Alexander Lebedev, the Russian businessman and newspaper owner, said yesterday that his Moscow bank had been raided by plain-clothes police, in what he said was a politically motivated move. Mr Lebedev, who is the financial backer of The Independent and the Evening Standard, also has a stake in the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, and he suggested that the recent raid was linked to reports in his Russian newspaper critical of the government.
He said other Russian media outlets had also faced problems in the run-up to presidential elections in a fortnight, when the Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, plans to return to the Kremlin.
Mr Lebedev said police, central bank officials and agents of the FSB security services have been carrying out checks at branches of his National Reserve Bank across Russia for the past fortnight, and that yesterday four agents came to the headquarters in Moscow. "They said if we didn't let them in, they'd come back with troops, as has happened before." Mr Lebedev's bank was raided by masked men wielding Kalashnikovs in late 2010.
"This week, they've been going through all my payments to media outlets, and my sources have told me that they have been instructed to find instances of money laundering, and also to find out if I'm funding the political opposition in any way." Novaya Gazeta often runs hard-hitting investigations and stories critical of the government, and Mr Lebedev himself has spoken out in support of Alexei Navalny, an anti-corruption activist. "It's unclear if the order to search the bank comes from the very top, or from people further down, who think they will please the boss by doing this," Mr Lebedev said.
The businessman added: "Either this is just an exercise to keep us quiet for a few months, or they produce a falsified piece of paper to suggest money laundering and we have to go to court," he said. "Or, finally, Putin picks up the phone and orders whoever is doing this to stop harassing the opposition media."