Profile: Sergei Kiriyenko - School swot with a taste for danger

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The Independent Online
THE team of tough-minded Russian wheeler-dealers whom the West is so fond of calling young reformers is not entirely dull. One is cheerfully fending off allegations that he was - horror of horrors - witness to a striptease. Five others are smarting after being caught in a dodgy book deal.

But Sergei Kiriyenko, Russia's acting prime minister, looks like the genuine article, an earnest technocrat who has quietly, cleanly and calculatedly glided up the ladder into one of the top jobs at the age of 35.

Mr Kiriyenko was a freshman cabinet minister until Monday, when he was ushered into the limelight with the startled air of a school swot who has - against all the odds - won the hammer throwing competition. No one in Moscow foresaw him as Boris Yeltsin's choice to replace Viktor Chernomyrdin, whom the Russian President dismissed on Monday along with Anatoly Chubais - the guru of the market-orientated reformers - and the Interior Minister, Anatoly Kulikov.

Although an obscure figure, some of Mr Kiriyenko's traits are clear enough. Balding and bespectacled, he looks like a kindly bank clerk. But he has a gift for making powerful allies. The biggest name in his address book: Boris Nemtsov, the glitzy governor whom Boris Yeltsin made First Deputy Prime Minister nearly a year ago. But he also has ties with Mr Chubais, with whom he fought side-by-side to persuade diehard federal ministries to bring Russia's vast energy subsidies under control.

Crucially, the oil and media magnate Boris Berezovsky - one of Russia's tiny clique of kingmakers - is said to be on his side. Mr Kiriyenko was one of the first friends Mr Nemtsov invited to Moscow after his own promotion, completing a journey that began years earlier in the provinces.

After school in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, the Georgian-born Kiriyenko - the son of a professor - set about a text-book Soviet career path. He graduated from a ship-building Institute in Gorki, and then moved to Nizhny Novgorod where he became a

leader of the Komsomol, the organisation for young Communists. After a brief flirtation with banking, he went into the oil business, becoming head of a regional refinery, before moving to the energy ministry as Mr Nemtsov's protege.

Once in Moscow, he firmed up his pro-market leanings by pushing forward with plans for state sell-offs, notably Rosneft, and freeing industrial giants from their overwhelming social welfare obligations, such as schools, shops, and kindergartens for their employees' families. In November, he took over from Mr Nemtsov as head of the Fuel and Energy Ministry responsible for the engine room of Russia's shrunken economy - the oil companies, and the natural gas monopoly Gazprom. His new acquaintances in Moscow found him pragmatic, even-tempered, but determined.

It remains to be seen whether Mr Kiriyenko is a blip on the screen, or will play a larger role in Russia's history. He has been asked to name a cabinet in a week, though Boris Yeltsin will have the final say. His appointment is subject to the approval of the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, whose powerful Communist lobby is already grumbling.

He is - sources say - fond of risky sports such as pot-holing and mountain climbing. This is an advantage. To survive the job he must be able to weather intrigues, in and out of the Kremlin; battle corruption, hack a path through a legal quagmire, and appease a frustrated public.

"The Government has been thrown out, but we are still cold and hungry," demonstrators in Vladivostok complained yesterday.