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Lebedev's tangled web

At the beginning of September, the Independent’s Mary Dejevsky presented an improbably flattering portrait of St Petersburg's governor Valentina Matviyenko. Pavel Stroilov was one of 33 co-complainants who referred the article to the Press Complaints Commission for alleged political bias. Here he presents his argument that Dejevsky’s piece was illustrative of a growing and barely perceivable Russian influence over the British political landscape. The UK would be well advised to think about ways of defending itself, he contends.

"An accusation too far" — read Mary Dejevsky's response here

Alexander Lebedev, former KGB spy and international media tycoon of moderately liberal repute, is having the worst of the both worlds. Last Tuesday, his company office in Moscow, where he owns the surviving pro-democracy daily Novaya Gazeta, was raided by masked people in police uniform with machine-guns. Their leaders rampaged through the paperwork and demanded to see Lebedev; it was only many hours later that Lebedev made some very discreet public statements (which in substance amounted to very little). The whole episode was directly reminiscent of extraordinary scenes from almost a decade ago, when the newly-anointed Vladimir Putin was destroying the business empires of his three least favourite oligarchs [Gusinsky, Berezovsky and Khodorkovsky - ed]. After serving seven years in prison, one of them, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, is now awaiting an additional sentence to prolong his imprisonment, possibly till the mid-2020s. His poorly staged show-trial was extensively reported by Novaya Gazeta, which might be one of the reasons for Lebedev’s current troubles.

The worst of both worlds : Lebedev' s National Reserve Bank is raided in Moscow    Meanwhile in Britain, where Lebedev owns Evening Standard and The Independent, the latter is being investigated by the Press Complaints Commission on allegations of publishing crude propaganda and misleading its readers. I was a co-signatory of the initial complaint, which focused on Mary Dejevsky’s now notorious article hailing Valentina Matvieyenko, St. Petersburg’s unelected governor, as “Russia’s Thatcher”. We accused The Independent of distorting the facts in order to flatter Mrs. Matviyenko, misrepresenting such notorious problems of St. Petersburg as the Gazprom sky-scraper project, and exaggerating the present regime’s popularity in the face of visibly growing discontent in the city. In a separate letter to the PCC, London MEP Gerard Batten agreed that the article was ‘illustrative of the danger’ that Lebedev, a KGB veteran, could abuse his position as a British media proprietor ‘for the purposes of pro-Russian propaganda and against our national interest’.

Just as the PCC was beginning its investigation, Lebedev launched yet another daily tabloid — called i — on the top of his two loss-making UK newspapers and other troubles. In a time that established newspapers are fighting for survival and are happy to be sold for nothing to a KGB man, it has become axiomatic that launching a new newspaper means instant ruin. This does not seem to stop Lebedev. Personally, I suspect he actually has no choice, with Putin’s masked policemen biting at his heels.

In truth, Lebedev is a victim of the regime as much as its servant. Like other veterans of espionage, he probably despises secret policemen like Putin - the KGB’s 1st and 5th Directorates traditionally loathed each other. He probably thinks the KGB regime could be better sustained by more sophisticated means than assassinations, tortures and Putlag - and many in the Kremlin take a grim view of this dangerous heresy. And yet Lebedev is in flesh and blood from that same regime of KGB officers, who all hate each other, yet are bound together in a Dostoyevskian blood circle.

The Personality Cult and its Consequences

To Lebedev, the PCC investigation of The Independent is a bigger problem than it may seem. His ‘liberal’ reputation in the West and in some sections of Russian intelligentsia is about the only thing that makes him valuable to the Kremlin. But the Indy’s hymn to Matviyenko was misjudged, and simply over the top. Russian democrats showed remarkable unity in their anger at it: the complaint was signed by St. Petersburg regional leaders of all notable opposition parties and groups (Solidarity, Yabloko, United Civil Front, People’s Democratic Union), leading NGOs, and such eminent individuals as former Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky and celebrated attorney Yuri Shmidt.

‘Matviyenko is now near the middle of the first hundred of the country's rulers,’ Vladimir Pribylovsky, an authoritative political analysts and co-author of the recent book The Corporation: Russia and the KGB in the age of president Putin, tells me. ‘I am only half-joking when I say she has only risen so high after The Independent article about her; before that, she was nearer the end of the top hundred.’

"The Indy’s endorsement of Valentina Matviyenko’s regime will not be forgotten in a hurry in St. Petersburg. She  was encouraged to keep up the good work; and - woe to the local population! - she does."

