Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 14

The detention of Pavel Borodin, the Russia-Belarus union state secretary and former Kremlin property manager, continues to be a major focus of attention in Moscow. Borodin was arrested last week at New York’s JFK International Airport in answer to a Swiss warrant, and remains in jail in Brooklyn while the U.S. authorities consider the Swiss authorities’ request that he be extradited. The Swiss want to interrogate Borodin about allegations that he and members of his family received more than US$25 million in kickbacks from the Swiss engineering firm Mercata Trading in return for lucrative contracts to renovate Russian government buildings, including the Grand Kremlin Palace (see the Monitor, January 18-19).

Gleb Pavlovsky, the controversial political consultant and Kremlin adviser, posted a long analysis of the Borodin situation on his website, which boiled down to telling President Vladimir Putin that he should under no circumstances bow to pressure from either Switzerland or the United States concerning Borodin. Pavlovsky savaged members of Russia’s political elite for their reactions to Borodin’s arrest, accusing them of being inadequate to the task of protecting Russia’s national interests and sovereignty. Pavlovsky, for example, wrote that a comment by Irina Khakamada, a member of the Union of Right-Wing Forces and State Duma vice speaker, that Borodin should not have forgotten his diplomatic passport, showed Khakamada to be “an experienced international adventurist” rather than a right-wing politician (Strana.ru, January 19). Khakamada said last week that she saw no political motives behind Borodin’s detention. Like Pavlovsky, members of the Yeltsin-era “national patriotic” opposition have used the Borodin case as a pretext for attacking Western interference in Russia’s internal affairs and, more generally, what they see as a New World Order dominated by Washington.

In contrast to Pavlovsky, Putin’s own position vis-a-vis Borodin’s arrest is ambiguous. Indeed, Yevgeny Kiselev, host of Itogi, the Sunday evening news analysis program on Media-Most’s NTV television, yesterday made much of the fact that Putin had not yet commented on Borodin’s detention. According to Kiselev, the arrest has put the Russian head of state in a quandary. If, on the one hand, Putin were to come out and protest Borodin’s arrest–as did Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov officially immediately after the detention–this might be seen as a signal from the head of state that, as Kiselev put it, corruption in Russia is “inviolable.” If, on the other hand, Putin continues to remain silent about Borodin’s arrest, he might not only face criticism for having allowed Russia to be humiliated, but, perhaps more importantly, he might be seen by members of the Russian elite–many of whom have been involved in corruption–as being ready to sell them out. What is more, Borodin, in asking both the Russian and Belarusian leadership to act as quickly as possible to secure his release, may have been sending a signal of his own to the political leadership of both countries, Kiselev noted, boiling down to the following: “Either you get me out of here, or I’ll give you all up, I’ll tell everything about you.” Putin, it should be noted, previously worked as Borodin’s deputy in the Kremlin property department.

Putin’s silence, however, may be the right strategy from the point of view of mass public opinion. A poll commissioned by Itogi and carried out by the All Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM), found that 47 percent of those polled were upset by Borodin’s arrest, 33 percent were indifferent to it and 20 percent had heard nothing about it. Asked why they thought Borodin had been detained, 38 percent said it was the result of the “lawful desire of the Swiss prosecutor’s office to deal with a corruption scandal,” 14 percent said it was “a political provocation against the union of Russian and Belarus that had come into being” while 31 percent said it was hard to answer. Asked whether a Russian official accused in the West of corruption had the right to hold a top post, 70 percent answered no, 13 percent said yes and 18 percent did not give an answer. Asked how Putin should react to the Borodin scandal, 54 percent said he should remain above the fray and not get involved, 27 percent said he should get involved and demand Borodin’s freedom and 19 percent could not answer.

VTsIOM carried out the poll over the weekend among 1,600 Russian in eighty-three towns and villages around Russia (NTV, January 21).