Sergey Kiriyenko entered the Russian political arena at a time of deep crises for a country that was on the verge of defaulting. His apparent fragile character and young age, as well as his abrupt appearance in Moscow earned him a nickname ‘Kinder Surprise’, the default of Russia during his term as Prime Minister was not in his favour and cost him resignation. Nevertheless, the ‘Surprise’ came later, when he managed to stabilise his political career and to make himself noticeable in the high echelons of Russian politics. His loyalty, his ability to talk to ‘the other’, his high qualifications and his skills, all have promoted him into an influential position. At the same time, his professionalism and results have allowed him to progress and gain the trust of the right political actors, leading him to become one of the closest individuals to the Russian president. Even though his role may have been marginal in EU-Russia relations, this may change as his ideas are now closer to the ears of the decision-makers, leading him to occupy the role of the ‘Kremlin Grey Eminence’.
“[T]he 23rd is a fatal day for me – on the 23rd my wife, my daughter and my grandmother were born. I was made prime-minister on the 23rd of March and my candidacy was approved by the State Duma on the 23rd of April. The 23rd of May saw the financial crisis start, the anti-crisis program was put on my table on June 23rd, and on August 23rd I had to resign” (Interview with Sergey Kiriyenko, 12/08/1999 in RT Prominent Russians, 2012).
The first ’15 minutes of fame’ Sergey Kiriyenko enjoyed in 1998, when he was appointed prime-minister by the then president of the Russian Federation, Boris Yeltsin, were very unexpected and brought him the title of Russia’s youngest prime-minister at the age of only 35 (Fishman, 2016, The Moscow Times). After a very short term in office, the young now former prime-minister seemed to have completely destroyed his political career since it was under his government that the country defaulted. Nevertheless, the name of Sergey Kiriyenko has not gone into oblivion on the Russian political arena, and the latest developments in his career have revealed that comebacks are possible in Russian politics under certain circumstances, prompting him in one of the most influential jobs within the Kremlin, that of First Deputy Chief of Staff of the Presidential Office.
This essay aims to provide a comprehensive overview of those specific circumstances that allowed Kiriyenko to be again one of the top officials in Moscow. In doing so, this paper shall first analyse his background, taking into consideration his educational, political and situational development. Further, this paper shall evaluate this person’s influence and role in the Kremlin affairs over time, taking into consideration the recent developments in his career and finally it shall examine the possible future prospects for this individual in Russia and in Russia’s foreign relations.
SERGEY KIRIYENKO: THE KINDER SURPRISE.
Born on July 26th, 1962 Sergey Kiriyenko has never been a stranger to politics as he is a descendant of intellectuals and career communists. Even though he was born in Sukhumi, the capital of the Abkhazian Republic, his ethnic background is far from being homogenous. As he described himself in an interview for the NTV channel, one day after being designated prime-minister-to-be, on March 24th, 1998, he considered he was ‘a good mix’: “My mother is Russian, my father is Jewish, my surname is Ukrainian and I was born in Abkhazia” (interview for the NTV program “Hero of the day”, in RT Prominent Russians, 2012).
Coming from a long-standing communist tradition family, and following in the footsteps of his grandfather, Yavkov, who is said to have personally known Vladimir Ilich Lenin in the days of the Bolshevik Revolution, Sergey Kiriyenko was a part of the Communist Youth Organisation, the Komsomol ever since high school (RT Prominent Russians, 2012). According to his official biography, Kiriyenko is the graduate of two Russian universities. First, following in the footsteps of his father, he chose the Gorki Institute for Water Transport where he graduated from in 1984 with Magna Cum Laude. He is described as a very serious student, sociable and calm, but also a passionate activist who was involved in many extra-curricular events (Ibid.). Following his graduation, he began work at the Krasnoye Sormovo Shipbuilding factory from Nizhny Novgorod, where parts for nuclear submarines were produced (Yasmann, RFE/RL, 2006). In 1993 he graduated from another programme, this time shifting from engineering to economics and while being a student of the Academy of National Economy, Kiriyenko had also started his political career becoming a deputy in the Gorky Regional Council of People’s Deputies (Sergei Kiriyenko biography, Kremlin.ru, 2016).
