Ex-Putin aide's death raises more questions

Russian President Vladimir Putin (far left) meeting with then Minister for Mass Media Mikhail Lesin, in a file photo. Mr Lesin had helped implement the state takeover of the country's independent media and later created the Kremlin's global English-l
Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) meeting with then Minister for Mass Media Mikhail Lesin, in a file photo. Mr Lesin had helped implement the state takeover of the country's independent media and later created the Kremlin's global English-language television network.PHOTO: REUTERS

Russian state media: Lesin died of heart attack US coroner: He died from blunt force injuries

WASHINGTON • Mr Mikhail Lesin once occupied the upper stratosphere of Mr Vladimir Putin's Russia. He was an advertising executive turned Cabinet minister who helped implement the state takeover of the country's independent media and later created the Kremlin's global English-language television network.

Until late 2014, he ran the media wing of the state's energy giant, Gazprom, before stepping down or, more likely, being forced out.

He ended up in the United States, where he and his family owned properties in Los Angeles said to be worth far more than the salary of a former government minister. And then, in November, he was found in a hotel in Washington, the victim - the Russian state media he had helped build said - of a heart attack.

On Thursday, one of the questions surrounding Mr Lesin's death was answered: The office of the chief medical examiner in Washington announced that he had not died of a heart attack, but rather, of blunt force injuries to his head.

But the mystery surrounding his rise and fall only deepened.

Although the examiner and the police did not declare his death a criminal act, the authorities clearly no longer consider it to be the result of natural causes.

Mr Lesin's body also showed signs of blunt trauma to his neck, torso, arms and legs - the result, according to one official, of some sort of altercation that happened before he returned to his room at the Dupont Circle Hotel on the night in November, when he died at the age of 59.

The medical examiner's office did not explain the timing of its announcement, nor why the findings took so long.

His death remains the subject of an ongoing police investigation, though spokesmen for the Metropolitan Police Department and the FBI in Washington declined to comment.

For months, Mr Lesin's fate has been the subject of much speculation. In the Russian news media, he was said to have had a falling out with a major shareholder of Gazprom Media, Mr Yuri Kovalchuk, an even closer business ally and friend of Mr Putin's.

Some speculated that he had fled to the US in a kind of self-exile, one that is not unknown among ministers and businessmen who once were in favour inside Mr Putin's Kremlin.

Dr Karen Dawisha, professor at Miami University and author of Putin's Kleptocracy - about corruption among Mr Putin's allies - said Mr Lesin's close ties to the Kremlin and its formal and informal controls over the media made him an improbable exile in the US. "He knew more than most about the system's dark centre," she said.

Mr Lesin's wealth had already attracted suspicion. In July 2014, Senator Roger Wicker cited Mr Lesin's properties in Europe, the British Virgin Islands and Los Angeles, saying the Los Angeles properties were worth US$28 million (S$38 million).

Mr Lesin denied that he had purchased the properties, telling the Russian edition of Forbes that the properties belonged to his children.

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 12, 2016, with the headline 'Ex-Putin aide's death raises more questions'. Print Edition | Subscribe