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Alexander Lebedev May Sell Russian Assets

(c) Sky News 2012

Businessman Alexander Lebedev has said he could sell his business assets in Russia after coming under pressure from the Kremlin (Berlin: KML.BE - news) .

The banker and media magnate, who backs The Independent and London Evening Standard newspapers, says he fears he could end up being jailed for political reasons.

Mr Lebedev also warned that Russia could face a wave of political repression after a series of moves since Vladimir Putin returned to the presidency.

His comments come as the country is under scrutiny over the trial of punk rock protesters Pussy Riot and follows charges being brought against opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

Mr Lebedev, speaking in Moscow, said: "I think the biggest problem is the country is being run on the model of personal power. I hope I'm mistaken when I said we're on the brink of political repression."

Asked about his long-term plans, he added: "Roll back my businesses just completely to zero, frankly, just roll back, try to roll back everything. Just to get out of business."

The billionaire, whose interests in Russia include banking, agriculture and construction assets, said he did not believe he would have much time to sell if pressure on him continues.

He also has a stake in Novaya Gazeta, a campaigning newspaper that has criticised the Kremlin and exposed corruption in Russia, and is a shareholder in state energy company Gazprom (MCX: GAZP.ME - news) and state-controlled airline Aeroflot (MCX: AFLT.ME - news) .

Although he says he is not involved in opposition politics, Mr Lebedev is unusual among wealthy Russian businessmen or oligarchs in criticising the Kremlin.

Most have avoided doing so since the arrest in 2003 of former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky after he defied Mr Putin by taking an interest in opposition politics. He is still in jail.

Mr Lebedev, who is worth an estimated £707m, could be at risk of going to jail himself after he punched another businessman on a television talk show last year while discussing the economic crisis.

At the time, Mr Putin called the act "hooliganism" and prosecutors opened an investigation.

The multi-millionaire fears he faces a similar fate to Mr Navalny, who could be jailed for 10 years after being charged with theft on Tuesday and barred from leaving Russia.

Mr Lebedev's lawyers have warned him that steps could be taken to restrict his movements as early as this month.

He fears the Russian authorities would try to "bulldoze my businesses to zero", and says he will not leave the country for fear of arrest.

Mr Lebedev said he would aim to keep The Independent and Evening Standard, which are owned and run by his son Evgeny, but denied that he will expand his media empire in Britain.

He also made it clear that he believed it is time for Russia's opposition leaders to join forces, put aside their differences and speak with one voice on issues such as corruption.

Asked whether he could be the person who unites them, Mr Lebedev laughed and said: "I haven't been a practicing politician."

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