domenica 19 luglio 2009

Alexander Lebedev: the oligarch, conspiracy theories and a mercury poisoning mystery

Alexander Lebedev may be dying. The former-KGB spy turned London newspaper proprietor is strolling by the banks of lavender at his boutique Umbrian hotel, looking the picture of health in his skinny jeans, cropped white hair and plimsolls without laces.

But as he walks, he mentions casually that he is being treated for mercury poisoning. Medical tests have shown a mysterious spike in his blood mercury levels to 14 times the normal limit.His Belgian endocrinologist has warned him that it may well be high enough to enter his nervous system, then his brain, and begin to kill off his memory.

"Though if I wake up tomorrow morning and cannot remember Putin, that would be nice," he says.

Mr Lebedev's condition has echoes of another former KGB spy, Alexander Litvinenko who was poisoned in London in 2006. It also reads like a discarded plotline from a John Le Carre novel: The Spy Who Got a Bad Cold.

But the truth is, Mr Lebedev's dry, dark one-liner also cuts to the heart of the questions that surround him: is he the Kremlin's puppet, or its critic?

For Mr Lebedev's independence has suddenly become a matter of importance in British life. Having started in the espionage business and then made his roubles amid the rubble of the Soviet Union, he has bought one British newspaper, The Evening Standard, and is considering buying another, The Independent. "I am following the picture," he says, of the financial crisis enveloping The Independent. "There are things to consider… the inevitable matter of redundancies and whether it has lost its niche in the market."

But the prospect of a man with such an enigmatic past – not to mention the current mercury poisoning – establishing himself as a man of influence in Britain has made the mystery of Mr Lebedev a matter of public concern: Is he for Putin? Is he for himself? Is he for real?

He agreed to meet me for a day and a half at his hotel in Italy rather than at his home in Moscow. When I pick him up from his chartered private jet at Perugia airport, Mikhail Gorbachev is standing next to him.

On the journey back to the hotel, lulled by the sound of incomprehensible English voices, Mr Gorbachev nods off. His head slumps forward so that I am staring directly at the most famous port-wine stain in the world, gently bumping with the rhythm of the car.

Mr Lebedev's friendship with the man who helped to bring down the Soviet Union has been his passport to the West. It was through his connection with the former general secretary that Mr Lebedev met Geordie Greig, then editor of Tatler, who persuaded him to rescue The Evening Standard. It is Mr Gorbachev who has joined forces with him to create the opposition party, the "Independent Democratic Party of Russia", and it is his closeness to Mr Gorbachev that Mr Lebedev says defines him: "I like his world view and I am trying to copy it… I really think he is the greatest man I have ever met. He [Mr Gorbachev] is looking for someone to carry on his torch… to start up a new 'perestroika' (economic reform) and new 'glasnost' (openness and honesty).

"I'm using those words intentionally. We need it. We have to keep remembering the truth about Stalinism so that we don't repeat history… We have to really say one day that Stalin was the biggest serial killer in the world, a madman."

And Mr Putin, Russia's current Prime Minister – is he a madman?

"He is not mad, he is cynical… He enjoys power and playing games. The only thing he is good at is holding on to power. That has been his only real achievement in the last few years."

But there are many in Moscow who see a sophisticated confidence trick. The prevalent conspiracy theory is that Mr Lebedev is the Kremlin's man, a puppet with plausible deniability. They believe that like many of the Prime Minister's cronies who started off in the KGB, he will always remain loyal to the system.

According to this view, Mr Putin has fabricated a rival who answers to him: an elaborate game of chess in which Mr Lebedev is pawn, not king. They cite the example of Mr Lebedev closing one of his papers, The Moscow Korrespondent after it ran a story about Mr Putin having an affair with a gymnast, Alina Kabaeva, who was half his age.

The story incensed Mr Putin, and Mr Lebedev promptly told his staff to apologise. Shortly afterwards, Mr Lebedev shut the paper, tainting his claims of being a champion of the free press.

The conspiracy theorists also believe that there can only be one reason that Mr Lebedev's criticisms of the government are tolerated by the Kremlin: he is Mr. Putin's stooge. Why otherwise has he not been stripped of his wealth and thrown behind bars like another outspoken oligarch, Mikhail Khodorkovsky?

Mr Lebedev has sensible answers to most of these questions. He claims he was going to close down The Moscow Korrespondent anyway, and he believes that Mr Putin would be risking making a martyr of him if he was put in jail.

But the controversy that surrounds him is partly of his own making: Mr Lebedev is an intentionally hard man to read – probably wise for a man who often finds himself with a foot in two camps.

From the earliest age, he was exposed to a conflicting mix of establishment and anti-establishment views. His mother was an English teacher who was a member of the Communist Party.

"She was a true believer… she doesn't understand the concept of opposition… although she is highly educated she still believes what the TV shows.

