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Big business, big money, big problems

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Sergei Polonsky, the Russian real estate tycoon who self-exiled in Cambodia, has been put on the Interpol most wanted list by the Russian authorities.

 

Mr. Polonsky earlier this year jumped bail in Cambodia while he was awaiting trial for assaulting a local boat crew during New Year’s celebrations: it could be just a little story about an unruly rich russo turisto in some resort in the Far East. But Mr. Polonsky is not a Russian tourist like the others on the shores of a tropical country. Who is he? What’s the story?

My beautiful island

The accident happened on Koh Dek Kuol, his private island where he is willing to meet the Interpol investigators. “I’m always open for talk and thus extend an invitation and insist on a meeting with Interpol representatives on my beautiful island”, he posted on Facebook a few days ago. One could think he is acting high and mighty, but this could be an even appropriate behavior for a businessmen whose brainchild, The Mirax Group (after renamed Potok) has development projects across Russia, France, the U.S. and U.K., including Moscow’s Federation Tower, which will be the tallest building in Eastern Europe. Once one of the richest men in Russia, Mr. Polonsky is now accused by Russian investigators of misusing around €150m, kept for building a luxury residential development in Moscow that never saw the light. But the face of Mr. Polonsky is not only linked to a multimillionaire embezzlement case. Millions of Russians saw him being punched by his fellow billionaire Alexander Lebedev during a TV chat show on the national channel NTV. Lebedev was sentenced in July by a Moscow judge to 150 hours of “compulsory labour”, which could include shoveling snow in winter and street cleaning. A key witness in the trial against Mr. Lebedev, Mr. Polonsky did not attend hearings, letting the media define the trial a farce. He said that he was considering returning to Moscow to clear his name but was not allowed to leave Cambodia; in the meanwhile posted a number of provocative tweets and photographs of himself in Israel (he is known to have sought Israeli citizenship earlier this year) and about-faced appealing for his attacker’s release.

Like Livtinenko

The story is getting shady. The connection between Polonsky and Lebedev leads straight to the occult powers. Mr. Lebedev, 53, is a former KGB agent referred to as one of the Russian oligarchs of the early Nineties. In 2008 he has been mentioned by Forbes as one of the richest men in Russia, estimating his fortune higher as US$3.5 billion; but as of July 2013 he dropped out of the billionaires list. Still a powerful man, he owns major Russian investigative newspaper Novaya Gazeta and, with his son Evgeny, controls the London Evening Standard and The Independent. After the assassination of Anna Politkovskaya he pledged US$1m for the information leading to the assassins. In 2007 he was treated for mercury poisoning, an episode that echoed of another former KGB spy, Alexander Litvinenko, who was poisoned with polonium.

The new perestroika and glasnost

The relatively light sentence is seen by critics as an attack on press freedom, even though represents a defeat for the powerful Russian Investigative Committee, which brought the charge. The head of the committee, Alexander Bastrykin, is a former university classmate of President Vladimir Putin, who has been often object of Lebedev’s critics during his brief political career. Announcing the creation of an opposition party together with Mr. Gorbachev (the party hasn’t been created yet), he said: “We need a new ‘perestroika’ and new ‘glasnost’. We have to really say one day that Stalin was the biggest serial killer in the world, a madman. Putin is not mad, he is cynical… He enjoys power and playing games“.

The moral of the story has been probably best summed up by Valery Novikov, Mr. Polonsky’s right-hand man: “Big business, big money, big problems.”

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