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Russia's technocrat-in-chief How Sergey Kiriyenko transformed the Kremlin’s domestic policy and quietly gained influence within the Putin administration

Источник: Meduza
Alexander Shcherbak / TASS / Vida Press

Early October marks three years since Sergey Kiriyenko was appointed Vladimir Putin’s first deputy chief of staff and put in charge of managing Russia’s domestic politics. Kiriyenko has had highs and lows on the job, from orchestrating the president’s resounding re-election victory in 2018 to stumbling through defeats in several regional contests. His next task could be the most challenging yet: ensure that the State Duma remains loyal to Putin, as Russian voters grow increasingly dissatisfied. In this article, Meduza special correspondent Andrey Pertsev looks at Kiriyenko’s unexpectedly key role inside the Putin administration, and how he’s managed to exploit some of the Kremlin’s election setbacks.

A surprise from Putin

In mid-September 2016, on the eve of elections that would determine the State Duma’s composition, Kremlin officials already had a pretty good idea how the vote would play out. There was no doubt that the majority of seats in parliament, which was already loyal to the president, would go to United Russia, and the next speaker would be Vyacheslav Volodin. The only thing to worry about was what would happen next: Who would replace Volodin, the presidential administration’s domestic policy czar for the past five years?

Three years ago, the list of Volodin’s potential successors included Moscow Regional Governor Andrey Vorobyov, “VGTRK” state media holding company CEO Oleg Dobrodeyev, and one of Volodin’s own Kremlin allies, Pavel Zenkovich, the head of the administration’s public projects department. 

For various reasons, these candidates were each logical choices to take over for Volodin. For years, Vorobyov had headed United Russia’s executive committee and its faction in the State Duma. Dobrodeyev and Zenkovich also had plenty of experience with politics and public outreach. But President Putin added another name to the shortlist — Sergey Kiriyenko — and it was this fourth man who got the job.

For several months in 1998, he served as prime minister under President Boris Yeltsin, before resigning as a result of the Russian financial crisis in August 1998.

From 1999 to 2000, he led the State Duma faction for the “Union of Right Forces” (SPS) opposition party.

From 2000 to 2005, he served as President Putin’s envoy in the Volga Federal District.

From 2005 to 2016, he managed the “Rosatom” State Nuclear Energy Corporation (which builds and runs nuclear power stations in Russia and abroad). 

In 2016, no one thought of the head of Rosatom as a political manager, though Kiriyenko had some experience in politics. In 1998, he briefly served as Russia’s prime minister, and in 1999 he joined Boris Nemtsov and Irina Khakamada to create the liberal political party “Union of Right Forces.” One source in United Russia’s leadership told Meduza that officials had largely dismissed Kiriyenko as “someone from another political era.” Putin’s choice caught many in the Kremlin off guard.

According to a source close to the Putin administration, the president’s decision relied not on Kiriyenko’s experience in the Duma or the Yeltsin government, but his work as an envoy in the Volga Federal District. Putin was apparently impressed with Kiriyenko’s ability to take on influential regional elites, such as Tatarstan President Mintimer Shaimiev and Bashkir President Murtaza Rakhimov. “That’s when they started embedding them in the [power] vertical,” recalls Meduza’s Kremlin source.

As a presidential envoy, Kiriyenko rarely visited Tatarstan, typically only accompanying Putin to Kazan on official visits. Eager to deal directly with the president, Mintimer Shaimiev even refused publicly and repeatedly to receive Kiriyenko as a presidential official on his trips to Kazan. Despite this friction, however, Kiriyenko’s relationship with the regional government in Tatarstan remained manageable.

In 2007, after Kiriyenko had already moved to Rosatom, Shaimiev and Putin signed an agreement developed by Kiriyenko’s Volga Federal District office to delineate regional and federal state powers. The document ensured that Tatarstan would enjoy extensive rights concerning its economy, ecology, and culture, in exchange for abandoning powers it won in an earlier agreement with Moscow signed in 1994 (like the right to issue republic-level citizenship and conduct its own foreign policy). 

