Ukraine's new prime minister, Mykola Azarov, gets angry when reminded he's a geologist by training. He prefers to think of himself as a political animal.
For the last 15 years, Azarov has been a constant in Ukraine's political life. And for the last eight, he's been the right hand of the country's new president, Viktor Yanukovych.
Geology isn't the only thing in Azarov's past he prefers to forget. Born on December 17, 1947, in the Russian city of Kaluga, Azarov's original surname was Pakhlo. But when he married his wife, Ludmyla Azarova, he took her name. Geology To Politics
He was educated at the prestigious Moscow State University. After completing his geology studies, he worked as an engineer in a coal plant in Tula, before moving on to a research institute not far from Moscow. In 1984 at the age of 37, Azarov moved to Donetsk to take up a position of deputy director of the Ukrainian State Geological Institute, a research and development body that he went on to head.
He became a member of the Ukrainian parliament in 1994, and led the parliamentary Budget Committee. Two years later, he became the director of the Ukrainian state tax authority, which he built up to be the government's key financial weapon.
Azarov was the first chairman of the pro-Moscow Party of Regions, long before it assumed its current name. In 2002, the European Choice parliamentary group nominated him for the prime minister's post, but he declined, standing aside for Yanukovych, who assumed both the leadership of the party and the prime minister's job.
Yanukovych rewarded Azarov for his loyalty by twice appointing him first deputy prime minister and finance minister, simultaneously. From there, he became the chief ideologue of Yanukovych's economic policies.
Ahead of this year's hotly contested presidential election, Azarov headed Yanukovych's election campaign. After Yanukovych assumed the presidency, Azarov took over the leadership of the Party of Regions.
Some years ago, he was asked if he had any presidential ambitions. Azarov said no, but added that when Ukraine was ready to elect a non-ethnic Ukrainian to the post, he might think about it. But an obstacle to an Azarov presidency is the fact that he speaks almost no Ukrainian, something that he has been chided for in public. (On the eve of becoming prime minister, however, Azarov promised that from now on he and members of his government would speak only Ukrainian.)
His authoritarian style of leadership (at the tax authority he boasted that he would fire up to 30 people in every meeting) got him into trouble during the first Yanukovych government (2002-05).
Valeriy Khoroshkovsky, then minister of the economy and European integration, and Inna Bohoslovska, the chairman of the state committee on regulatory policy and entrepreneurship, accused Azarov of abusing state funds, ignoring other viewpoints, and showing absolute disregard for Ukraine and the law.
But Azarov was steadfast during the scandal, which involved people handpicked by Kuchma, and declared that both Bohoslovska and Khoroshkovsky had been totally ineffective in their jobs (they both subsequently resigned).
The new cabinet of sharp elbows might mean Azarov has to listen to the views of others
Azarov also featured on the now infamous recordings made in Kuchma's office by his bodyguard, Mykola Melnychenko. Using foul language, the president and a number of ministers could be heard planning schemes against journalists and politicians, including voter fraud.
Specifically, Azarov is heard speaking about using his position as the head of the tax authority to pressure people to ensure Kuchma's reelection in 1999. Critics also said that the recordings implicated Azarov in other corrupt schemes, including allegedly covering up graft at the state gas company Naftogaz and aiding the demise of the Slaviansk Bank, which was connected to Yulia Tymoshenko's gas company.
Azarov has vehemently refuted all these allegations. In 2002, he accused Slavyansk Bank president Borys Feldman of being behind the Melnychenko recordings.
The new cabinet of sharp elbows might mean Azarov has to listen to the views of others. It is unlikely that his deputies will simply do his bidding.
And given that the Economy Ministry is now headed by Vasyl Tsushko, a man with a fair amount of scandal in his past, and the Finance Ministry is in the hands of Fedir Yaroshenko, a former Azarov underling, it is likely that Azarov will have a huge influence on economic policy.
But with Azarov's conservative reputation, he'll have his work cut out in stabilizing Ukraine's struggling economy.