The thinking man's oligarch with his eye on a British institution

Billionaire bidding for 'Evening Standard' has blazed a trail for press freedom in Russia

Friday 16 January 2009 01:00

Negotiations that would turn a Russian billionaire into a British newspaper owner stalled last night, as the parent company of the Evening Standard reacted angrily to leaks about the potential sale of the title. Alexander Lebedev, a Russian oligarch and ally of former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev, is seeking to buy a majority shareholding in the loss-making London paper. But its owner, Associated Newspapers, which also owns the Daily Mail, is holding out for guarantees about its future.

It is understood that the Standard's proprietor, Lord Rothermere, wants reassurances that the potential new owner sees the paper as a long-term investment. The Standard reportedly loses up to £25m a year, and it is thought that Mr Lebedev wants it for the prestige and political influence that newspaper ownership can confer.

Late last summer, Mr Lebedev set up a new political entity, The Independent Democratic Party of Russia, with Mr Gorbachev. The very fact that a rich businessman would launch such an enterprise in modern-day Russia was surprising, where getting rich and opposing the Kremlin tend to be mutually exclusive. "It's not an exaggeration to call him a 'thinking oligarch'," says one person who knows him well. "He has a sound moral compass, unlike many of our rich people."

Like Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, Mr Lebedev spent the twilight years of the Soviet Union in the KGB. He worked under diplomatic cover in London, where one of his duties was reading the British press and reporting back to Moscow. It's an ironic twist that he now looks set to own a majority stake in one of the papers he used to study so meticulously.

Mr Lebedev made his fortune in banking and his current portfolio includes a stake in the Russian national airline, Aeroflot, though he is now worth significantly less than his pre-credit crisis valuation of $3.1bn (£2.1bn). He has used his wealth for a number of philanthropic projects, and with his son Evgeny runs the Raisa Gorbachev Foundation, a British-based charity dedicated to tackling child cancer. Evgeny is a fixture on the capital's social scene and many expect him to take control of the day-to-day running of the Standard.

Should his bid succeed, the Standard would not be Mr Lebedev's first media venture. He has stakes in a series of newspapers in Russia, including a 49 per cent share (along with Mr Gorbachev) in Novaya Gazeta, a low-circulation paper renowned for its criticism of the Kremlin. Several of its reporters have paid for their journalism with their lives, most recently Anna Politkovskaya, who was shot dead outside her apartment in Moscow two years ago. The most recent issue of the paper carries a report on Chechen separatists, a subject unlikely feature in any other Russian newspaper. "In the two and a half years he's been with the paper he has never interfered with editorial policy," said Dmitry Muratov, Novaya Gazeta's editor.

He has been careful, while positioning himself as an opposition figure, never to step too far out of line. After all, the last "thinking oligarch" – the head of the Yukos oil empire Mikhail Khodorkovsky – is now in a Siberian prison serving eight years on tax evasion charges that most people believe were politically motivated.

Last year Mr Lebedev closed another of his newspapers, the little-read Moskovsky Korrespondent, after it alleged that Mr Putin was having an affair with – and planning to marry, the gymnast Alina Kabaeva. Nevertheless, his political views have made him the bête noire of Russia's bureaucratic class. "His association with Novaya Gazeta causes problems for his businesses," says Mr Muratov. "He has a lot of interesting ideas, many of which would be supported by the President and Prime Minister, but are blocked by bureaucrats who don't like his political views."

He also faces obstacles in his bid for the Standard, as many clearly feel it is inappropriate for a British paper to be run on Russian cash. But Mr Lebedev hopes to persuade Londoners that he is not just another oligarch looking for a plaything in the British capital.

Oligarchs in the UK

Roman Abramovich

He bought Chelsea FC in 2003 for £150m, having made a fortune from Russia's oil, gas and aluminium industries. In 2008, Forbes named him the world's 16th richest man.

Oleg Deripaska

Deripaska, 41, the man who played host to Peter Mandelson and George Osborne on his yacht last year, has been described as Russia's richest man but he says he isn't. His company owns LDV, the rump of Leyland Daf.

Alisher Usmanov

Usmanov, who is of Uzbek origin, owns nearly a quarter of Arsenal FC.

Alexandre Gaydamak

Born in France in 1976, he co-owns Portsmouth FC. His father, a Russian Jew, bought into Russian newspapers.

Boris Berezovsky

Berezovsky, 62, was the first mega-rich Russian to settle in the UK, after falling foul of Vladimir Putin. Russia wants him extradited.

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