Meduza’s source says Kiriyenko had more than just a success record as a presidential envoy: he also had a whole team of political consultants who’d staged electoral campaigns in Rosatom’s closed cities at the municipal, regional, and federal levels. “They were responsible, among other things, for the results of presidential and parliamentary campaigns [in closed jurisdictions]. Kiriyenko could immediately bring in people who knew how to handle elections,” says Meduza’s source.

Another source in the presidential administration told Meduza that Kiriyenko’s team of political consultants wasn’t likely what won him the deputy-chief-of-staff position. “Almost every player has their own team. [Rosneft CEO Igor] Sechin, the heads of other major corporations, and officials like [Far Eastern Federal District presidential envoy] Yuri Trutnev and [then Deputy Prime Minister] Alexander Khloponin — they’ve all got them, too. It’s obviously not a decisive factor. So why did Kiriyenko come out on top? Only the president knows,” says Meduza’s source.

One of Vyacheslav Volodin’s advisers says Kiriyenko’s appointment was a purely political decision, arguing that it was the president’s way of weakening both Volodin and Kiriyenko at the same time. “They were completely satisfied with their jobs — they were accustomed to the work and comfortable. In the new positions, they had to arrange their people all over again, and decide whom to offer what post, who would handle what, and how to purge the old team,” the former Volodin aide told Meduza.

Sergey Kiriyenko (left) and Vyacheslav Volodin at a meeting in November 2016 between Prime Minister and United Russia Chairman Dmitry Medvedev and party leaders
Dmitry Astakhov / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

Meduza’s source on Kiriyenko’s team thinks along the same lines, and insists that none of the men who previously held the first-deputy-chief-of-staff position were ever “fired for screwing up.” The source rejects popular theories that Vladislav Surkov was relieved of the job in 2011 because of anti-Kremlin protests in late 2011 and early 2012, and that Vyacheslav Volodin lost the position because of low voter turnout in the 2016 State Duma elections. “It’s nonsense — just like when people make Surkov out to be disloyal somehow to Putin, saying that he wanted to ensure Dmitry Medvedev’s nomination for a second term. Surkov knew perfectly well how that would have immediately ended. [As the Kremlin’s curators of domestic politics], Volodin and Surkov had grown so strong that they started to threaten the system of authority. It wasn’t because they wanted to harm the system, though they could have wreaked havoc, if they’d wanted. The presidential administration is a very powerful entity that can, for example, coordinate the actions of the security apparatus. If necessary, it can even issue direct orders,” says Meduza’s source on Kiriyenko’s team.

According to a political consultant who works for the Kremlin during elections and worked with the authorities back when Surkov and then Volodin were in office, “The magic surrounding the position of first deputy chief of staff and the myth about the job were created by Surkov.” “He was the first to declare himself a demiurge who decides everything [in Russian domestic politics]. Who remembers any of the people who served as the president’s first deputy chiefs of staff before him? What were their names and what did they do?” says Meduza’s source.

The same political consultant says the significance of the presidential administration and its staff rests not in any formal authority, but in Vladimir Putin’s political power. “The presidential administration is about sending for the car, organizing the president’s visits, and maintaining the workflow. That’s it. But since all the power in the country is concentrated in the president’s hands, the structure that’s literally closest to him inevitably gets informal leverage. Surkov institutionalized this leverage, laying the foundation and building on it. Then Volodin made certain changes to the superstructure, which Kiriyenko is using now,” says the Kremlin political consultant.

Battling Volodin and the security elites

Appointed to serve in the Putin administration, Sergey Kiriyenko inherited not only his predecessors' control levers and mystical “demiurge” status, but also the problems they confronted on the job. First and foremost, he had to figure out how to sideline Vyacheslav Volodin, who’d lost his position inside the Kremlin, but not all his political influence. 

After becoming the State Duma’s speaker, Vyacheslav Volodin was clearly disinclined to part with the influence he enjoyed before leaving the Kremlin. To raise his profile in parliament, Volodin limited administration officials’ access to the legislature’s Assembly Hall (making an exception for Garry Minkh, whose role as presidential envoy to the State Duma meant he was high-ranking enough to be admitted), and he also tried to place ally and former Civic Chamber cabinet chief Sergey Smirnov as the presidential administration’s deputy head of domestic politics (whose job involves liaising with the parliament).

