According to experts, the recent appointment of Sergei Kiriyenko as first deputy chief of chief of the Presidential Administration fits well into Putin’s strategy for the country before and after the presidential elections in 2018.

First Deputy Chief of Staff of the Russian Presidential Administration, Sergei Kiriyenko, addresses the opening of the 20th meeting of the World Russian People's Council. Photo: TASS

A month has passed since Sergei Kiriyenko replaced Vyacheslav Volodin as first deputy chief of staff of the Presidential Administration on Oct. 5. The former general director of Russia’s State Atomic Energy Corporation (Rosatom), Kiriyenko is now in charge of the state’s domestic policy, as well as the Kremlin’s relations with the regions, governors and political parties.

Given that many of his predecessors were largely considered “grey cardinals” of Russian politics, it is still unclear what Kiriyenko will bring for the future of the country. In 1998 he served as prime minister during the nation’s economic default. Serving as part of the team of Boris Yeltsin, the first Russian president, Kiriyenko became part of the ruling elite thanks to the support of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov.

Will Kiriyenko be as powerful as his predecessors? And what are the first results of his work?

Kiriyenko’s path to power

Sergei Neverov, secretary of the General Council of the United Russia party and deputy chairman of the Russian State Duma, commented on the appointment of Kiriyenko: “This is a person supported by the President, someone who knows how everything works, who has worked both in presidential administrations and in big corporations, and knows the regions.”

It was in April 1998 when Kiriyenko, then Minister of Energy, was appointed head of the government by the State Duma (on its third attempt). He became responsible for addressing the economic crisis that was already evident. It was hoped that he would be able to get Western loans to prevent default, but this didn’t happen.

On Aug. 23 Yeltsin dismissed Kiriyenko and the whole government, and his career looked as if it was over. He was a 36-year-old politician who had previously earned the “Kinder Surprise” nickname for his youth and sudden appearance on the scene. Now, it seemed as if he would lose his place in politics for good.

However, in 1999 Kiriyenko was a candidate for the mayor of Moscow and led the list of the Union of Right Forces party during parliamentary elections to the State Duma. Later, he became the leader of the Union of Right Forces’ faction in the parliament. In 2000-2005 he was a Presidential Envoy to the Volga Federal Region and in 2001 became the head of the Russian State Commission for Chemical Disarmament. From 2007 until 2016, he was the general director of Rosatom – an important but not very political occupation.

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Even though the media mentioned his name long before the appointment, the choice itself was a surprise for many. Political analyst Dmitry Drize, though, believes that Kiriyenko fits into the new role really well, especially given the upcoming presidential elections and the necessity to give the country a new vector of development.

“Today he is no longer a young prime minister who watched as the economic default took place, but rather, he is an effective senior manager who proved his reliability managing the largest state corporation. Over the ten years in this post Kiriyenko never showed his desire to come back to the big political game and this, most likely, led him being rewarded with a high position. According to unspoken traditions in the vertical of power, it is those politicians that work well and do not promote themselves that have prospects for career growth,” Drize points out.

At the same time, the expert suggests that, notwithstanding the image of Kiriyenko, one should not count on a liberal shift in the country’s domestic policy. He refers to the example of Ella Pamfilova, appointed as the head of Russia’s Central Electoral Commission: There were high hopes placed on her for the democratization of elections, but numerous falsifications and scandals during parliamentary elections this year showed that these hopes were perhaps too high.

Kiriyenko is a person who is ready to play according to the rules of the existing system fulfilling the role he’s been given, notwithstanding the problems in the area of his responsibility. That’s why there are hopes that his work will boost the authorities’ image in the country’s regions. Drize thinks that Kiriyenko might start a trip around Russia challenging such controversial decisions as the ban on theater performances due to the abuse of religious feelings. It is possible that some figures might lose their posts if he decides to take action, Drize points out, so governors should be cautious with this appointment.

At the same time, the Presidential Administration does not plan on interfering with the work of the State Duma. Previously, the parliament was paralyzed because of the will of Volodin, Kiriyenko’s predecessor. Now Volodin has moved to the Duma to improve the situation, making the deputies work and come up with new laws. More specifically, Volodin forbade the deputies from missing sessions, which was a customary practice.