Apart from being a professionally highly qualified individual, Kiriyenko further pursued his Komsomol related activities and reinvented himself after the collapse of the Soviet Union. At the moment of the USSR break-up, Kiriyenko was the secretary of the All-Union Leninist Young Communist League committee at Krasnoye Sormovo Shipyard and foreman, deputy-secretary of the Gorky Komsomol branch (S. Kiriyenko biography, Kremlin.ru, 2016 and RT Prominent Russians, 2012). Under the circumstances of Perestroika and Glasnost’ the “Little Human Computer” – as he became known for his professional and intellectual abilities – went into business, becoming the head of the Komsomol-run AMK – Shareholding Youth Concern, dealing with trading and provision of services (Yasmann, RFE/RL, 2006). Within the AMK, he and his Komsomol fellows traded for a number of years products “that in an anaemic post-Soviet economy, sold like hot cakes” such as cornflakes, shoes and other staples (RT, Prominent Russians, 2012). At the same time, according to peoples.ru, Kiriyenko was also involved in a card-scratching lottery game, which he later patented in 1997.
The next step of Kiriyenko’s life was dominated by the influence of the then governor of the Nizhny Novgorod area, former opposition figure, Boris Nemtsov, assassinated in 2015. After his 1993 graduation, Kiriyenko founded his own bank under the tutelage of Nemtsov, and became CEO of this institution: Garantiya Bank, while also conducting business in the area of oil trading, transitioning in 1996 to the position of CEO of the small oil company NorSea Oil (RT, Prominent Russians, 2012 and Yasmann, RFE/RL, 2006). His arrival in Moscow coincided with the appointment of Boris Nemtsov as Fuel and Energy Minister and Deputy Prime-minister in the cabinet led by Viktor Chernomyrdin, in 1997, as he was called upon by Nemtsov to work along him as his deputy. At the time, Kiriyenko was also politically involved and was an active member of the Union of Rightist Forces, co-chaired by Nemtsov. From this moment, his position would eventually change to that of full minister and then Prime-minister for a very brief period (Yasmann, RFE/RL, 2006). Even though he was still very fresh in Moscow politics, Boris Yeltsin noticed Kiriyenko on a 1994 boat trip on the Volga, and, as the daughter of the late Russian president explained, Yeltsin chose to appoint Kiriyenko as prime-minister because of his very principled positions expressed while in office “Kiriyenko controlled one of the most difficult sectors – oil and gas… An area with a lot of conflicting interests… Yet, he was able to remain absolutely non-partisan… Nobody could influence him, no political or financial group… And that was one of the reasons why dad chose Kiriyenko,” (RT, Prominent Russians, 2012).
In spite of the unsuccessful time in office as Prime-minister, with the country defaulting and workers organising strikes all across the country, Kiriyenko’s political career did not come to a complete halt after his resignation. He ran for the 1999 elections for Mayor of Moscow, was defeated, but came back on the first echelons of Russian politics that same year after when he was elected as Deputy in the lower chamber of the Russian Federal Assembly – the State Duma, leading the liberal reformist Union of Rightist Forces to parliamentary success (Ibid.). Kiriyenko has not yet spoken publically about the first time he met the current Russian president, Vladimir Putin; however, it is worth noting, that while Kiriyenko was Prime-minister, Putin was becoming head of the Federal Security Service, the FSB. Kiriyenko himself introduced Putin to the people, this leading to the relation between the two to stay close over time (Rescheto, DW, 2016). Yasmann (2006) explains nevertheless that his political comeback is due to him being noticed by Putin who was attracted by Kiriyenko’s political loyalty and good management reputation. The Russian president shepherded Kiriyenko’s political career when he nominated him as Plenipotentiary Presidential Envoy to the newly created Volga Federal District, which included several troublesome regions, in 2000 (RT, Prominent Russians, 2012). This appointment revealed that the image of a ‘correct and loyal to the regime technocrat’, who has always been moderate in his opposition to the establishment, is a potential characteristic for rescuing an essentially dead political career.
THE 2000S – GROWING ROLE, INFLUENCE AND THE RETURN TO MOSCOW.