The Indy’s endorsement of Matviyenko’s regime, however, will not be forgotten in a hurry in St. Petersburg. While the articles about Russia are hardly ever noticed in Britain, their effect in Russia is much greater than anything written in Russia’s own media. Matviyenko was encouraged to keep up the good work; and - woe to the local population! - she does. Consider, for example, what happened during the traditional ‘Strategy 31’ rallies in defence of the freedom of assembly last Sunday. While in Moscow the authorities finally retreated (following two years of bitter struggle), the rally in St. Petersburg was dispersed by the riot police as brutally as ever. One of our co-complainants, Andrei Pivovarov, is now imprisoned for helping to organise the rally.

Unlike most readers of The Independent, the Russians instantly recognised the Dejevsky article as zakazukha. This is a term awfully familiar term to Russians, and is roughly translated as ‘paid-for news”. It denotes misleading or biased press articles published in exchange for money or favours from a party with some interest in the matter. The genre has been endemic in Russian media over the past two decades. Now, it seems, the Independent has made history by exporting it into this country:

‘In the past seven years, during which she has been essentially the city's chief executive, the city has changed conspicuously for the better... For the first time… people on the streets of St Petersburg seem confident and content with themselves...

‘...her whole career... a near-ideal reflection of her country's experience... a phenomenal power of recall... the city's birthrate has risen rapidly... families are moving to the city from many other parts of Russia, including Moscow, for the culture and quality of life... one of very few Russian politicians to be actively tackling corruption... the administrative competence the Governor oozes when she speaks, and her boundless enthusiasm for her adopted city…’, etc., etc., etc.  

Let me put the question to you: have you ever seen a British newspaper using this language in a politician’s profile? The phenomena of Gorbymania and Dianamania simply pale in comparison.

In St. Petersburg, the name ‘Matviyenko’ means something quite different. It stands for a cruel and corrupt regime, destroying a great city and oppressing its people. There is nothing outstanding about Matviyenko’s career, either as a communist apparatchik or loyal member of the KGB mafia running Russia today. Her regime in St. Petersburg shows the typical characteristics of a regional government in Putin’s era: endemic corruption, brutal suppression of peaceful protests, fabrications of criminal cases, ruthless stifling of small businesses, and barbaric destruction of historic buildings and monuments. As Vladimir Bukovsky wrote in the Independent: “If Mary Dejevsky is so keen to draw parallels with another 'chemist' in government, it should be Elena Ceausescu, not Margaret Thatcher”.

The President of St Petersburg’s Association of Small Business, Grigory Solominsky shared a similar observation:

‘Far from being a 'Russian Thatcher', Matviyenko is personally responsible for the campaign of unlawful raids against St. Petersburg's small businesses, overseeing hundreds of companies being replaced or taken over by relatives and friends of the city officials. In the course of that campaign, independent entrepreneurs suffered every dirty trick known to Russian kleptocracy, from the fabrication of criminal charges to the unlawful eviction of tenants and from administrative pressure to physical violence (including several cases of arson and murder). Unsurprisingly, the greatest beneficiary of that campaign has been the Governor's own son Sergei Matviyenko. […] Needless to say, that avalanche of takeovers has resulted in a loss of jobs, sky-rocketing prices, lower quality of goods and services - and enormous enrichment of such families as Matviyenko's.’

No elected politician would ever dream of doing any of those things which make the daily routine of Matviyenko. Indeed, the article singularly failed to mention this point — that we are discussing an unelected governor, just like all regional governors in Russia are unelected.

“If Mary Dejevsky is so keen to draw parallels with another 'chemist' in government, it should be Elena Ceausescu, not Margaret Thatcher”.

One controversy the article simply could not avoid is the Gazprom sky-scraper project, which Matviyenko is aggressively pushing through in spite of the widespread opposition in the city. All Dejevsky could do was to take Matviyenko out of the equation: ‘On balance, she seemed to support it, in the face of fierce ecological objections, but not in a dogmatic way that would prevent compromise with protest groups concerned about damage to St Petersburg's skyline.' In fact, Matviyenko personally authorised the project, and is well-known as one of its most ardent supporters, lobbying for it since 2005. She has contemptuously rejected all the compromise proposals, such as reducing the height of the building or moving it to a different area in St. Petersburg. No doubt, her spin-doctors tried to portray her as an impartial judge persuaded by the force of the argument. What is surprising is that Mary Dejevsky did not bother to double-check what spin-doctors fed her.

In her simplicity, she even called the sky-scraper a ‘Norman Foster tower’. In fact, the project was designed by the UK firm RMJM, while Sir Norman Foster famously walked out of the jury in protest against the barbaric destruction of St Petersburg’s historic layout. Even after Dejevsky’s inaccuracy was pointed out to her by critics, even after a protesting letter from Foster+Partners appeared in The Independent, Dejevsky still insisted Sir Norman was guilty. This is probably something personal. 