To strengthen his influence in the State Duma, Volodin didn’t stop at restricting Kremlin officials’ access to the Assembly Hall. Since the days of Vladislav Surkov, lawmakers in parliament have essentially taken orders from the president’s first deputy chief of staff. In his new role as speaker, Volodin now reasserted this control over deputies, instituting strict procedures for recording attendance, as well as punishments for skipping sessions. He also kept United Russia within his sphere of influence, as allies Sergey Neverov and Vladimir Burmatov headed the party’s general council and executive committee, respectively.

“Despite Volodin’s direct attacks, Kiriyenko ordered even the most belligerent members of his team not to respond. Though they were itching to do it!” recalls a source close to Kiriyenko. “In the new position, he did everything gradually and very carefully, trying not to start conflicts with anyone.” For example, the administration didn’t find its State Duma representative until January 2019, finally appointing Denis Stepanyuk, an assistant to the Kremlin’s Domestic Policy Department. When introducing legislative initiatives, the Kremlin spent a long time avoiding the State Duma and instead used the parliament’s upper chamber. “They started trying to introduce everything important through the Federation Council,” confirms a source close to the presidential administration. “That, for example, is how we got the Klishas laws.”

Slowly but surely, Kiriyenko managed to wrest power from Volodin and gain influence outside the State Duma. Within a year of his appointment, Kiriyenko had weakened Volodin’s position inside United Russia, managing it with surprising sophistication. First, the Kremlin picked one of Volodin’s supporters, United Russia faction leader Vladimir Vasiliyev, to head Dagestan. After Volodin offered Vasiliyev’s seat to another ally (United Russia General Council head Sergey Neverov), Kiriyenko gave the vacant party position to someone new: former Pskov Governor Andrey Turchak.

According to a source inside United Russia, these maneuvers ultimately forced Volodin’s functionaries from the party leadership, replacing them not with Kiriyenko’s people but Turchak’s. For example, the head of the executive committee became Pskov Senator Andrey Borisov, and Pskov Lieutenant Governor Maxim Zhavoronkov was named his deputy.

Kiriyenko has also operated cautiously inside the Kremlin, where the key office under his control is the Domestic Policy Department (UVP). Under Kiriyenko’s predecessors, this bureaucracy has been headed by loyalists: Oleg Govorun under Surkov, and Oleg Morozov and Tatyana Voronova under Volodin. The department is now run by Andrey Yarin, who is by no means a member of Kiriyenko’s inner circle.

Before taking over as Domestic Policy Department head in 2016, Yarin worked in the Central Federal District presidential envoy’s office as an assistant to Alexander Beglov (now the governor of St. Petersburg). Before this position, Yarin served as head of government or deputy head in different regions across the country, including in Chechnya and Kabardino-Balkaria. “Yarin is associated with several big names,” says a source close to the Putin administration. “He worked with [current Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry] Kozak, [St. Petersburg Governor Alexander] Beglov, and [Economic Development Deputy Minister Mikhail] Babich, but not with Kiriyenko. He’s not one of Kiryenko’s guys. There’s never been anything like it before [in the Kremlin]: the first deputy chief of staff has always put one of his own people in charge of the UVP.”

According to Meduza’s source, Yarin’s peculiar appointment happened despite Kiriyenko’s efforts to give this important job to an ally named Alexander Kharichev, who previously worked at Rosatom and in the Volga Federal District presidential envoy’s office, before he served briefly as deputy director of the Kremlin’s Domestic Policy Department and later became the head of the State Council Affairs Office. Several sources, both in the Kremlin and United Russia’s leadership, told Meduza that Kharichev’s candidacy was derailed by elites from the security apparatus, which influences the formation of the Kremlin’s domestic policy through Andrey Yarin, who has close ties to the Federal Security Service. 