Between 2000 and 2005 Sergey Kiriyenko occupied the function of Presidential Envoy to the Volga Federal District. The Federal Districts are administrative constructions of several subjects of the Russian Federation, not regulated in the Russian Constitution, but under Federal Law, in this case, law issued by Presidential Decree. The Plenipotentiary Presidential Envoys are part of the Presidential Administration and are subject to Presidential scrutiny and insure the “implementation of the President of Russian Federation of its Constitutional Powers” (Ukaz Presidenta RF ot 13.05.2000, N849). Kiriyenko was therefore the first presidential envoy to this federal district, a federal district that comprises several non-Slavic ethnic groups in areas such as Bashkortostan or Tatarstan, the later even developing separatist movements during Yeltsin’s presidency (The Independent, 1995). Moreover, not only was the region a potential new Chechnya in a period when the Kremlin had just restarted the war with Grozny, but it also hosted strategic elements such as the Russian Federal Nuclear Center, an area in which Kiriyenko had professional experience (Yasmann, RFE/RL, 2006). Apart from his position within the Presidential Administration, Kiriyenko was also entrusted with heading the State Commission for Chemical Disarmament, which is in charge of respecting treaties with the USA on issues regarding post-Soviet disarmament programmes (Ibid.). In this position, Kiriyenko’s influence started to get a global dimension, by addressing very important global security concerns.
While some analysts argue that the decision to replace Kiriyenko as presidential envoy to the Volga Federal District in 2005 was due to the fact that his ideas and character of being close to the people could have given him a possible political momentum into challenging the current leadership (RT, Prominent Russians, 2012), we can argue that his appointment as head of the Federal Agency for Atomic Energy, in 2005 and his mission to reform it completely reveal satisfaction from the Kremlin regarding Kiriyenko’s time in office managing a federal district that at the time housed over 80% of Russia’s machine-building enterprises (Reddaway & Orttung, 2004:155). Following this decision, Kiriyenko’s political influence and role may have decreased compared to the time of being presidential envoy; nevertheless, the successful transformation of RosAtom in 2007, a state company comprising both the military and civil sides of the nuclear energy sector have allowed him to become even more trusted by the top Kremlin leadership.
With the restructuring of RosAtom and the return to Moscow, Kiriyenko’s current influence began to take shape. Known for its more relaxed approach towards the West, for his technocratic background, and even for his environmentalist credentials, Kiriyenko started an ambitious program at RosAtom, willing to collaborate on issues regarding the proliferation of nuclear energy in the civil sector not only with countries from the developing World, but also with Western states such as Canada. Before the current Ukraine situation, Kiriyenko had great ambitions to expand Russian influence in the Baltic area and further in the European Union by deciding in 2008 to build a plant in Kaliningrad that would be funded 49% by foreign investment, and that would integrate in the Baltics and North of Russia unified grid. However, even before the Ukrainian crisis, Baltic States have manifested a great animosity towards RosAtom expanding its capacities in the Baltic region and have conducted technical changes in order to isolate the Kaliningrad region and force RosAtom to re-plan its plants according to European standards for nuclear energy production, leading to the failure of the program (Hahn, 2016). The Ukraine crisis had more impact on RosAtom in the sphere of cooperation with the US, the company being hit by a freezing of over 5 billion US dollars in contracts as part of the sanctions programme towards Russia (Ibid.). Nevertheless, Kiriyenko’s public view of the Ukraine crisis, or regarding the tensions with Turkey and the West has remained mostly silent, configuring the already known professional, technocratic profile that Kiriyenko has been associated with over the course of the years. From this aspect, we can argue that he represented an instrument of the Kremlin in business through the development of nuclear projects.
RosAtom still holds interest and conducts operations in many European countries (RosAtom global presence indicator) and thus we can argue that due to his apolitical appearance and his technocratic character he has had an influence on EU-Russia relations, maintaining a level of cooperation, as with a more political figure at the leadership of RosAtom one could have experienced a much harder situation for this company in Europe and other Western States. Nevertheless, Europe was not the main focus of Kiriyenko’s tenure of RosAtom leadership, but the developing World. The presence of RosAtom has grown globally reaching to 49 countries compared to 28 in 2013 (Ibid.), and as Sergey Kiriyenko himself declared in his 2015 Company Report Address “Despite economic challenges, in 2015, ROSATOM continued to expand its portfolio of overseas orders. At year end, the 10-year order portfolio totalled USD 110.3 billion (against USD 101.4 billion in 2014), while the project portfolio comprised 36 power units of NPPs worldwide. Another important achievement was the signing of an intergovernmental agreement on the construction and operation of a nuclear power plant in Egypt equipped with four power units based on Russian technologies.” Therefore, we can observe a slight shift of the business strategy implemented by RosAtom, following the recent global developments, and under the leadership of Sergey Kiriyenko, but we cannot conclude that this shift was a radical one, since projects in countries such as Egypt and Bangladesh had already been envisaged and have not suffered any alterations as a consequence of the recent crises or economic performances of the Russian Federation.