The disputed gasscraper project: Dejevsky's article ignored what amounts to a political, architectural and archaeological outrage

A scrupulous and competent journalist would, I argue, have found the sky-scraper saga an intriguing story to investigate. There is a clear question to answer — why in the face of heritage laws, democratic procedures, and local public opinion, Gazprom has decided to plough on with plans to erect a visible symbol of its property rights over the whole of Russia, wrecking St. Petersburg‘s unique skyline and burying a unique archaeological site in the process.

Despite opposition from the local population, UNESCO, and the internationally renowned architects, the project does seem to enjoy enthusiastic support from the national and regional governments. Only a few days ago, the Russian media reported that RMJM architect Charles Phu mentioned at a public meeting that the firm is in regular receipt of ‘memoranda’ from Vladimir Putin personally, ‘encouraging’ them to go ahead with the project despite the controversy. RMJM declined to comment when I contacted them. 

Independent of Lebedev?

Some are doubtful that Lebedev had anything to do with that article. Some recall that Dejevsky has often taken the Kremlin’s side in the past, be it over the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko in 2006 or the invasion of Georgia in 2008. Distinguished media critic Roy Greenslade even wrote a column in last Thursday’s Guardian to argue with our ‘innuendos’ against Lebedev.

However, those who have experience with Western media will know what I mean when I say that it is not within one journalist’s power to get a zakazukha of this kind into the press. There are hundreds of people (for instance, politicians and PR people) who spend most of their time struggling to be mentioned in the national media. Journalists and editors do not bestow such favours without good reason. Just a mention, in any context, hostile or friendly, counts for a lot; and what price almost an entire page of a very flattering profile for a petty local despot from the other end of the world? Finding a friendly journalist (and she has to be very friendly to write this kind of stuff) is only a part of the problem. The real crux is getting past the editors: British editors don’t like idyllic articles even when they are true. They like controversy.

Lebedev, meanwhile, is known to have his own reasons for keeping Matviyenko happy. One of his companies, National Housing Corporation, has a branch in St. Petersburg - and the success or failure of any business in St. Petersburg is fully dependent on the governor’s goodwill. Furthermore, Lebedev and Matviyenko are rumoured to be allies in their opposition to the proposed merger and nationalisation of the Aeroflot and 'Russia' airline companies, a project lobbied by a rival clan in Moscow. In these circumstances, nobody in Russia would be surprised that Lebedev’s media is praising Matviyenko. By Russian standards, this is all perfectly normal. Yet I would simply state that independence from the proprietors used to be the clarion call of the founding fathers of The Independent. And I would argue that being dependent on a Russian KGB veteran is no better than being dependent on Rupert Murdoch.

The Second Cold War

Gone is the time when Moscow looked to take over countries by running communist parties and infiltrating trades unions. No longer communists fighting a secret war against the whole world, they are now ‘capitalists’ from the paranoid dream of a KGB general — greedy, ruthless, cunning, corrupt — and still fighting a secret war against the whole world.

One of Putin’s favourite oligarchs, Oleg Deripaska, once declared he would give up all his riches to the last rouble if Putin wanted him to. These would, indeed, appear to be the standard terms and conditions all surviving oligarchs have signed up to in an attempt to avoid being sent to join Khodorkovsky in the Putlag.

"How do we know Putin’s oligarchs are not already buying off our entire politics slice by slice? Do we realise it is only the personal integrity of such people as Lord Mandelson and George Osborne that stands in the way of a Russian takeover?"

Deripaska was, of course, instead dispatched to more agreeable destinations: Rothschild’s yacht, for example. In this instance, he was caught socialising and discussing donations with top UK politicians. But how many such drinks have we never heard of? How do we know Putin’s oligarchs are not already buying off our entire politics slice by slice? Do we realise it is only the personal integrity of such people as Lord Mandelson and George Osborne that stands in the way of a Russian takeover?

Just as Deripaska was unleashed on British politicians, so Lebedev has been unleashed on the media. You cannot make profits from newspapers; but if you don’t count losses, you can buy enormous influence. It may seem unimportant for now that free Evening Standard is London’s most popular newspaper. But what if Putin kills another Litvinenko here? What if Russia invades another Georgia? No doubt, at least three major UK dailies will now have to take Russia’s side and print as much propaganda as they are told. They cannot pay their bills without Lebedev; and nobody will let Lebedev take liberties in such matters, unless he wants many more masked visitors in his offices.

 


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