''If the Lushkov [Mayor of Moscow] channel shows a big film about me, she will get very frustrated and say "Why did you do that?" And I'll say, "I didn't do that, it's just nonsense," and she'll say "It couldn't be nonsense, it was on TV." Mr Lebedev chuckles. "A typical Soviet mentality. My father is completely the opposite. He didn't like the Soviet political system and he would never join the party. He was a doctor, with a PhD in optical engineering… but they wouldn't give him a position, because he wouldn't join the party."

So how did they react to their son telling them he was going to join "The Service"?

"Father would say 'I think it is a very good idea, with his anti-Soviet ideas he can probably improve things from the inside'. And my mother would say, 'No, they will put him in jail for his anti-Soviet anecdotes'. " Mr Lebedev laughs again: "So it was pretty interesting the way they quarrelled about it."

His small, very bright blue eyes stare at me from behind rimless glasses as he talks about his past.

Mr Lebedev eschewed a scientific career to join the KGB because "it was the one of the most attractive careers''. ''First of all you can read books and all the papers that everyone else was not allowed. Then you travelled so you can see the world around and had a much better education… so it was pretty interesting because in the [scientific] academy I would have been in a situation of not being allowed to write the truth, and here I was allowed to write [the truth]." He explains that by the time he reached London in 1988 "the foreign intelligence" was "dedicating itself more to opinion rather than to secrets". Mr Lebedev's job was to "read every printed thing that existed in the country… I was on the analytical side. I would précis it and they would cipher it and send it back".

Among the papers that he read was The Evening Standard.

Mr Lebedev says that the reason that he bought the London paper in January of this year was "to save it from the market forces and the internet".

He believes that "there is a tiny club of brilliant journalists in the world that need to be protected." He says that he will not interfere at all with editorial matters, and his newly installed editor, Geordie Greig, confirms that in this way he is a "dream proprietor".

He is not, however, an entirely absent figure. Recently, journalistic jaws hung open when Mr Lebedev strolled through the newsroom with Mr Gorbachev in tow.

But can a man with such strong views continue to be so hands-off with the paper?

If the purchase of The Independent goes ahead, then will it be influenced by his views on, say, sending troops out to the war in Afghanistan? "I sincerely doubt that a war there can be won… I don't believe in democracy by bayonet."

Or the battle between Gordon Brown versus David Cameron? "I think a lot of him [Gordon Brown], by the way. I think the way he was dealing with the crisis is correct. But he is struggling.''

With his hunger for reform, does Mr Lebedev really not hope for a position of power in politics?

"I am not aspiring to be a senior bureaucrat. It would limit my freedom. I'm more interested in permanently being in opposition than going to power… I think of myself as a permanent Menshevik." (The Mensheviks were a faction of the Russian revolutionary movement who opposed the Bolsheviks on various issues.)

So is Mr Lebedev really what he projects– the Good Oligarch? Although he does not like the term "oligarch" his fortune is worth somewhere north of three billion dollars.

In 1992, when the Soviet Union was unravelling, Mr Lebedev returned to Russia and moved into the private sector. After three years which he described as "failure, failure, failure… I maybe failed 900 times," he bought the small National Reserve Bank and then built up his multi-billion pound business empire.

"I am probably the biggest equity investor in the history of modern Russia," says Mr. Lebedev matter-of-factly.

His career began to take off in the corrupt and lawless period of the early 1990s, when the Soviet Union was unravelling. Did he not have to resort to unsavoury methods himself to get ahead in business?

"No," he says abruptly.

So he sees himself as a good man?

"I didn't say so. I just avoided the clichés of Russian business. It depends on the way you have been brought up. It's like over here… Why should I be buying boats and chateaux all over Europe?"

It is certainly true that Mr Lebedev doesn't behave like most of the other oligarchs. Granted his 22-year-old girlfriend, Elena Perminova, is a model less than half his age and seven years junior to his son from his first marriage, Evgeny.

But she appears to be no wallflower. For holidays, the pair go on adventurous and often basic trips, like camping in Mongolia "with jeeps, tents and canned food". One of their favourite pastimes is cutting holes in the ice in the Moscow River to fish for bream.

Mr Lebedev is cultured, and extremely well read: he regularly references classics and makes the rather staggering claim that he has "read almost everything that is worth reading in literature".

Although he lives well, he claims that his personal consumption is not that high. His house in Moscow has four bedrooms and is "classic" in style, though "full of copies, not real antiques".

"I never planned to be rich, frankly speaking," says Mr Lebedev. "I was more interested in being free, and doing things. And money helps. But otherwise I was never that interested in it."

Elena gave birth to Mr Lebedev's second son, Nikita, in mid June. He is tight-lipped about his personal life, but gives the impression of a happy, albeit clueless father.

