Sensei and philosopher – meet Sergei Kiriyenko, the latest EU sanctions target
The European Union introduced new sanctions against six Russian officials Thursday in response to the poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny. While most of the names on the list were familiar from previous sanction lists, Sergei Kiriyenko was a new appearance. The first deputy chief of the presidential administration (the most powerful decision-making body in the country), Kiriyenko is one of Russia’s most influential — and mysterious — political figures.
- Kiriyenko is widely regarded as a man of liberal instincts. He began his career in Nizhny Novgorod as a businessman and was a close acquaintance of Boris Nemtsov, the local governor at the time and later a prominent opposition leader. Kiriyenko was one of the few officials to attend Nemtsov’s funeral after he was gunned down by the Kremlin in 2015. Nemtsov himself engineered Kiriyenko’s transfer to Moscow and backed him for a position at the Ministry of Energy.
- In April 1998, then-President Boris Yeltsin named the 35-year-old Kiriyenko prime minister. Dubbed ‘Kinder Surprise’, he was deeply unpopular and had the misfortune to take office shortly before a collapse in oil prices pushed Russia into default. He resigned in August of the same year.
- Although Kiriyenko was out of the government, he remained in politics. In 1999 he stood as a deputy for the Union of Right Forces, a liberal political party that included Nemtsov. Their election slogan was ‘Putin for president, Kiriyenko for parliament. We need young blood!’. The party got 8 percent of the vote. Later, Kiriyenko lost to Yury Luzhkov in a Moscow mayoral election. He didn’t remain in parliament for long — President Vladimir Putin appointed him to the role of plenipotentiary representative in the Volga region. In 2005, Kiriyenko was made head of state-owned nuclear corporation Rosatom.
- Many were surprised in 2016 when Putin appointed Kiriyenko deputy chief of the presidential administration with responsibility for domestic politics – in effect, Russia’s chief ideologue. Kiriyenko has since helped create a technocratic political elite.
- Kiriyenko’s greatest political achievement is thought to be Putin’s 2018 presidential victory, which earned Putin a record-breaking 56.2 million votes (76.65 percent of the electorate). TV presenter Ksenia Sobchak, a notional opposition candidate in the poll, was widely regarded as a Kiriyenko puppet.
- Kiriyenko is one of Russia’s least publicity-hungry officials, and is rarely quoted in the media. Little is known of his private life, although he practices the Japanese martial art of Aikido and has the rank of fourth dan, earning him the right to be known as Sensei.
- The politician is also a follower of Georgy Shchedrovitsky, a philosopher who founded the Moscow Methodological Circle in the 1950s. One of the group’s tenets is the idea that reality can be changed and society programmed. Shchedrovitsky’s followers – who have developed something of a cult around their hero – explore this idea through the framework of ‘games’. Shchedrovitsky’s son was a political consultant for Kiriyenko and members of the circle consulted ex-Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk.
- Kiriyenko has even been linked with more extreme cults. German newspaper Berliner Zeitung reported in 1998 that staff at Garantiya bank, which Kiriyenko owned in Nizhny Novgorod, attended a college established by Scientology leader L. Ron Hubbard. Kiriyenko has repeatedly denied this.
Why is Kiriyenko facing sanctions?
Since he is responsible for domestic politics, any decision to attack Navalny could hardly have been made without Kiriyenko’s knowledge, according to expert Alexander Baunov. But Baunov added that this is only a formal explanation. In reality, no serious political analyst could hold Kiriyenko responsible for the decision to poison Navany: it is not his style, or actual remit.
Why the world should care This is the first time a top Russian politician with liberal leanings has been hit by personal sanctions from the West. Kiriyenko is a prime minister from the Yeltsin era, a time when Russia was still seen as a promising young democracy. Such a decision is not necessarily a reflection of Western ignorance; it’s more likely a statement by the EU that the old distinctions between ‘liberals’ and ‘siloviki’ in Russian politics are no longer relevant.