Tue, Sep 20, 2011 - Page 6 News List

Russian billionaires come to blows on TV program

The Guardian, MOSCOW

In his skinny jeans and basketball shoes, he may appear to be the model of a modern media mogul. However, Alexander Lebedev, the billionaire owner of the London-based Independent and London Evening Standard, has shown a flash of his old KGB steel after punching a businessman in the face during a Russian television show.

Lebedev, 51, knocked Sergei Polonsky, a property developer, from his chair as both men were appearing as guests on a show about the global financial crisis that was being recorded in Moscow for the NTV channel on Friday.

Polonsky, a wealthy real-estate developer, gestured at Lebedev saying: “I’m already worn out from the desire to give [him] a punch in the chops.”

In response, Lebedev said: “Well, try it” and sprang to his feet.

Lebedev was persuaded by the host to take his seat, but seconds later he swung from a sitting position and hit Polonsky with a right cross as the latter began criticizing him again. A second blow that did not connect cleanly sent the developer tumbling backward in his chair to the floor.

The newspaper owner then advanced across the stage in a hunched, pugilist’s pose and stopped in front of Polonsky, saying: “Go on then, or are you waiting for me to take off my glasses?”

There were gasps of shock and the host called security guards as the two faced off.

A stricken-looking Polonsky, 38, the former owner of Mirax Group, a large developing company that went bankrupt earlier this year, did not respond for some moments before mumbling: “I’m in shock.”

Both men were persuaded to calm down.

Polonsky is known for his brash statements, saying in 2008 that anyone without a billion US dollars is a “loser” and “those who don’t have a billion, can go to hell.”

During the recording of the NTV show he reportedly complained to Lebedev for drawing public attention to a crack in a skyscraper Polonsky was building in Moscow.

Both men commented on the confrontation on social media over the weekend. Polonsky posted a picture of a scratch on his arm and of the seat of his jeans with a tear in it. He said he had requested footage and would consider legal action against Lebedev.

“NTV has promised to give a full copy of the program for a court action,” Polonsky wrote on Twitter. “How disgusting ... it all is.”

Lebedev, who served as an officer in the KGB and Russia’s foreign intelligence service, played down the incident in interviews.

He told a news agency he had asked Polonsky to confirm whom he wanted to punch: “I said: ‘Do you mean me?’ He replied: ‘Yes.’ After which I neatly neutralized that absolutely unfounded threat.”

Lebedev said Polonsky had “behaved like a street hooligan,” been rude to guests and conducted himself with “real aggression” during the recording of the show.

The two men received expressions of support online, with Lebedev appearing to gain the most.

Dmitri Rogozin, Russia’s representative to NATO, tweeted: “Nice one, Lebedev, although fighting is not good. He deserved it. You’re a real man.”

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