"I am chief-bather," he says. "Nikita [who was 21 days old at the time of the interview] is trying to teach himself to crawl."

Mr Lebedev gives both time and money to good causes. He restored The Chekhov Theatre in Crimea and built a large children's hospital in St Petersburg. Every year he bankrolls a glamorous party in Hampton Court to raise money for the Raisa Gorbachev Foundation, named after Mr Gorbachev's late wife.

Most of Mr Lebedev's charitable projects reflect his political beliefs. This autumn he will launch the Gorbachev Prize, a global endowment along the lines of the Nobel Prize. The prizes will reward achievements in "perestroika" and "glasnost" in different areas in life.

"The first prize will be for freedom of speech," says Mr Lebedev. "Another will be for ecology – another might be for a breakthrough in science that brings more freedom and democracy."

He has also been working for three years on a project in Moscow which he says has received positive noises from the president of Russia, Dmitry Medvedev.

Mr Lebedev believes that the development of a memorial to the gulags in the centre of the city will prevent the same mistakes being made, and encourage debate about the current system.

"We have some inheritance from Stalinism, in the judicial system… in law enforcement. It is like a birthmark on the forehead of the nation." It seems Mr Gorbachev is always on his mind.

At dinner – a four-course banquet in the garden of the hotel – Mr Lebedev made a heartfelt toast to Mr Gorbachev for "not holding on to that post of Communist Emperor and instead giving freedom to all of us".

So if Mr Lebedev really is independent from Mr Putin, why are there so many Gatsby-esque rumours that swirl around him? It is nearly two in the morning now. The other guests in the hotel have long since gone to bed and Mr Lebedev is drinking grappa in the bar.

"People think I am a myth, a mythological thing. I don't think I am mysteriouse_SLps When I started working in the service I used to get up in the morning at about six. I would need to be at work at around nine, and on the way to work I would pass a group of my colleagues who were smoking.

''I didn't smoke. I would pass by and not say much, so they thought I was arrogant. But I wasn't. I was maybe… not so easy-going like them." He pauses. "People can get the wrong impression."

Mr Lebedev's expression is inscrutable as he tells this anecdote. But I get a sudden, very strong sense of how a large element of his personal mystique arises from a kind of social discomfort.

"I don't like birthday parties," he says. "I get bored, I do not know what to say. Sometimes I do not go and send a present later."

And Evgeny, I ask, thinking of the dandy dresser who appears at parties by the side of his girlfriend, actress Joely Richardson. Is he the social one? "No," says Mr Lebedev. "Evgeny is like me." He asks for a top-up of grappa. He has told me the mercury poisoning has slowed his drinking, but he is more than holding his own. Apart from his naturally pale complexion, he looks in good shape. Does Mr Lebedev believe that the Kremlin has poisoned him? He shakes his head.

"I think it has not come from a political enemy or a rival, but someone close to me," he says. "An old story: money… It's simple."

Mr Lebedev believes that the greatest threat to his life comes from the gambling mafia. A law that Mr Lebedev passed through the Duma pushing casinos out of Moscow will mean losses of billions to some.

"There have been things said… people have shot at my car," he shrugs. "There are bigger risks," he says. "Flying in an aeroplane… scuba diving. Eating the wrong things, drinking too much. I'm facing the facts, I am quite rational… My risks are not higher than… [David] Cameron."

The comparison with an opposition politician who has a very good chance of leading the country soon raises the question again of whether Mr Lebedev does not seek power. Is he quite sure that he doesn't want to be president of Russia?

"The question is useless because they would not let me run," says Mr Lebedev. "They have a plan for the next 50 years Putin, Medvedev, Putin… until 2047."

He stops, then muses.

"If I ever was in a position of influence, I would think about Russia joining the European Union.''

I wait, breathless for any other hints that the man who is rumoured to be Mr Putin's pawn is actually playing a very different game of chess: the long game, where one day he hopes to be king.

Mr Lebedev puts down his glass suddenly and bids me goodnight. As he walks out, his square face is expressionless again. The eyes of the former KGB man glint ironically as he turns and throws one last line over his shoulder: "I hope I haven't leaked any secrets."

By Kate Weinberg


Ultraortodossi ebrei ovvero una casta fatta di privilegi costosissimi

''Centinaia di poliziotti, sostenuti anche da guardie di frontiera, presidieranno le strade di Gerusalemme. Nessun tipo di violenza sarà tollerata''. Il portavoce della polizia israeliana, Micky Rosenfeld, ha annunciato alla stampa la tolleranza zero verso gli ebrei ultraortodossi che hanno messo a ferro e fuoco nelle ultime 48 ore due quartieri di Gerusalemme.

