Russian billionaire banker and newspaper entrepreneur Alexander Lebedev may be about to receive the same treatment as other tycoons who have meddled in politics without the Kremlin's permission: a prison term.
Mr. Lebedev has been charged with "hooliganism... motivated by political hatred," which carries a potential jail sentence of 5 years, in connection with a televised dust-up between himself and billionaire real estate magnate Sergei Polonsky that occurred over a year ago.
Lebedev, a former KGB spy whose family owns a string of newspapers in Britain, admits striking Mr. Polonsky, but insists he was acting "preventively" after being threatened during a heated discussion on the popular talk show NTVshniki. Video of the altercation has been available on YouTube and other sources since last September.
Polonsky, a former paratrooper, was knocked down in the scuffle, and later said he had suffered a cut on his arm and torn trousers as a result of Lebedev's attack.
The belated timing of the charges, as well as the addition of "political hatred" – which greatly increases the sentence that can result from a simple "hooliganism" conviction – has Lebedev's supporters claiming that it's really all about political payback from the Kremlin. Lebedev has always been careful not to oppose Putin directly, but he is part owner, along with former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, of the combative opposition weekly Novaya Gazeta, and is major sponsor of the Anti-Corruption Fund set up by opposition leader Alexei Navalny last spring.
Lebedev was also an outspoken critic of the recent prison sentence meted out to three members of the band Pussy Riot who were also charged with "hooliganism" plus the sentence-multiplying addition of "religious hatred" for performing a profane anti-Putin "punk prayer" in Moscow's leading cathedral.
"We cannot accept the charge of 'political hatred.' Lebedev was meeting Polonsky for the first time in his life," and neither man is a politician, says Artyom Artyamov, a close Lebedev adviser.
"It's just ridiculous. It leaves us totally perplexed ... but Lebedev intends to face the charges. He refused to sign an undertaking not to leave the country, but he is in Russia. He considers this a completely illegal operation, but he will appear in court, or show up for interrogation, or whatever they demand," Mr. Artyamov says.
Lebedev's son, Yevgeny, who runs the family's British holdings – which include the London Evening Standard and the Independent – issued a statement Wednesday that said "my father has been targeted because of his determination to fight against corruption and to be a crusader for democracy in a country where this has not always been welcome.... I don't condone violence, but the punishment does not fit the crime here. We need more Russians to speak out against injustice, not fewer. I hope this isn't the start of a new crackdown."
The charges against Lebedev come amid a wave of other state actions that appear aimed at intimidating or silencing critics, including the expulsion of a leading opposition deputy from the Duma earlier this month, and a raft of new legislation that has the overall effect of sharply raising the penalties for dissent.
After the televised fist fight between the two tycoons briefly scandalized Moscow last year, then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin publicly commented, appearing to put the whole episode down to the ill manners of Russia's new rich. "They hit each other in the ear. That is hooliganism," Mr. Putin said at the time. "Imagine how they would fight over money.... They would tear each other's throats out."
Violence among participants of Russia's often raucous and confrontational TV talk shows is hardly unheard of. One of the worst offenders is Vladimir Zhirinovsky, leader of the ultra-nationalist, misnamed Liberal Democratic Party, who frequently punctuates his opinions with physical hostility, but has always seemed to get away with it.
"We believe these accusations against Lebedev are all invented, and ordered from the top," says Genry Reznik, Lebedev's defense attorney.
"The best explanation for this is that they want to scare Lebedev and force him to leave the country. It's a political reprisal against him, pure and simple," he adds.