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Russia: Could Yakunin Be 'First-Called' As Putin's Successor?

Is Yakunin (right) Putin's choice to succeed him as president? (ITAR-TASS) PRAGUE, June 20, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Speaking on the sidelines of the June 15 Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit, Russian President Vladimir Putin dropped the latest in a series of tantalizing clues as to who his potential choice of successor might be.

The candidate, he said, is a man whose name "is not completely unknown, but which is simply not circulated" by the mass media. That appears to rule out the two men who, until now, have been widely considered the likeliest options for the post-Putin presidency: First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov.

'Not Completely Unknown'

So who could this "not completely unknown" person -- who furthermore embodies Putin's stated ideals of "integrity, honesty, professionalism, and taking responsibility for one's decisions -- be?

One possibility is Vladimir Yakunin, who for the past year has led the state-run Russian Railway Company, the country's second-largest enterprise after Gazprom. He is also a close friend of Putin, which, together with his relative exclusion from public view, could combine to give him a significant competitive edge against other potential candidates.

Some suggest he is the perfect option for those whose fondest wish is a forbidden third term for Putin. The two men appear so similar, it appears that Yakunin could act as a kind of political double for Putin -- a quality that Putin himself may find attractive as the end of his second term in 2008 draws near.

From Intelligence To Business

Kremlin-watchers were quick to note that this year's Orthodox Easter television broadcasts showed Yakunin standing directly to the president's right during services at Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow. The two share the same St. Petersburg background, and they are next-door dacha neighbors in Ivanovo.

And while Yakunin's official biography makes no mention of an affiliation to Putin's previous employer, the KGB, his early career -- at the Soviet Committee for Foreign Trade Relations and with the Soviet mission to the United Nations, among other places -- suggests ties to foreign intelligence services.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Yakunin moved into business and banking activities. In 1997, Putin, then the head of the Main Control Department of President Boris Yeltsin's administration, appointed Yakunin to serve as his envoy in northwest Russia.

In 2000, Yakunin was named deputy transport minister before moving on to become deputy railway minister. Now, as president and CEO of Russian Railways, Yakunin is responsible for one of the world's largest railroad networks, with some 42,000 kilometers of track, 1.3 million employees, and annual revenues of more than $20 billion.

Symbolic Foundation?

Since 2001, Yakunin has also led the board of trustees of the St. Andrew's Foundation, a powerful patriotic organization created in 1992 with the goal of advancing the ideology of national revanchism.

Some observers have found symbolism in the fact that Yakunin heads a foundation named for Andrew the "First-Called," who was the first disciple to be summoned by Jesus Christ into his service.

Yakunin present at the return of the right hand of John the Baptist from Montenegro to Moscow on June 7 (ITAR-TASS)

Under Yakunin's leadership, the foundation has launched several nationwide cultural-religious projects, including the repatriation and burial of the remains of two anticommunist heroes, Tsarist General Anton Denikin and emigre philosopher Ivan Ilyin.

The foundation also played a key role in the recent reconciliation between the Moscow Patriarchate and the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad -- a project in which Putin was also an active participant.

The Kremlin is a routine and enthusiastic supporter of the foundation's work, including its creation, in 2001, of the Center of Russian National Glory, of which Yakunin is also head.

The media has dubbed the center the "Order of Russian Orthodox Chekists" because of the preponderance of St. Peterburg-KGB alumni on its board of trustees: Defense Minister Ivanov; federal drug-control chief Viktor Cherkesov; and Georgy Poltavchenko, the presidential envoy to the Central Federal District.

Restoring 'Russia's Grandeur'

The center's stated goal is the "revival of Russia's grandeur." It describes itself as a "nonpolitical, nonreligious" organization, but many of its activities appear to promote the ideological interests of either the Russian Orthodox Church, or the Kremlin, or both.

Its hallmark project is its annual "Dialogue of Civilizations" international forum, complete with the presentation of the International Prize of St. Andrew. Past recipients include UNESCO Director-General Koichiro Matsuura and Jordan's King Abdullah.

Yakunin's role in promoting the national-patriotic ideology that colors nearly all of Russia's political debate makes him an ideal presidential candidate for the inner-circle "siloviki" drawn from the ranks of the secret services. But his business acumen also makes him an attractive option for the nation's political liberals. (Yakunin, in fact, has made a point of saying he sees "no meaning" to the formula dividing Russian political camps into "siloviki" and "liberals.")

Jack Of All Trades

Among Russia's major enterprises, Russian Railways has one of the most favorable debt-to-revenue ratios. Yakunin also participates in a number of additional business projects, including the construction of the Ust-Luga Baltic Sea terminal and the adaptation of the port in Murmansk for the export of liquefied natural gas. He heads the board of directors for the Black Sea port of Novorossiisk and the Far East port of Nakhodka as well.

Yakunin also showed his political versatility by opting to visit the London Economic Forum in May, an event Russian government officials pointedly avoided following widespread criticism of Kremlin policy.

Such resourcefulness has prompted many observers to suggest that Putin's versatile double could be the "first-called" to follow him in the presidency.

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