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Longtime Putin Confidant Yakunin Drops Plan For Russian Parliament Seat

Vladimir Yakunin (left), the former head of Russian Railways, is believed to have been part of the inner circle of President Vladimir Putin (right)
Vladimir Yakunin (left), the former head of Russian Railways, is believed to have been part of the inner circle of President Vladimir Putin (right)

Vladimir Yakunin, long a close associate of Vladimir Putin, says he has scrapped his intention to take a seat in parliament, jolting observers of Russia's tightly scripted political system and sparking speculation about the career plans of a man widely seen as a powerful Kremlin insider.

Yakunin, the former chief of state monopoly Russian Railways, told reporters in Moscow on September 15 that he decided to reject the proposal by Kaliningrad Governor Nikolai Tsukanov to represent the Baltic Sea exclave of Kaliningrad in Russia's upper house of parliament.

"I hope I'll be able to continue being useful to society," said Yakunin, 67. He said he plans to focus on scholarly and public activity, "primarily in the area of international ties, international relations, and intercivilizational dialogue between societies."

Yakunin, who casts himself as a patriot and devout Orthodox Christian, is the founder of a global forum called Dialogue of Civilizations – which is seen as advancing Putin's efforts to promote a "multipolar" world and counter U.S. influence.

The announcement came less than a month after Yakunin, in a rare reshuffle in the Kremlin's inner circle, resigned as head of Russian Railways and disclosed his plans to become a member of the upper house, the Federation Council.

It also appeared to jettison groundwork that the Kremlin began quietly laying more than a year ago that would facilitate Yakunin's move into parliament.

Putin accorded Yakunin the rank of ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary in April 2014, a status that would have allowed the ex-railway chief to represent Kaliningrad in the Federation Council despite having never lived in the region.

The decree granting Yakunin this rank was not made available to the public until this month, when Russia's Kommersant newspaper published a copy on September 8.

Hours before Yakunin announced on September 15 that he would not join parliament, Kommersant cited Federation Council sources as saying that he was already gathering support staff for the job but that he would not seek the post of vice speaker or the chair of one of the chamber's committees.

State news agency RIA Novosti cited a Federation Council source as saying last week that Yakunin would not be offered a leadership post in the upper house.

Stanislav Belkovsky, a Moscow-based political analyst and onetime Kremlin insider, speculated that Yakunin scuttled his planned move into parliament because he felt "insulted" that he would not be given a senior post in the Federation Council.

Belkovsky told RFE/RL that he does not see Yakunin playing a role in Russian politics going forward.

"He'll have a good pension. I could only dream of a pension like that," Belkovsky said.

Before handing in his resignation to Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev on August 20, Yakunin had served as head of Russian Railways since 2005.

Corruption Allegations

During his tenure, Kremlin opponents have repeatedly accused Yakunin of using his position and proximity to Putin to enrich himself -- allegations he has dismissed as baseless.

An investigation by Reuters found that that, under Yakunin's leadership, Russian Railways paid billions of dollars to private contractors with murky ownership structures.

ALSO READ: Operation Yakunin Goes Off The Rails

Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, a fierce critic of Yakunin and his stewardship of Russian Railways, wrote on Twitter that he believes Yakunin declined to become a lawmaker to avoid a requirement to disclose information about his income and assets.

Navalny has published exposés of Yakunin's wealth, including a lavish estate outside Moscow that the Kremlin opponent accuses him of owning through an offshore company.

Yakunin is among a coterie of officials and businessmen who, together with Putin, founded a cooperative to manage dachas they own on the shores of Lake Komsomolsk, 130 kilometers north of St. Petersburg.

During Putin's 15 years in power, some members of the community have become exceptionally wealthy and, like Yakunin, been hit with Western sanctions due to Russia's role in the Ukraine conflict.

The U.S. Treasury Department describes Yakunin as a "close confidant" of Putin.

In a 2013 interview with Russia's Prime news agency, Yakunin said the founders of the cooperative were "simply a small group of people united by common interests and, of course, loyal to our country, wanted to do all we could for everything to turn out alright."

"We did not just want to work for the money but believe it or not, the first thing in our business vision was developing and looking after our country," he said.

Navalny and other Kremlin critics have called Yakunin's patriotic rhetoric hypocritical given that one of his sons, Andrei, lives in London, where he is an investor.

Yakunin said last year that Andrei "tries to contribute to the development of ties between Russia and Europe" in his work.

With reporting by Interfax, RIA Novosti, Reuters, Kommersant, Vedomosti, and RFE/RL's Russian Service
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    Carl Schreck

    Carl Schreck is an award-winning investigative journalist who serves as RFE/RL's enterprise editor. He has covered Russia and the former Soviet Union for more than 20 years, including a decade in Moscow. He has led investigations into corruption, cronyism, and disinformation campaigns in Russia and Central Asia, as well as on poisoning attacks against Kremlin opponents and assassinations of Iranian exiles in the West. Schreck joined RFE/RL in 2014.