Oligarch Lebedev backs UK release of Russia meddling probe

Moscow (AFP) –


Russian oligarch and former UK newspaper owner Alexander Lebedev responded angrily Wednesday to media allegations that a British government report on Russian interference could contain damaging information about his relationship with Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

Lebedev, who bought Britain's The Independent and the Evening Standard newspapers before passing ownership to his son Evgeny, told AFP he wants to see the report released, something Downing Street has been accused of delaying.

The probe by parliament's intelligence and security committee into suspected Russian covert actions in Britain's democratic process reportedly includes examining whether Moscow tried to interfere with the 2016 Brexit vote and the 2017 general election.

"Let it come out as soon as possible. I will read it. I am interested myself," said the self-declared former KGB agent who is a severe critic of the Kremlin.

Lebedev complained of being a victim of "fake news" and insisted he is not a donor to the Tory party.

"It is not understandable. Why they are mixing me up with Russians who are British citizens who finance the Conservative party. I don't finance it," said Lebedev.

Questions over Johnson's relationship with the Lebedevs have centred on the then-foreign secretary attending a party at Evgeny Lebedev's Italian villa in April 2018, apparently without a security detail. The Sunday Times revealed that Alexander Lebedev was also present.

Lebedev said Wednesday however that he did not see Johnson at the party, which he said he stopped at only briefly to see his son.

"I came and didn't see him (Johnson), didn't meet him," Lebedev said.

"I was there three hours, I flew out quite early."

- 'I am not his friend' -

Dressed casually in a white shirt, leather waistcoat and dark jacket, Lebedev was keen to give his side of the story at a party held to mark the release of his book "Hunt the Banker", which features images of the Russian mogul with various famous figures, including Johnson.

But he said they were just acquaintances.

"I know Johnson, no more than that, I am not his friend," he said.

He said he believed his son has a closer relationship with the British prime minister: "It is fully possible he has been friends with my son for many years. What has that got to do with me?"

Lebedev complained of feeling victimised in Britain after he "did the British people a service" by investing in the media. "I definitely felt more comfortable when I worked as a Soviet spy in England," he said.

Johnson's government has rejected claims it suppressed the parliamentary report about possible Russian interference in British politics to avoid a scandal ahead of next month's snap election.

Moscow has been accused of spearheading sophisticated disinformation campaigns around the world to further its interests, including trying to manipulate elections in the United States.

Lebedev accused The Guardian newspaper, one of those to report on the allegations, of "tying me to its attack on Boris Johnson" because it "wants to elect" opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.