The arrest in New York this week of former Kremlin insider Pavel Borodin has touched off strong reaction within Russia and among Swiss prosecutors, who are demanding Borodin's extradition to Switzerland. RFE/RL Moscow correspondent Sophie Lambroschini talked to Swiss prosecutors and files this report.
Moscow, 19 January 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Swiss prosecutors say they will press for Pavel Borodin's extradition despite Russia government claims that his arrest and extradition is illegal.
Borodin was chief of the Kremlin's vast property empire under President Boris Yeltsin and now heads the Russia-Belarus Union organization. He was arrested Wednesday at a New York airport on his arrival in the United States, and is currently being held in New York pending bail.
Swiss authorities allege Borodin was paid $25 million in kickbacks by Swiss companies Mabetex and Mercata to ensure they were awarded renovation contracts in the Kremlin. The warrant alleges the kickbacks were concealed by fictitious companies -- Lightstar Low Voltage Systems and Zofos Enterprises.
Swiss prosecutor Bernard Bertossa told our correspondent today that his country has strong evidence to justify Borodin's arrest and extradition.
"We have indisputable documentary evidence and other evidence which demonstrates that Mr. Borodin had 'commissions' paid to him, which represent considerable sums on contracts concluded by the Russian Federation."
Borodin's lawyer in Moscow, Boris Kuznetsov, said yesterday that the Swiss warrant for Borodin's arrest is illegal because the contracts concerned projects on Russian territory. He said it is up to Russian law to decide whether a crime has been committed. Kuznetsov also noted that Russian prosecutors had earlier closed their investigations into Mabetex for lack of evidence.
Russian Deputy Prosecutor General Ruslan Tamayev yesterday characterized the arrest as a "mistake." He pointed out that the Mabetex case was closed seven weeks ago (8 December). He said U.S. authorities will soon correct the mistake, implying they will let Borodin go free.
But Bertossa says Borodin's alleged crimes are punishable under Swiss law.
"Under Swiss law, this behavior is a crime, and it is under Swiss law that money laundering in Switzerland is judged. The political views of the Russian judiciary are clearly inspired by motives which have nothing to do with the application of the Russian penal code, but which have everything to do with the government's politics."
Bertossa goes further and tells RFE/RL that, in his opinion, Russian justice appears to have double standards -- one for friends of the regime, like Borodin, and another standard for its opponents.
"I just note that, objectively speaking, in some cases the Moscow prosecutor's office is very 'enterprising.' As if by accident, [the prosecutors concern themselves] with people who are considered opponents of the regime, while in other cases involving friends of the regime they display a worrisome complacency -- again, as if by accident."
Bertossa may have been referring to the recent case of Vladimir Gusinsky, the head of the Media-Most media empire, who last month was detained on the basis of a Russian international warrant in Spain and is awaiting possible extradition.
Russian authorities have charged Gusinsky with embezzlement. But Gusinsky, whose media outlets -- particularly NTV television -- have been highly critical of the Kremlin, claims the accusations are unfounded.
The timing of Borodin's arrest, coming so soon after Gusinsky's detention, has sparked speculation by Russian media that it is simply retaliation -- by the U.S. or some other power -- for Gusinsky's indictment in Russia. The pro-Kremlin website strana.ru openly linked Borodin's arrest to Gusinsky's detention.
Putin, for his part, has refrained from making any public statements about Borodin's arrest.
Irina Khakamada, a liberal State Duma deputy who met with Putin yesterday, told NTV television that the president considered the arrest as a strictly "legal matter."
Putin and Borodin have strong links that go back at least four years. It was Borodin who brought Putin into federal politics when Putin -- then an official in the Saint Petersburg mayor's office -- joined Borodin's service in the Kremlin in 1996. As a deputy to Borodin, Putin was responsible for sorting out former Soviet real estate, worth millions of dollars, in 78 foreign countries.
Shortly after becoming prime minister last year, Putin told Russian television that he owed his transfer to the Kremlin to Borodin.
The Mabetex case first came to light two years ago. At the time, then-Prosecutor-General Yury Skuratov, together with Swiss investigators, repeatedly made headlines in Russia when their inquiries implicated first Borodin and then Yeltsin's closest friends and even his daughters. Clearly shaken by these revelations, Russian authorities maintained that the Mabetex case was invented by Yeltsin's political opponents.
Putin was the head of the Federal Security Service, the successor to the KGB, when the intelligence agency leaked a compromising videotape showing Skuratov frolicking with prostitutes. The revelation of the video set off a scandal that led to Skuratov's removal from the office of prosecutor-general by parliament.
Much of the Russian media see Borodin's arrest as the result of a conspiracy. The sober business weekly "Vek," for example, said that there could not be any "coincidence" about the arrest's timing.
Communist Duma deputy Vasily Shandybin angrily condemned the action as the arrest of what he called a "Russian patriot." Far-right leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky suggested that Moscow should retaliate by arresting U.S. citizens living in Russia.
In the Duma itself, some deputies did say that the affair was not political. Liberal deputy Khakamada said Borodin had not taken into account the difference between the Russian law-enforcement system and the U.S. system: the American system, she said, really works.
Centrist deputy Viktor Opekunov said the arrest was simply the result of automatic democratic procedures. He noted that once a judicial machine is set in motion in a democracy, it "just goes on working." Opekunov recalled that even during the Monica Lewinsky scandal that discredited President Bill Clinton, it was not possible to stop the legal proceedings and cover up the affair.