In April 2018, the former head of the Moscow Region’s Serpukhov District, Alexander Shestun, uploaded to YouTube a recording of a conversation with Yarin, FSB Department “K” director Ivan Tkhachev, and Mikhail Kuznetsov, the deputy head of the Moscow Regional government. In the recording, the three officials demand that Shestun leave office, threatening criminal prosecution if he refuses. After Shestun called their bluff, he was in fact charged with felony corruption.

In the end, however, Kiriyenko dealt with Yarin by transferring some of the Domestic Policy Department’s authority to another agency: Alexander Kharichev’s State Council Affairs Office.

Sergey Kiryenko and Andrey Yarin (right) at United Russia’s party congress in December 2018
Alexander Miridonov / Kommersant
Alexander Kharichev in August 2007
Alexander Miridonov / Kommersant

Kharichev’s outfit is now responsible for managing Russia’s gubernatorial elections, including candidate selection and conducting training courses for future regional leaders. The UVP, meanwhile, retains control over legislative-assembly campaigns and important municipal elections. “Domestic policy now has, if not two, then one and a half ‘towers,’” says a source in United Russia’s leadership (referring to the common theory that Kremlin decision-making is determined by competition between distinct rival groups, or “towers,” within the Putin administration). 

A state official who’s close to both Yarin and Kiriyenko told Meduza that the redistribution of powers inside the Kremlin’s domestic-policy bloc led to unity of command. “Andrey [Yarin] is a million percent loyal to Kiriyenko. This is a true old-school state official who’s subordinate to his boss. If he were told to shoot himself, Yarin would pull the trigger. But Andrey will be loyal the same way to the next boss,” says Meduza’s source, who guesses that Kiriyenko transferred some powers to the State Council Affairs Office because “he nevertheless understands Kharichev better.”

Technocrats of the future

Sergey Kiriyenko’s first innovation as the president’s domestic-policy czar was the decision to appoint so-called “young technocrats” as governors.

This term gained currency among Kremlin-connected political experts after the appointment of four new acting governors in 2017. Deputy Transportation Minister Alexey Tsydenov took office in Buryatia; Moscow Economic Department head Maxim Reshetnikov became acting governor in Pskov; Andrey Nikitin, the director of the Agency for Strategic Initiatives, was appointed in Novgorod; and State Duma deputy Nikolai Lyubimov was named the head of the Ryazan region.

In just three years since returning to the Kremlin, Kiriyenko has orchestrated the replacement of 41 regional heads — almost half the governors in Russia.

“Initially, Kiriyenko started out doing just what Surkov did in the beginning: he transmitted certain ideas, terms, and what we’d now call memes to the mass media,” says a source close to the State Duma’s leadership. “[These ideas] didn’t necessarily mean anything. Surkov had ‘sovereign democracy,’ and Kiriyenko has ‘young technocrats’ who, generally speaking, aren’t all that young or technocratic.”

A source close to the Putin administration told Meduza that “Kiriyenko convinced the president that he was going after some kind of special people, and that he’d adopted an altogether new approach, but it actually differs little from past appointments. All they did was find an appealing brand.”

Sergey Kiriyenko (center) before a State Council session in June 2019
Dmitry Azarov / Kommersant

Kiriyenko’s team also decided to enroll its new generation of appointees in a training program that includes management instruction by specialists from the Russian Academy of National Economy and Public Administration. The university also helped organize the courses, which are unlike anything implemented under Surkov or Volodin. In these classes, future governors attend lectures, join seminars with senior state officials and major businesspeople, and take part in team training exercises.

The newspaper RBC wrote about one of these training sessions in October 2017, citing video footage from a mobile phone showing future governors leaping from a cliff into a mountain river somewhere outside Sochi. “It wasn’t actually enough,” one political consultant with ties to the presidential administration told Meduza. “[After these exercises], a governor takes office just minimally prepared. He knows what to do if a boiler house breaks down somewhere or if there’s a protest.”

Meduza spoke to another Kremlin political consultant who has little enthusiasm for Kiriyenko’s “young technocrats” educational initiative: “If we believe a governor differs little from a factory director, then fine. But if we assume this is a person capable of holding territory in a crisis, then it’s not enough.” Speaking to Meduza, a source in the State Duma’s leadership was openly skeptical about Kiriyenko’s training innovation: “The positions nevertheless go to influential lobbyists’ proxies. They’d be getting appointed anyway, and now they’re also being trained. With the courses, it’s a chance to write off some money.”

