Russia mogul under pressure wants to sell assets

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By VLADIMIR ISACHENKOV, Associated Press

MOSCOW (AP) — A Russian tycoon whose holdings include a leading investigative newspaper critical of the Kremlin said Friday that he wants to sell his Russian assets because of pressure from state security services.

Alexander Lebedev, worth $1.1 billion according to Forbes magazine, said the main KGB successor agency has targeted him with a series of investigations and inspections to push him out of business.

"For the past three years my business has been deliberately and continuously destroyed by Division K of the Federal Security Service's economic security department," Lebedev said on his blog. "Haunting and pressure has targeted not only me and workers of my companies, but my family members as well."

He said the main reason behind the Russian Federal Security Service's pressure on him was corruption investigations by the Novaya Gazeta he has financed, alleging that some of its officers were involved in corruption.

Lebedev and former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev own a 49 percent stake in the newspaper, while the remaining shares are controlled by Novaya's staffers. Lebedev also owns two newspapers in Britain, the Independent and the Evening Standard.

The Novaya Gazeta's relentless criticism of the Kremlin and its investigations into official corruption have put many of its journalists under fire. Four of its reporters have been killed since 2000, including Anna Politkovskaya, a fierce critic of the Kremlin and its policies in Chechnya who was gunned down in the elevator of her Moscow apartment building in 2006. Others have been harassed and attacked.

Lebedev said on Ekho Moskvy radio that he may hand over some of his assets to Novaya so that the newspaper may continue operation, because he no longer has no cash to keep funding it.

Lebedev has also supported Alexei Navalny, a charismatic anti-corruption crusader and blogger who was a key driving force against massive protests in the past winter against Vladimir Putin's rule. Earlier this week, Navalny has been charged with theft amid a widening crackdown on dissent that followed Putin's re-election to a third term in March. He may face 10 years in prison if convicted.

Lebedev, a KGB veteran like Putin, has avoided blaming the president for his woes. He said that security officers targeted him because he was the "main sponsor of the opposition," but dismissed that claim as "utter rubbish." He added, however, that he had expected the Kremlin to intervene to stop attacks on him.

Lebedev has made his money in the banking industry and owns the National Reserve Bank. He also has a stake in Russian flag carrier Aeroflot and owns Red Wings airline and other assets.

Lebedev said that it would be hard for him to sell his assets because the security services would discourage any potential buyers. He said he had no intention of leaving Russia, adding that he would try to take a more active role in politics.

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