Nevertheless, his position as ‘just a technocrat’ has been challenged. Researcher from the Carnegie Moscow Center Andrey Petrsev (2016) explains that Kiriyenko “isn’t just a technocrat; he has discernible ideological predilections, subscribing to the teachings of Russian philosopher Georgy Shchedrovitsky, who founded the “Moscow Methodological Circle.” He further pinpoints that this ideology “believes that a small group of technologists could formulate an ideology with the potential to determine the outlook of the entire country” and that it “worked actively on formulating the concept of the “Russian world.” [And] Since the annexation of Crimea and the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine, this concept has taken on a different meaning. New advocates of the “Russian world” like Igor Strelkov and Konstantin Malofeyev believe Russia should regain its lost imperial territory, that Russia is where Russian is spoken” (Ibid.). Finally he concludes that since Kiriyenko has been counselled by such individuals one shall take into consideration his ability to inconspicuously influence Russian politics, and that in the new position as First Deputy Chief of Staff of the Presidential Administration, he may have a real power over influencing top level decision-making in the Russian Federation (Ibid.).
THE KINDER SURPRISE BECOMES THE ‘EMINENCE GRISE’ OF THE KREMLIN.
The most spectacular developments in Kiriyenko’s career have taken place over the past few months with the former CEO of RosAtom becoming First Deputy Chief of Staff of the Presidential Office – a position often referred to as the Grey Eminence of the Kremlin – and even more recently being appointed as Chairman of the Supervisory Board of RosAtom State Energy Corporation. As before, Kiriyenko has remained outside the public political spectrum and has not advanced any public positions regarding issues related with Russia’s relations with Europe; nonetheless, as already noticed, his profile reveals a different approach to such issues and we may see Kiriyenko’s influence indirectly through policies that may not be directly connected to his name.
Following the Kremlin announcement, analysts have rushed to comment on this decision and have mainly noticed that Kiriyenko’s mission is largely to prepare the future presidential elections of 2018 and to take care of domestic aspects, as the economic situation is expected to worsen by 2018 and the current establishment is in need of a credible expert, with remarkable results in his fields of activity that could once again ‘present Putin to the people’ and insure that the levels of popularity for the current Russian president stay within acceptable limits (Gozman in Obrazkova, 2016). Moreover, certain analysts have also suggested that he may have been given the task to bring the Kremlin ‘closer to the people’ as the ‘Crimean’ card has already been played (Salin in Obrazkova, 2016). Analysts also acknowledge his PR skills and have opinionated that he can be considered a ‘middle man’ between the Kremlin and Kremlin-hostile groups such as certain NGOs. In this aspect, his environmentalist and mediation skills have been pinpointed by analysts, while at the same time recognising his potential for fostering new loyalties with the regime (Silvyak Opendemocracy, 2016). Against this stand other analysts who regard Kiriyenko as mainly a loyal instrument of conducting the orders emerging from the Kremlin, and his influence very limited (Makarin in Grobman, 2016).
