MOSCOW – A Russian tycoon who has financed a newspaper critical of the Kremlin and supported the opposition was charged over an incident during a TV talk show a year ago in which he punched another businessman, the country's top investigative agency said Wednesday.
Alexander Lebedev faces charges of hooliganism and assault, the State Investigative Committee said. In Russia, filing criminal charges marks the start of a criminal probe, which may or may not lead to a trial.
He posted a scan of the official document outlining the charges against him on his blog, but wouldn't make any immediate comment. Lebedev, whose net worth was reported by Forbes magazine to be $1.1 billion, made his money in the banking industry. He has financed Novaya Gazeta, which is fiercely critical of the Kremlin, and British newspapers the Independent and the Evening Standard.
Lebedev's son, Yevgeny, tweeted that his father is "being targeted by people who don't like his stance against corruption, and hate Novaya."
Lebedev himself said last month that he was forced to sell his assets because of pressure by Russia's Federal Security Service, the main KGB successor agency. He said the pressure was rooted in corruption investigations by Novaya Gazeta, 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. Novaya Gazeta's relentless criticism of the Kremlin, and its investigations into official corruption have put many of its journalists under fire. Four of Novaya Gazeta 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 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. Lebedev, a KGB veteran like Putin, so far has avoided blaming the president for his woes, blaming security services for the campaign against him.
Lebedev owns the National Reserve Bank and also has a stake in Russian flag carrier Aeroflot as well as his own Red Wings airline.