Alexei Makarkin, vice president of the Center for Political Technologies, pointed out that now the influence of the new figures – not only Kiriyenko, but also Anton Vaino, who is the new head of the Presidential Administration – is limited. “The influence of Vaino’s and Kiriyenko’s team might grow, but generally their policy will follow in the footsteps of their predecessors, with the only difference being that local excesses will be limited,” Makarkin told Russia Direct.

“Today there are a number of signals that it is necessary [for the Kremlin] to be more restrained in dealing with the heads of regions. There are signals from Peskov [President Putin’s Press Secretary] to be more respectful when dealing with cultural figures. The limitations will be controlled very thoroughly. There is a focus on avoiding disturbing those people who are not the enemy of the ruling elite.”

The structure that Putin is currently forming around himself is not designed to fit the pre-election period, but the post-election one, Makarkin notes. Theoretically speaking, it is not that important for Putin who will be around him before the elections – he cares more about who will be ruling the country with him after he is elected for a fourth term. It’ll be then when he’ll need to address such unpopular questions, as how to develop the economy further given the low price of oil.

“Kiriyenko is not a technical figure. However, given the evident limitations on his power, one might conclude that Putin wants to form domestic policy himself, being more involved in it and influencing the direction it’s taking,” according to Mikhail Vinogradov, the head of the St. Petersburg Politics Foundation.

Laying the groundwork for the next election

Last week Kiriyenko had a number of meetings with sociologists and political analysts. Reportedly, the first deputy chief of staff of the Presidential Administration is working on a report on the political environment before the upcoming presidential elections, so he was interested in public opinion.

Some of the political experts that participated in such meetings with Volodin did not receive invitations to the meeting with Kiriyenko. Political analyst Leonid Davydov thinks that the Presidential Administration might make efforts to “de-monopolize the market of state sociological research and invite new teams to participate in it.” It is worth noting that there are only a few such organizations in Russia: Two of the largest three are pro-state, while the third has recently been declared “a foreign agent.”

Experts point out that, notwithstanding the fact that the presidential election is scheduled in a year and a half, the campaign has already started. The main intrigue now is who might become a worthy opponent to the main candidate – whether it is Putin or his protégé.

The participants of the previous presidential elections (the Communist Party’s Gennady Zyuganov, the Liberal Democratic Party’s Vladimir Zhirinovsky, Yabloko’s Grigory Yavlinsky and A Just Russia’s Sergei Mironov) are not that popular, judging by the results of the parliamentary elections in September.

The leader of the non-systemic opposition, Alexei Navalny, has openly declared his ambitions to participate in the presidential election but he’ll need to overcome his tainted criminal background. In December 2014 he was convicted in the case of Yves Rocher, which his supporters regard as politically fabricated.

“It is doubtful that the Kremlin will dare to repeat this on a federal level. It is also possible that it was decided to prepare a young candidate – there is enough time for that. But in this case, this figure should emerge publicly in the coming days,” Drize suggests.

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The team around Kiriyenko

Kiriyenko has already brought to the team some of the people loyal to him. For instance, the former director of Rosatom’s Communications Department, Sergey Novikov, has become the coordinator of the Information Policy at the Presidential Administration of Domestic Policy.

Moreover, Alexander Nikolin (who worked with Kiriyenko when he was an envoy in the Volga Region and later at Rosatom) became the head of his administrative staff. According to sources of Russia Direct in the Presidential Administration, Kiriyenko is closely examining old employees who did not follow Volodin to the State Duma.

Although Kiriyenko eagerly went ahead with forming a new agenda for Russia, he is still intending to keep a watchful eye over Rosatom. As business newspaper Vedomosti reported last week, he will replace Boris Gryzlov as the chairman of Rosatom’s Supervisory Board. 

Although this information has not been officially confirmed, sources say that when he was appointed first deputy chief of staff of the Presidential Administration, Kiriyenko insisted on being able to influence the development of projects started by him. Essentially, he will remain in charge of the corporation’s strategic development.