Russian Held in New York Was Putin's Mentor

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Former Yeltsin aide Pavel Borodin was arrested at New York's JFK airport

Moscow is furious at the arrest in New York of former top Yeltsin aide Pavel Borodin, pending indictment to Switzerland on corruption charges. What is Borodin's significance for President Vladimir Putin?

It was Borodin who first brought Putin into the Kremlin when Borodin served as Kremlin property manager. But Borodin was a lot more. By his own claim he presided over an empire worth billions of dollars. By Yeltsin's account Borodin was a loyal friend, close confidant and favorite drinking partner.

Borodin brought Putin to Yelstin's attention by putting him in charge of the Kremlin's overseas property. And of course Yeltsin eventually picked Putin as his successor. But Borodin was also the central Russian figure in what has become known as the Mabetex scandal, involving a Swiss construction company allegedly paying massive kickbacks at the highest levels of the Yeltsin administration in exchange for renovation contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Two of Yeltsin's daughters were implicated in the scandal.

So Putin got his old boss off the hook?

Borodin still faces charges in Switzerland. But he's known for his bluster and banter, and has simply laughed these off in the past. He was relegated by Putin to a sweet-sounding but ineffectual job as the state secretary of the Russia-Belarus union. Its prime attraction for Borodin may have been that it awarded him immunity in Russia. But that immunity won't have helped him at JFK. Still, it remains to be seen whether the U.S. law enforcement officials who've detained him will hold him for more than a day or two. He may yet be able to fight off extradition to Switzerland.

What about the official Russian reaction?

It's been treated as an outrage by politicians across the board. The U.S. ambassador to Moscow was called in by Foreign Minister Ivanov today and read the riot act. In Russian eyes, the incoming Bush administration signals a new era in foreign policy in which Washington aims to get tough with Russia. Of course, the new administration is not yet in office, but that hasn't stopped many Russians from seeing Borodin's arrest as a signal. So deep is the level of paranoia that some officials have even suggested the arrest is a tit-for-tat attempt to get Putin to ease up on [media baron Vladimir] Gusinsky. The interesting question about the arrest, of course, is whether the directive came from Washington.

What was Borodin doing in New York?

Some officials have said he had been invited by the Bush inaugural committee to attend the new president's inauguration as the representative of the Russia-Belarus union. But there's been no confirmation of that, and he appears not to have been traveling on a diplomatic passport.

How far will Putin go to get Borodin out of trouble?

Probably only as far as his ambitions allow. If Yeltsin called up and said "I hear my buddy had some trouble getting through customs, so if you can help him," Putin would do everything he could. And some in the Russian press speculate that if anybody has compromising material on Putin, it would be Borodin.