Aleksandr LEBEDEV, entrepreneur, the owner of British newspapers The Independent and The Evening Standard, co-owner of Novaya Gazeta, speaks on overcoming corruption and Soviet-era legacy.
You say in the Novaya Gazeta article “An Explanatory Note to Vladimir Putin, Leader of the All-Russian Popular Front” that you are ready to join this front…
“And I have already joined – the day before yesterday (the interview was held on July 21 – Author). I am the latest entrant.”
What caused this decision? Do you really believe that the leadership will accept your program?
“I just want to check things and use the Front as a tool. If they have at least one percent of innovation, then I have a limited choice of ‘tools’: I don’t have a saw, a drill, a hammer, or an axe. So I take this ‘tool’ and say: ‘Look, can one use the tool to perform a certain number of actions, which will lead to changes in the electoral and judicial systems, in the mass media field, in corruption control?’ I was told just the day before yesterday: ‘OK then, join us!’ But they are saying nothing about the program so far. I have nothing to lose – I can play a couch potato, I can travel, I can litigate with the government of Ukraine over the Ukraina hotel for six years now. I find it interesting to change the life of my compatriots for the better. I want to use the Front for this purpose. I am told: ‘Lebedev, you are a naive idealist. This is impossible because there is not even a trace of renewal here.’ But I want to check things, why should I take anybody at their word? Am I running a risk? Am I selling out goldfields? I am a shareholder in and the only financial sponsor of Novaya Gazeta. I adhere to some well-known principles which I have never betrayed since the Communist Party times. The Soviet system used to seem unshakable – but it fizzled out. And who proved to be right? Solzhenitsyn and Sakharov. I am not saying they are my role models, but there must be a possibility to speak out in any social conditions. We have more opportunities for this. But I am still being reproached and told: ‘What are you up to, naive man?’”
You said in an interview: “Give him (Putin – Ed.) 20 years and leave everything as it is. And we’ll be a Zimbabwe.” But is there something that can change the Russian elite’s outlook and thus make the state go a different road?
“This Reuters interview was misinterpreted in my country. They immediately began to shout: ‘Lebedev thinks that Putin has turned into Mugabe!’ In reality, I said I did not want Russia to turn into Zimbabwe and Putin into Mugabe. Do you feel the difference? And the point is not in Putin. The governmental machine of today’s Russian Federation is the main obstacle to social progress in culture, education, health care, and fair-price housing. It is uncontrolled bureaucracy that embezzles. This is the trouble. There is no parliamentary control, sufficient number of independent media, elections, and opposition parties. What we can now see in Britain is a catharsis. Some journalists behaved unethically and breached the law, and society came out against them because there is political rivalry in progress. But in my country, 15 billion dollars were misappropriated in the Moscow Bank and the Bank for Foreign Trade, and nobody is going to investigate: they are sure to take money from taxpayers’ pockets, plug the hole in the state banks’ balance, and punish nobody.
“What happened in the UK is a trifle compared to the embezzlement of 15 billion dollars in two huge state-run banks. So the matter is not in Putin at all but in an absolutely deadlocked pattern of development: in 3 to 5 years the whole infrastructure built in the times of Stalin, Khrushchev and Brezhnev will tumble down on our heads. Ukraine has no better situation.”
Nikolai Gogol said long ago that there are two problems in Russia – fools and roads. The same applies to Ukraine. But there is one more problem common to both countries – corruption. It turns out that Britain has it, too…
“And what problems are there in Britain – fools and roads?”
I meant the problem of corruption.
“Good Lord! Corruption in Britain? You must be joking. It is like, for example, we used to say back in Soviet time: our bread is stale, but their pearls are too small. What corruption are you talking about? Just recall parliament members caught six months ago for a sheer trifle: they bought dog food at public expense. So they were all punished immediately.”
I meant News of the World journalists bribing policemen…
“It is an altogether small problem – it is not RosUkrEnergo, or the Moscow Bank, or the Bank for Foreign Trade, it is not dozens of billions of dollars embezzled and laundered abroad. These are very small incidents that may occur in a country with a 61-million population. This is being investigated, and the police chief has resigned.
“As for the fools in our countries, you know, I don’t believe in this much. We have a very smart bureaucracy and very greedy, profit-seeking, and ‘loving’ authorities. We have a wise population which understands everything but does not believe that anything can be changed. This is the result of historical process: we were ruled by the powers-that-be whom nobody could bring to justice. In general, it is absolutely ridiculous to compare Britain and us. In Britain, even minor law infractions or breaches of ethics and morality outrage society and have very serious consequences for the government. And take my country: a ship with a lot of children has sunk. Is anybody going to be held responsible – I mean functionaries, not the fall guys?”
In an interview with The Day, Levada Center director Lev Gudkov noted that seeking out foreign enemies is an important consolidation moment for Russia. This is effective, but is there really no alternative to this?
“This no longer works. As recently as two years ago it was possible to brainwash people with this by means of state-run television. Nobody believes it any more, and nobody believes in any kind of foreign enemies. Nobody needs us too much, nobody is hunting for our raw materials, we have scared away all investors – we must blame nobody but ourselves. And it is clear that all this is manmade. This is why it is ridiculous to look for a foreign enemy – the populace is too wise not to understand that no foreign enemies will sully us as much as we ourselves will.”
Ukrainians are thinking very much over how to improve the investment climate…
“If they were thinking so, the first thing they would do would be stop mindlessly robbing me of my stake in the downtown Kyiv hotel Ukraina. It is a low-star tumbledown, and a certain amount of its monthly cash receipts is given to the Presidential Administration people. It has been done so for years. Is this the Ukrainian government’s strategy to attract foreign investors? OK, we will have international legal opinion and litigations which I am sure to win. Look: seven years have passed since I contributed money, at Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych’s instruction, to a joint venture and paid for the Ukraina reconstruction project report. See what the bureaucrats are doing on behalf of and behind the back of the president? And he is unaware of this. Why are they doing so? To improve the investment climate? Do they really think they will manage to sell somebody else’s stolen property to the Arabs? A funny thing indeed.”
Novaya Gazeta is doing a pro-ject called All the Truth about GULAG. The Day endorses this idea and, in its turn, is preparing a lot of materials on de-Stalinization and the Stalin regime’s crimes. What can speed up overcoming the Soviet-era legacy?
“Mass-scale work. For we don’t even have a GULAG library. Do you think many of our school and college students have read Ginzburg’s Journey into the Whirlwind or Frid’s 58 and a Half, or the Notes of a Prison Camp Blockhead? I think leaders have not read many of these books either. Firstly, all libraries should be supplied with these books. Secondly, we need an infrastructure, monuments, and museums. There should be a majestic GULAG memorial in Moscow.”