Is this another round in the ongoing tit-for-tat conflict between Russia and the US?
This post first appeared on Russia Insider
RT founder Mikhail Lesin is dead at 57. Both RT (formerly Russia Today) and Lesin hismself have been the subjects of bitter US attacks in recent times.
Lesin's body was discovered on Friday, November 6 in a Washington DC hotel. As of this writing no official cause of death has been publically reported. Lesin is widely credited with being the force behind the founding of RT, the controversial international broadcaster supported by the Russian government.
Just days before Lesin was found dead, RT was the target of a sharp attack at a US Senate hearing. In testimony, American Enterprise Institute scholar Leon Aron asserted that the aim of RT is "to devalue the notions of democratic transparency and accountability, to undermine confidence in objective reporting, and to litter the news with half-truths." They were very strong words. Aron didn't explain how he became privy to RT's covert aims.
Even stronger repudiation has come from the McCain Institute. It said that "RT is the key to Putin's propaganda effort to discredit the West and obfuscate the truth of Russian actions." McCain claims, "It is time for the democratic community of nations to go on the offensive."
"Freeze the assets of Putin's state-funded RT cable network" is the battle plan advocated by the McCain organization. Apparently McCain would like to put an end to RT. That's some concept for a "democratic community of nations," isn't it? The vaunted American ideal of free speech and a free press seems out the window for McCain when it comes to RT. So much for allowing citizens to separate fact from fiction for themselves.
The attack on Lesin focused on his personal financial affairs. In 2014 Mississippi senator Roger Wicker called upon federal authorities to investigate whether Lesin had used what Radio Liberty called "dirty money" to purchase expensive California real estate.
Were Lesin's financial affairs not on the up-and-up? I don't know. But it seems curious that Wicker wanted to take this on. His state is Mississippi, not California. Isn't it really odd that he would choose to single out Lesin for special treatment? I sought clarification with multiple calls to Wicker's press secretary. I left messages explaining the issue I was calling about. But there was no return call. I had hit a brick wall.
Wicker's call to investigate Lesin came in the form of a July 29, 2014 letter to then US Attorney General Eric Holder. In it Wicker questioned the legitimacy of Lesin's personal wealth. He cited the California real estate purchases among other concerns. Wicker wrote, "That a Russian public servant could have amassed the considerable funds required to acquire and maintain these assets in Europe and the United States raises serious questions."
It seems Wicker was trying to mislead the Attorney General into believing that Lesin's only legitimate income came from a paltry government salary.
It's well known that Lesin was a co-founder of a Russian company called Video International that operates in the advertising field. Today the company (now renamed Vi) has 2000 employees in three countries and has over $2 billion in annual revenues, according to the company's website. How much did Lesin get out of all this? It's hard to tell. And it's unclear how he juggled his Vi role with duties as Putin's media minister from 1999 to 2004. Observers used to joke that Lesin was the Minister of his own business interests.
Ironically, Wicker contradicted his own aspersion that Lesin was living above his visible means. He admitted to Holder that Lesin had been "director general of Gazprom Media Holding, Russia's largest media group." Surely he was well compensated for that work.
It does not take much research to find that Lesin was not simply a public servant receiving a regular pay check. Even back in November 2000 a UPI story said, "His personal wealth was estimated by ex-Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov at in excess of $180 million." And that was at a much earlier point in Lesin's career.
It's quite a mystery why Wicker tried to hoodwink Holder. What was Wicker's game? What or who motivated him to play it?
I'm certainly not claiming that Lesin was a model businessman through all this. Even the Russian news agency Sputnik had this to say: "To be sure, Lesin was not without his sins, and was involved in the dirty media games of late 90s Russia."
The news coverage of Lesin's death has tied him closely to Putin. Some of the headlines included:
--Putin Media Henchman Found Dead in Washington Hotel. The New Indian Express
--Death of Putin Ally Mikhail Lesin Sparks Conspiracy Theories. FT
--Russian Media Censor Dies of Heart Attack in Washington's Dupont Circle. Kyiv Post
One Kyiv Post commenter said, "Strange he was a civil servant [and] acquired 28 million dollars worth of real estate in Los Angeles, California, USA, as well as much more across Europe and the US." It seems the specious information in the Lesin death story is easily believed by unsuspecting audiences.
I didn't see much media mention that Lesin had played a role in the Yeltsin administration. According to Lenta.ru, he was a key player in the 1996 reelection of Boris Yeltsin. That was a contest Yeltsin had entered with only about a five percent approval rating. Following the election victory Lesin became Yeltsin's head of PR. Toward the end of Yeltsin's tenure he headed a project to consolidate all state owned media properties.
Now Lesin's death leaves open several mysteries: How did he die? Why did Senator Wicker make material misrepresentations to the US Attorney General to spark an investigation of Lesin? Why did the Western media focus on Lesin's role with Putin and RT to the exclusion of his involvement in the Yeltsin era?
I think if Wicker were to come clean and explain himself, we might be able to start putting Lesin's final years into a clearer perspective.
This post first appeared on Russia Insider
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