Vladimir Yakunin, the powerful chief of Russian Railways and a close confidant of Russian President Vladimir Putin, says he is stepping down as head of the state railway company.
Yakunin's announcement follows his nomination for a seat in Russia’s upper house of parliament, the Federation Council, by the acting governor of the western exclave of Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea.
Yakunin, widely seen as a member of Putin’s inner circle, was quoted by Russian news outlets on August 17 as saying that he planned to leave the state railway monopoly following local and regional elections that will be held on September 13.
“Yes, it’s true,” the Russian version of Forbes magazine quoted Yakunin, 67, as saying. “After the elections I plan to leave [my] post.”
Earlier in the day, Kaliningrad’s election commission said on its website that the region’s acting governor, Nikolai Tsukanov, nominated Yakunin to represent the exclave in the Federation Council, whose members are not popularly elected.
The appointment is expected to go through after the September 13 elections. Taking the Federation Council seat would require Yakunin to step down as head of Russian Railways.
Russian Railways spokesman Grigory Levchenko told Reuters that Yakunin plans to “join the Federation Council” after the September elections in Kaliningrad.
"The country's leadership made him this offer and he accepted," Levchenko was quoted as saying.
Yakunin has served as head of Russian Railways since 2005. During his tenure, Kremlin opponents have repeatedly accused him of using his position and proximity to Putin to enrich himself -- allegations he has dismissed as baseless.
The United States last year imposed a visa ban and financial sanctions on Yakunin and other officials in response to Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula.
It was not immediately clear whether Yakunin’s departure could be part of a broader government reshuffle or whether the move signals any change in his status within Russia’s ruling elite.
Putin is widely seen as an arbiter who oversees competing clans of powerful officials. Given the opacity of the Kremlin’s inner workings, high-profile personnel moves like Yakunin’s exit typically generate speculation about possible infighting between elites.
A former Soviet diplomat at the United Nations in New York, 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.
The cooperative, known as Ozero (Lake), was established in 1996, four years before Putin became president.
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.
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 all right.”
"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.
Kremlin opponents have called Yakunin’s patriotic rhetoric hypocritical given that his son lives in London, where he is an investor.
With reporting by RIA Novosti, forbes.ru, The Moscow Times, Reuters, and bbc.co.uk