Another (now largely forgotten) political meme cooked up by Kiriyenko’s team was the “Vision of the Future.” Articles about a better tomorrow started appearing in Russian media outlets in April 2017. The “vision” itself was supposed to be presented to voters closer to the 2018 presidential election, and the concept’s development was entrusted to the Kremlin’s Expert Institute for Social and Economic Research (EISI), which was formed shortly after Kiriyenko’s appointment as first deputy chief of staff.

Expert institutes attached to the presidential administration have existed since the time of Vladislav Surkov, who relied on Gleb Pavlovsky’s Foundation for Effective Politics. Under Volodin, the Kremlin’s intellectual center shifted to Dmitry Badovsky’s Institute for Social, Economic, and Political Studies.

A political expert named Gleb Kuznetsov supervises the work at EISI. “[When Kiriyenko took office], the patriotic spike from the annexation of Crimea was starting to subside, and people were beginning to feel economic hardships more and more. The population needed to understand where everything was moving, and where we were headed, in order to raise the country’s social optimism,” says a source close to the Putin administration, when asked about the Kremlin’s expectations of EISI.

The search for an optimistic “vision of the future” hit a wall, however, and the Kremlin’s representatives stopped mentioning the idea in conversations with political consultants and especially journalists by the summer of 2017. But the concept might not be altogether dead: multiple sources told Meduza that experts are now studying the idea again. It’s now believed that the “vision of the future” crafted by Kremlin institute specialists will be put to use in Russia’s 2021 State Duma campaigns. The man reportedly responsible for developing the platform is Alexey Chadaev, a former expert at the Foundation for Effective Politics and the former head of political management for United Russia. Sources told Meduza that Chadaev is supposed to present his research to the presidential administration within the next few months. 

Kremlin euphoria

Sources say the Kremlin considers Russia’s 2018 presidential election to be Sergey Kiriyenko’s crowning achievement as first deputy chief of staff. In this contest, Vladimir Putin won a record number of votes — more than half of all eligible voters in Russia.

As early as the fall of 2017, journalists cited Kremlin insiders who said they’d established two indicators to judge their success in the coming election. According to a so-called “70/70 formula,” the administration set out to keep voter turnout above 70 percent, while ensuring that 70 percent of all ballots were cast for President Putin. 

When the election finally came in the spring of 2018, the Kremlin effectively achieved these aims: Putin won 76.7 percent of the vote, with turnout at 67.5 percent. The incumbent president easily defeated seven registered candidates, after election officials refused to add oppositionist Alexey Navalny to the ballot. Despite being prohibited from standing for office, Navalny mounted a spirited national campaign, creating a network of local offices across the country that still operates to this day.

Getting a convincing result in the 2018 presidential election was more difficult than it might seem. The Kremlin still had fresh memories of the 2016 parliamentary elections, when United Russia, despite Putin’s direct support, won just 54 percent of the votes amid 47-percent turnout. In absolute terms, that meant only a quarter of all eligible voters supported the country’s “party of power.” Sergey Kiriyenko’s task was to prove that he's able to stage elections and secure convincing results for his boss.

There was never any question of real competitiveness (Vladimir Putin has never participated in a race that was either competitive or unpredictable), but it was important to avoid a presidential campaign so boring that voters stayed away. This is why the administration's domestic-policy bloc turned to a tried-and-tested gimmick: recruit famous but harmless rivals for Putin. The most colorful individuals retained for this role were Lenin State Farm director Pavel Grudinin and television socialite Ksenia Sobchak. 

A source in the presidential administration told Meduza that Kremlin officials didn’t settle immediately on Sobchak. Kiriyenko’s team apparently thought about nominating another famous “TV blonde”: the former host of the show “Revizorro,” Elena Letuchaya. “They thought Sobchak carried more weight with a liberal audience, but at the same time she’s a fairly odious personality for common people because she hosted [the reality TV show] ‘Dom-2,’” explains a Kremlin source.

