker and media magnate owns the British newspapers, The Independent and London’s Evening Standard, and is known for openly criticizing the Kremlin.
Lebedev also owns a stake in one of the only independent newspapers in Russia that is known for its hard-hitting reporting on the administration, Novaya Gazeta. Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev also is part owner of the paper that has exposed massive corruption in Russia. Four journalists at the paper were killed between 2001 and 2009.
Lebedev said he has been lucky to express his opinions so far.
"It looks like things have started to come to the point. And I have to thank the authorities for having tolerated me for such a long time, allowing me for seven years to publish the most influential free opposition newspaper, and also voicing my views on certain wrong things," he said.
Lebedev said, however, he does not fund the opposition. He claimed he now faces jail time for an incident last year because Russian President Vladimir Putin is targeting anyone he thinks is backing the opposition here in Russia.
Lebedev said it is dangerous to back anything except Putin.
"So I won't recommend anybody who is doing business here, especially if you are a foreigner but even to the locals, do not keep it together - business with, say, opposition newspaper - or any activities that might be looked from the "siloviki" position as being opposition, or dissident, et cetera," he said.
Siloviki is a Russian word that roughly translates to force structures, or former KGB men and women and military officers.
The Kremlin denies putting any pressure on Lebedev. Lebedev, though, said he had been warned.
"Well, clearly I was warned officially a week ago about something that's going to happen tomorrow [Wednesday], and let's wait and see. It's going to happen at 2 o'clock," he said. "I don't see any reason for anybody fabricating a case like that unless they want to put you into prison, pushing you through the judiciary system which, as we all know in Pussy Riot's and other cases, has nothing to do with justice."
The charges against Lebedev carry a seven-year sentence. Recently, the all-female punk rock band Pussy Riot was convicted of hooliganism after staging an anti-Putin performance in Moscow's main Orthodox cathedral. The three members are now serving two years in a penal colony.
Hooliganism is a widely expansive phrase in Russia that covers behavior that is not acceptable or specifically defined by law. Anyone can be charged with hooliganism.
Since Putin returned to the Kremlin in May, the fines for participating in and organizing unsanctioned protests have increased more than 150-fold, and the United States Agency for International Development has had to close its doors because the Kremlin believes it is funding the opposition.
The administration maintains that many of the latest developments regarding protests are meant to protect the average Russian from violence. Critics assert that it is just another way for the Kremlin to crack down on political dissent.