DONETSK, Ukraine (AFP) — A mysterious “consultant” from Moscow who helped steer through Russia’s annexation of Crimea has been appointed prime minister of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic in eastern Ukraine.
“In essence, I am what can be called a professional consultant,” the burly Aleksandr Borodai told journalists at his first press conference Saturday in a plush Donetsk hotel.
“I have resolved all kinds of complicated conflict situations,” the 41-year-old said. “For that reason, personally speaking, my specialization was what was needed here.”
The unshaven Muscovite — who says his expertise is in ethnic conflict — was chosen as premier by the parliament of the Donetsk rebel republic on Thursday just days after it declared independence from Kiev following a disputed referendum and appealed to join Russia.
His appointment will fuel claims that the Kremlin is pulling the strings behind the separatist uprising in east Ukraine but Borodai rejected any links to the Russian authorities.
“I am a Russian citizen but I am a private individual so you cannot accuse the Russian government of having a hand in what’s going on in the Donetsk People’s Republic because of my presence here.”
However he freely admitted he had recently been in the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea — which Russia took over in March — working as a “political strategist” and that he saw what was happening in the east of Ukraine as part of the same “geopolitical project.”
“The territory of Crimea is quite closely connected to the Donbass and naturally the people who set up these popular movements and were the initiators are the same people, they are connected to each other,” he said of the eastern industrial belt encompassing Donetsk and Lugansk.
“So when I finished the work in Crimea I automatically… came here to work in southeast Ukraine.”
Authoritative Russian daily newspaper Vedomosti reported Friday that Borodai worked as an advisor to recently-appointed Crimea governor Sergei Aksyonov, who led the region’s drive to join Russia.
According to Vedomosti, Borodai — a graduate of the philosophy department of prestigious Moscow State University — has a consultancy in Moscow and worked at a major investment fund.
Borodai said he still lives in Moscow and that he would be in Donetsk “for as long as is necessary.”
Others in the rebel leadership said he was chosen precisely because he is an outsider.
“Donetsk is politically cut-off so it is difficult to find someone who is not too associated with one group or the other,” the rebel state’s deputy prime minister Andrei Porgin told AFP.
“From this point of view the choice of Borodai is logical because he wasn’t connected to anyone too closely.”
Whether Borodai is really in charge of the disparate and often chaotic rebels running the self-proclaimed republic is far from sure.
Many argue that the rebel state’s new defence minister Igor Strelkov — a shadowy figure who the Ukrainian secret service accuses of being a Russian military intelligence agent — is really the one calling the shots.
Strelkov denies this and says he is from Crimea.
Yelena Blokha, a spokeswoman for the separatist government, told AFP that Strelkov and Borodai have “friendly relations” but said she did not know whether they knew each other from Crimea or had met before.
Borodai — who once reportedly edited a Russian nationalist newspaper — has also faced allegations that he is a member of Russia’s security establishment.
In April, Ukraine’s National Security Agency released taped telephone recordings of alleged conversations of Russian agents coordinating attacks around the rebel stronghold of Slavyansk. Ukrainian media reported one of the voices was that of Borodai but he dismissed it as a fake.
In 2002, according to the Moscow Times newspaper, he also dismissed reports that he had been appointed a deputy director of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) as a hoax arranged for his 30th birthday.
At Saturday’s press conference though he sidestepped a question about whether he had any official or unofficial links to the Russian security services or the Kremlin.
“Do you understand what sort of a question you’re posing? Even if there were, do you think I’d answer,” he said.
Pressed for more details about his life, Borodai — who says he brought a small team of specialists with him — remained mum.
“As far as possible I want to conceal personal information about myself — not because it’s so top-secret, it is absolutely not top secret, but simply because honestly speaking I don’t want to give it.”