A source who attended the administration’s campaign brainstorming sessions told Meduza about another idea meant to mobilize voters. In the absence of a “vision of the future,” one Kremlin political strategist proposed launching a new “Doctors’ Plot,” reasoning that “a new enemy” could also rally Russia’s electorate. “Kiriyenko himself rejected the idea,” the source told Meduza.

The Kremlin also relied on so-called “administrative resources” to mobilize voters employed by large enterprises. Kiriyenko and his team were well acquainted with these tactics from their work at Rosatom, and political strategist Grigory Kazankov oversaw these efforts, assigning one or several “technologists” to every major corporation throughout the country (both state and private companies) to ensure high voter turnout.

Someone who participated in this voter mobilization process told Meduza, “We had to convey to people that they should go to the polls, but any pressure on this issue or about how they should vote wasn’t allowed.” The source recalls that Putin’s campaign materials were handed out at companies, and supervisors met with staff to explain the importance of voting. Sometimes, text-message reminders were sent to workers about election day.

After tallying the votes in the presidential election, where Putin won big amid high turnout, a feeling of euphoria reigned in the Kremlin. The good vibes lasted until Russia’s regional elections in September 2018.

Sobyanin’s problems, the Kremlin’s gain

In the summer of 2018, the government announced a plan to raise the country’s retirement ages. President Putin and United Russia both endorsed the idea, but the reforms nonetheless seriously damaged the political leadership’s popularity. 

A source close to the Kremlin acknowledged to Meduza that the administration botched the initiative, insofar as public outreach was concerned: “If the pension reforms had been prepared like in Surkov’s day, there wouldn’t have been any big protests or drops in ratings. The reforms are objectively necessary, they need to be done — there’s no question about that — but it needs to be presented properly to the public. Surkov got burned on the benefits monetization, where public opinion was also totally unprepared. He learned from those mistakes, and there was almost no backlash [after that].”

Anger about the raised retirement ages was one of the main reasons several of the Kremlin’s gubernatorial candidates lost races in September 2018, leading to the ouster of Kremlin-tapped officials in Vladimir, Khabarovsk, and Khakassia. In Primorye, the presidential administration made extraordinary efforts to keep the Communist Party candidate from the governor’s seat. 

When Communist Party candidate Andrey Ishchenko arguably defeated United Russia’s Andrey Tarasenko in a second-round vote, Russia’s Central Election Commission invalidated the results, claiming that violations marred the election.

Afterwards, the Kremlin endorsed a new candidate — Sakhalin Governor Oleg Kozhemyako — and staged new elections (this time without Ishchenko). To sweeten the pot and endear voters to Kozhemyako, Moscow promised additional federal funding, new benefits subsidies, and the Kremlin moved the Far Eastern Federal District’s capital to Vladivostok. 

“Back then [in 2018], Kiriyenko managed to convince Putin that the old-timer governors themselves were to blame for the defeats in those three regions, and that the situation in Primorye had gone awry but could still be fixed,” says a source in the presidential administration, recalling last year’s setbacks. The same source says the president paid special attention to Primorye, visiting the region several times during the campaign, “so the Kremlin’s candidate in the repeat election needed to win at all costs.”

After appointing Oleg Kozhemyako as acting governor, the Kremlin sent a massive team of political strategists from Moscow to ensure a smooth election. Alexander Kharichev spent nearly the entire campaign in Vladivostok, and Kozhemyako won in the end.

Vladimir Putin, chief of staff Anton Vaino, and Sergey Kiriyenko meet at the Kremlin with the governors of Vladimir, Primorye, Khabarovsk, Khakassia, and the Nenets Autonomous Okrug. December 2019
Alexey Druzhinin / Kremlin Press Service / TASS / Vida Press

Kiriyenko’s team got little time to savor the victory, however, as St. Petersburg’s 2019 gubernatorial election soon became the Kremlin’s new headache. The president’s pick for the job was Alexander Beglov, one of his close allies and, it turns out, a man almost incapable of political campaigning. 