Il pretesto. Tutto è nato, martedì scorso, dall'arresto di un una donna ultraortodossa accusata dai servizi sociali israeliani di negligenza. Il suo bimbo di tre anni, ultimo di cinque figli, era stato trovato in condizioni di denutrizione dalle autorità di Tel Aviv che accusano la madre di aver privato sistematicamente dell'alimentazione necessaria il piccolo. La donna nega, sostenuta da tutta la comunità, che è scesa in piazza per dimostrare. Bilancio della battaglia: 18 poliziotti feriti e 34 ultraortodossi arrestati. Il sindaco di Gerusalemme, Nir Barkat, aveva reagito ai disordini ordinando la sospensione di qualsiasi servizio comunale nei quartieri di Geula e Mea Shearim, teatro degli scontri. Barkat, a sentir lui, ha preso la decisione per proteggere gli impiegati comunali, in quanto tutte le istituzioni erano diventate un bersaglio delle proteste degli ultraortodossi. In molti, però, hanno parlato di un'ingiusta punizione collettiva. Dopo la mediazione del presidente israeliano Peres, sono arrivati gli arresti domiciliari per la donna. Questo potrebbe stemperare la tensione, ma l'episodio ha riportato alla luce una tensione di fondo che attraversa la società israeliana: il rapporto con gli ultraortodossi.

Un salto nel tempo. Fare una passeggiata per Mea Shearim, che in ebraico significa 'delle cento porte', è come fare un viaggio nel tempo. Costruito a partire dal 1875, il quartiere è il secondo agglomerato formatosi fuori dalla città vecchia, dai seguaci del rabbino Auerbach. Loro si sono rinchiusi in un ghetto volontario, per vivere nella più totale osservanza degli scritti religiosi e si vestono come i loro antenati dell'Europa centro-orientale del Settecento. I cappelli a falda larga, le lunghe barbe e i riccioli che escono dai copricapi sono i segni distintivi di una comunità che non riconosce lo Stato d'Israele, perché la tradizione vuole che lo fonderà il Messia al suo ritorno e non possono farlo degli uomini comuni. Non parlano la lingua ebraica, ritenuta sacra e da utilizzare solo per la preghiera, e si esprimono in yiddish, l'idioma degli ebrei originari dell'Europa dell'est. Per una passeggiata tra le migliaia di sinagoghe e diyeshivot (le scuole talmudiche) è consigliabile un atteggiamento composto e un abbigliamento castigato. Inoltre durante il sacro sabbath (dal tramonto del venerdì al tramonto del sabato) è proibito fumare e fotografare per le strade del quartiere. Un altro mondo, fatto anche di privilegi, però. Nel 1947, dopo un accordo tra Ben Gurion, uno dei padri d'Israele, e i leader ultraortodossi, si stabilì che questi ultimi potevano rimandare il servizio militare, le loro scuole ricevono fino a 170 milioni di dollari di sussidi e non lavorano.
Ben Gurion ne ottenne l'appoggio politico, ma il resto della società israeliana ha sempre mal tollerato i loro privilegi che, secondo una stima, costano alla comunità un miliardo di dollari l'anno in termini di forza lavoro sottratta all'economia israeliana.

Rabbini contro Israele. Da sempre posti agli estremi della società israeliana, nella galassia ultraortodossa non mancano neanche quelli che non accettano denaro e non fanno patti con lo Stato. Come il gruppo di Neturei Karta, per esempio. Il movimento è stato fondato a Gerusalemme, nel 1938, schierandosi da subito su posizioni anti sioniste. Partendo da presupposti, però, differenti da quelli degli anti sionisti politici. I seguaci del movimento, infatti, partono da una base teologica e sostengono d'interpretare alla lettera la Torah, il libro sacro dell'ebraismo. Secondo loro, le sacre scritture proibiscono la creazione di uno stato ebraico prima della venuta del Messia. Quindi, secondo questa lettura, lo stato d'Israele è un'impostura e la sovranità sulla Terra santa è dei palestinesi. Uno di loro divenne consigliere di Yasser Arafat per le questioni ebraiche.
Il movimento è stato oggetto, nel tempo, di polemiche e di attentati da parte di ebrei che li vedono come il fumo negli occhi. A settembre dello scorso anno, a Teheran, il governo di Mahmoud Ahmadinejad organizzò un convengo contro il sionismo che, tra gli ospiti, contava tanti negazionisti dello stesso Olocausto. Facile immaginare la reazione in Israele alle immagini provenienti dall'Iran, dove alcuni esponenti di Neturei Karta pregavano con Ahmadinejad. Ieri, mentre gli ultraortodossi di Gerusalemme davano battaglia, quattro di loro sono andati a trovare Ismail Hanyieh, leader di Hamas, a Gaza.
''Noi sentiamo la vostra sofferenza, noi piangiamo le stesse vostre lacrime'', ha detto ad Haniyeh il rabbino Yisroel Weiss, uno dei leader di Naturei Karta. Una dichiarazione decisamente poco ortodossa.
Christian Elia

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