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Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Did the Kremlin go after Lebedev?

The Times of London reports:

A RUSSIAN tycoon with shares in the Moscow newspaper that published the anti-government theories of poisoned former spy Alexander Litvinenko believes he survived a similar assassination attempt.

Alexander Lebedev (pictured, left) a former KGB operative and a banking billionaire, says he believes he was poisoned about eight months ago. His home was checked for radiation but no trace was found and he recovered.

In an interview in Tatler magazine, Lebedev says he lost 13lb after the suspected poisoning, but never found the source of any toxin. He believes his food may have been poisoned in a Moscow restaurant.

Lebedev bought a stake in the investigative newspaper Novaya Gazeta last year. The newspaper published Litvinenko’s claims in 2001 that Russian security services were behind a series of apartment bombings in 1999 that were blamed on Chechen separatists.

The newspaper is one of the most independent in Moscow. Anna Politkovskaya, who was murdered last October, was a regular columnist. Yuri Shchekochikhin, the paper’s former deputy editor-in-chief, died in July 2003 after a suspected poisoning.

Despite the risk of further attempts in his life, Lebedev is bullish about the need to confront the “layer of mafia corruption” in Russian government.

He does not oppose President Vladimir Putin, but wants judicial reforms to help prosecute corrupt officials and businessmen.

Lebedev owns 31% of Aeroflot, the Russian airline. According to Forbes magazine, he is the 194th richest person in the world with a net worth of about $3.5 billion. He is a close friend of Mikhail Gorbachev, the former Soviet leader, and a member of the Russian parliament.

Lebedev has enjoyed a rapid rise to riches. In the 1980s he was working as a KGB spy at the Russian embassy in London, earning about £700. After he left government service, he worked as a banking consultant and later bought his own small bank, which thrived on his shrewd knowledge of the bonds and derivatives markets.

Yuri Felshtinsky, who co-wrote Blowing Up Russia, the book that investigated the 1999 apartment bombings, with Litvinenko, said he did not believe anyone at Novaya Gazeta had been specifically targeted over the book. He said it was more likely that assassination attempts were linked to other investigations, including those into government corruption.

Scotland Yard is still investigating the death of Litvinenko in November.

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