Kiriyenko reportedly lobbied the president to choose another candidate in St. Petersburg, before it was too late, but Putin insisted on Beglov. As a result, the Kremlin could field only the weakest opponents, recruiting politicians who scarcely campaigned at all. Even under these circumstances, the administration played it safe and removed the candidates from LDPR and the Communist Party before election day.

In fact, the Kremlin had to marshal additional administrative support to ensure Beglov’s victory. Sources told Meduza that the presidential administration encouraged election commissions in St. Petersburg to utilize “home voting” (which election monitors struggle to track) and other methods to “correct” voting results. These efforts ultimately paid off, and the president was reportedly pleased with how his domestic-policy bloc handled the challenge. 

Moscow’s City Duma elections were another troubled contest in 2019, but bungling by the local authorities only benefited Kiriyenko’s team, simply because they weren’t responsible for the mess in the capital. A source close to the Kremlin told Meduza that the failed campaign, accompanied by large protests, “was entirely the problem of [Mayor Sergey] Sobyanin, who failed politically.”

Meduza’s source says the Moscow Mayor’s Office personally negotiated with United Russia General Council Secretary Andrey Turchak and party chairman Dmitry Medvedev to have the authorities’ chosen candidates run as independents (reasoning that affiliation with the party could hurt them at the polls). Natalia Sergunina, Sobyanin’s deputy mayor, hired the political strategists for the City Duma campaign. “For some time after being appointed [to lead the campaign], she consulted with Kiriyenko, and then apparently started showing greater independence,” says Meduza’s source. “The Moscow elections even offered a stark contrast: in the gubernatorial elections [supervised by Kiriyenko’s people], everything was quiet. But not in the capital.”

Meduza’s Kremlin source adds that Kiriyenko and his people wouldn’t have suffered, even if Moscow’s city officials had managed to pin their September failure on the presidential administration because the Kremlin official responsible for legislative assembly elections (including the Moscow City Duma race) is Andrey Yarin, the Kremlin Domestic Policy Department head who has a complicated relationship with Kiriyenko. Yarin also answers for St. Petersburg’s municipal elections, which were extremely tense in 2019, and included some instances of physical violence. At the same time, Meduza’s source hastens to defend Yarin, arguing that the illegal tactics used in St. Petersburg “weren’t his initiative.” It’s really the smaller local groups that are in charge of the situation in the city, says Meduza's source: “Many of these people simply won’t take orders from the presidential administration.”

A source in the Kremlin told Meduza that Kiriyenko’s position in the administration after this year’s difficult elections is essentially that “everybody else has shat themselves, but we’re doing fine.”

It works for Putin

A senior member of one of Russia’s systemic political parties thinks Kiriyenko stages major elections much like voting in Rosatom’s closed cities: “They’re styled after song contests in nuclear cities and cutthroat campaigns to repair flower beds and fountains, and repaint edgestones. One of these projects [investing in urban beautification] was successfully realized through Putin’s presidential campaign in 2018. And similar to the nuclear cities’ song contests was the competition to rename the airports, which was launched to distract people from pension reform.”

Asked about how Kiriyenko and his team operate, one source who works with the presidential administration told Meduza, “Kiriyenko has his ideals, but everyone around him is as cynical as you can get. What matters to them is winning here and now. They don’t even think about how these victories might become strategic losses, down the road.”

Meduza’s source says Alexander Kharichev repeatedly tells his political experts that they won’t live to see victory with any strategy that embraces acceptable losses: “You’ll be removed after [the first] defeat.” This is allegedly why officials in the current presidential administration have adhered to the strategy Kiriyenko adopted when he first got to the Kremlin: exercise maximum caution, don’t resort to radical changes, and focus on small, specific tasks.

Guided by this logic, the Kremlin’s current domestic-policy team has declined to pursue several urgent political reforms: “the creation of new political parties, changes to the State Duma’s elections system, and modernizing the existing systemic parties, even though their leaders stink and are decomposing before our eyes.” “United Russia is past its expiration date, and any new project would still get better results [in elections] than United Russia does now,” says Meduza’s source.

