Exclusive: Tax officers and security service officials enter More resort in Alushta on Ukraine’s Black Sea coast
Alexander Lebedev, the Russian owner of Britain’s Independent and London Evening Standard newspapers, suffered another bruising blow to his business empire today after police carried out a raid on his luxury hotel in Ukraine. Dozens of tax officers burst into the More resort in Alushta, on Crimea’s south-eastern coast, early yesterday. They seized documents and computers. Officials from Ukraine’s SBU security service swarmed over the hotel today. The raid came 48 hours after masked, gun-toting special forces stormed Lebedev’s National Reserve Bank in Moscow. Russian police said the search on Tuesday was connected to a criminal investigation into employees from another bank. Lebedev today told the Guardian it had been a bad week. But he said he would not bow to forces within Russia’s murky power structure who were apparently hellbent on making him flee. «I’m still here [in Russia]. I live here,» Lebedev said. He added that he had spent the past three days trying to «decipher» the blunt «psychological» message sent by the bank raid. «In the worst-case scenario the message is: ‘Get out of Russia.'» Lebedev said that when detectives burst in, he was in the bank’s underground swimming pool. «I frankly thought they had come to arrest me,» he said, adding: «I decided to keep swimming, thinking I would enjoy the pool for the last time.» Lebedev, a billionaire who co-owns the airline Aeroflot and the Russian opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta, said it would be wrong to link the two investigations against him in Russia and Ukraine. Nor would it be correct to blame Russia’s prime minister, Vladimir Putin, he said. Instead, he pointed to Ukraine’s president, Viktor Yanukovych, a close ally of the Kremlin. He said Yanukovych had ordered in the tax police after taking offence at an article in this week’s Evening Standard. The story, which appeared with no byline on Tuesday, recalled how during Ukraine’s election campaign Yanukovych had hailed the Russian playwright Anton Chekhov as «a great Ukrainian poet». Ukraine’s leader had committed a «Dubya-like gaffe», the Standard wrote. Lebedev said he had nothing to do with the article. «He [Yanukovych] thinks I was preparing the article myself. He thinks a publisher like myself has influence on British newspapers.» It appeared just before Yanukovych was to travel to London, compounding what the president perceived as a deliberate slight, Lebedev said. The tycoon consistently denies exerting any influence on his British newspapers. He went on: «Yanukovych doesn’t know what the world is. He’s not very educated. I don’t think he really understands what life is in Moscow, Paris or London.» One Ukrainian diplomat today dismissed Lebedev’s claims as «ridiculous», adding: «The Standard is hardly the FT, the Guardian or the Wall Street Journal.» He said: «Lebedev co-operates with the governments of Ukraine and Russia. He’s in Russia’s political elite rather than out.» Asked if further attacks on his Russian interests would have a negative impact on his British newspaper titles, Lebedev replied: «I hope not.» But he conceded that he was now in a vulnerable position. «The worst-case scenario is somebody decides to crash it [his business],» he said. Lebedev’s seaside complex in Alushta includes a hotel, holiday villas, a pool, a spa and a narrow rocky beach, set among steep cliffs and attractive subtropical gardens of palm trees and pines. The resort is the biggest in Crimea and one of the largest in Europe. It employs 1,500 people. Today Lebedev said he had invested $100m in the complex, and was one of the region’s biggest taxpayers. He added that he would close down the hotel on Monday, plunging locals into unemployment, if the tax authorities continued their campaign. He also alleged that Yanukovych was trying to seize the Hotel Ukraine in Kiev. Lebedev is a co-investor with the Ukrainian government in the hotel, and has spent $40m on its renovation. The development has been mired in legal battles. Lebedev is one of the largest foreign investors in Ukraine, with assets including a bank and an insurance company. He spent ¤10m renovating the country’s Chekhov theatre, which hosts an annual Chekhov festival, and has been visited by Sir Tom Stoppard, Kevin Spacey and John Malkovich.