Even if analysts argue on the role Sergey Kiriyenko now has in the Presidential Administration, it is almost impossible to argue that his influence has diminished over years, especially following this latest promotion. Being in this position reflects the trust level of the Russian President in Kiriyenko’s abilities, and his proximity to the centre of power can only lead us to observe that his suggestions are much easier to be heard than at the time when he was CEO of RosAtom. What is more, the appointment as Chairman of the Supervisory Body of RosAtom State Energy Company reveals that he has kept his influence in this sector too and is still able to inoculate decisions or to advise the company into going towards the direction he considers suitable. Therefore, the career path of Sergey Kiriyenko is extremely formidable and reveals a massive gain in influence, from being a simple instrument of the Yeltsin administration – Kinder Surprise (name given by the public not only because of his age, but also because of his surprising arrival and name initials) – to a powerful presidential envoy in a troublesome region and CEO of one of the best performing Russian companies, even in the crisis context, and finally to a position that is close to the ‘president’s ear’. What is more, his almost irreproachable performance in his positions after the year 2000, the loyalty revealed towards the regime, as well his capability to relate to not so loyal groups and appear as closer to the opposition – also given his relationship with former opposition leader Boris Nemtsov – render Sergey Kiriyenko into an almost perfect candidate for maintaining the system while also bringing it closer to the public. As he is an intriguing character we cannot tell whether the role of ‘Grey Eminence’ will still be as prominent as during his predecessors’ mandates, but we could argue that Kiriyenko may become the Kremlin’s ‘Lighter Grey Eminence’ bringing more balance into the regime’s decisions.
Calder, S. (1995), “It’s got everything except independence”, The Independent, available online at: http://www.independent.co.uk/travel/its-got-everything-except-independence-1574788.html, accessed [12.03.2017];
Fishman, M. (2016), “Former Prime-Minister to become Putin’s Right-Hand Man”, The Moscow Times, available online at: https://themoscowtimes.com/articles/who-is-former-russian-prime-minister-mr-kiriyenko-55520, accessed [10.03.2017];
Grobman, E. (2016), “The new man at the head of Russian domestic policy”, Russia Direct, available online at: http://www.russia-direct.org/analysis/new-man-head-russian-domestic-policy, accessed [11.03.2017];
Hahn, G. (2016), Putin’s surprise: the resurrection of Sergey Kiriyenko, available online at https://gordonhahn.com/2016/11/22/putins-surprise-the-resurrection-of-sergei-kirienko-complete-version-parts-1-and-2/, accessed [11.03.2017];
Kremlin.ru (2016), Sergey Kiriyenko: Biography, available online at http://en.kremlin.ru/catalog/persons/175/biography, accessed [10.03.2017];
Lyudiy “Sergey Kiriyenko: Biografia” available online at http://www.peoples.ru/state/minister/russia/kirienko/, accessed [11.03.2017];
Obrazkova, M. (2016), “What do the Kremlin’s reshuffles mean for Russia’s political future?”, Russia Direct, available online at: http://www.russia-direct.org/analysis/what-do-reshuffles-within-kremlin-mean-russias-political-future, accessed [12.03.2017];
Petrsev, A. (2016), “Sergey Kiriyenko: The Dreamer in the Kremlin”, Carnegie Moscow Center available online at http://carnegie.ru/commentary/?fa=65015, accessed [12.03.2017];
Rescheto, J. (2016), “Kiriyenko is no reformer in the Kremlin”, DW, available online at: http://www.dw.com/en/kiriyenko-is-no-reformer-in-the-kremlin/a-35996576, accessed [12.03.2017];
Reddaway, P and Orttung, R. (2004), The Dynamics of Russian Politics: Putin’s Reform of Federal-Regions Relations, Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers;
Rosatom (2015), “Annual Public Report Performance of State Atomic Energy Corporation ROSATOM in 2015”, available online at http://www.rosatom.ru/upload/ibloc/0d0/0d08bb46e2b505f097715d31185f0290.pdf, accessed [11.03.2017];
RT (2012), Prominent Russians: Sergey Kiriyenko, available online at http://russiapedia.rt.com/prominent-russians/politics-and-society/sergey-kirienko/, accessed [10.03.2017];
Silvyak, V. (2016), “Sergey Kiriyenko, from nuclear to global power”, Opendemocracy, available online at: https://www.opendemocracy.net/od-russia/vladimir-slivyak/sergey-kirienko-from-nuclear-to-political-power, accessed [12.03.2017];
UKAZ Presidenta RF ot 13 Maya 2000 g. H 849, available online at https://rg.ru/2000/05/14/okruga-dok-site-dok.html, accessed [13.03.2017];
Yasmann, V (2006), “Russia: Sergey Kiriyenko – Russia’s ‘Kinder Surprise’”, RFE/RL, available online at http://www.rferl.org/a/1065790.html, accessed [12.03.2017].