Other sources tell Meduza that the Kremlin considered massive changes to Russia’s political system in light of upcoming parliamentary elections in 2021. One of these projects would change the way the State Duma is formed. Currently, half the seats in the chamber go to deputies elected on party lists, and the other half go to individuals elected directly by district. Reformists on Kiriyenko’s team thought about giving 75 percent of the seats to single-mandate candidates, and reducing the proportional system to just 25 percent. The Kremlin abandoned the idea, however, after regional elections in September 2019, when the Moscow mayor’s City Duma candidates lost in 20 districts to politicians endorsed by Alexey Navalny’s “Smart Vote” project, and United Russia and all loyal independents lost their single-mandate contests in Khabarovsk. Additionally, the presidential administration reportedly has no plans to create any new political parties.

A source close to the Kremlin told Meduza, “It’s possible that Kiriyenko knows something known only to the country’s top leadership. If that’s the case, his style makes perfect sense: carry out a certain set of tactical actions, and deal with strategy later. But if that’s not the case, it starts to look a bit scary, down the line.”

Asked about the biggest shortcomings of Kiriyenko’s style, Meduza’s sources highlight his attachment to formalized corporate management practices, pointing to the training courses for future governors, which resemble lessons at Roastom’s corporate university. And there’s the “Leaders of Russia” competition (organized to recruit managers for government agencies) that’s open to anyone who completes a set of tasks online. Also borrowing from the corporate world, Kiriyenko introduced key performance indicators to monitor the work of governors and presidential administration staff, though political activity is less formalized than business management and often ill suited to these metrics.

“A political ideology has emerged from this corporatization,” says political expert Alexander Pozhalov. “Under Surkov, the authorities offered growing prosperity to society in exchange for a formula of sovereign democracy and the idea that the middle class doesn’t meddle in politics. Under Volodin, who came to the administration in the wake of ‘anti-Kremlin, pro-Western’ protests, domestic politics shifted to a paradigm of nationalizing the elites and returning to conservative roots.” Pozhalov says Kiriyenko hasn’t yet developed a core intellectual concept, and the Kremlin’s proposed program to develop the country by implementing a series of costly national projects “so far looks more like a bureaucratic model for managing change than an ideology the public can grasp.”

Vladimir Putin and Sergey Kiriyenko at the Kremlin during a meeting with the winners of the year’s “Leaders of Russia” contest, March 2019
Dmitry Azarov / Kommersant

On the other hand, a source close to the administration told Meduza that the atmosphere inside the Kremlin’s domestic-policy team has become “more relaxed than it was under Volodin or Surkov.” “The constant stress is gone, possibly thanks to all the [corporate-styled] planning. Plus, Kiriyenko is a more lenient supervisor. [For example], some administration staff are active on social media, which used to be prohibited. And he doesn’t punish or persecute enemies and those who fall out of favor,” says Meduza’s source.

According to political expert Konstantin Gaaze, “Kiriyenko’s work embraces something like a doctrine of ‘controlled chaos.’” “When it comes to the interests of those around the president or political rivals, Kiriyenko steers clear. Then, when a situation reaches the crisis point, he gets involved and strengthens his position with each of these interventions. Kiriyenko has essentially transformed the political agenda into a system of traps for the groups in power, and everyone loses a bit of their capital, as he gains, little by little.”

Gaaze believes the managerial competitions and other mechanisms Kiriyenko has devised to engage people in public administration are the groundwork for the formation of an “apolitical-political movement” that will serve as the platform for Russia’s 2021 State Duma elections. “The only political stakes I can imagine in this context are [Sergey Kiriyenko’s own] presidency in 2024. If Kiriyenko establishes his status as an intermediary between the authorities and society, this road will be open for him,” argues Gaaze.

According to one official who’s been at the Kremlin since before Kiriyenko, the domestic-policy team's new corporate metrics are flawed but attractive: “When politics becomes a corporation, you can say ‘no’ to politics. That’s a mistake, but it apparently works for the president, whose interests lie in foreign-policy games and, to some extent, the economy. Putin doesn’t care about domestic policy, so Kiriyenko’s approach appeals to him.”

Story by Andrey Pertsev, edited by Vladislav Gorin

Translation by Kevin Rothrock