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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Kiriyenko Unallied, Unsullied

President Boris Yeltsin slapped Sergei Kiriyenko on the back and guided him into the most coveted seat in the White House -- the prime minister's.

"Thank you," Kiriyenko whispered, gliding into the green leather armchair.

"Thank you, thank you," Kiriyenko, 35, added with a shy grin after jumping back up to shake the president's hand.

A bespectacled man with thinning hair and a puggish face, the diminutive Kiriyenko does not cut an imposing figure. People who know him describe him as hard-working, untainted by corruption and independent of the financial oligarchs.

It's been a rocket ride to the top for the former banker and oil executive who rose from humble beginnings as a child in a multi-ethnic home to a hair's breadth away from leading the government of the world's largest country.

His critics in parliament, from whom he still needs to win approval before taking over the prime minister's duties full-time, charge that Kiriyenko is a political neophyte from the provinces who has no business running the government.

But his friends and business associates, as well as journalists who covered Kiriyenko's Nizhny Novgorod career, said Friday that Yeltsin could not have nominated a more diligent man for the job.

"I am delighted but not surprised," said Irina Fominykh, a senior administrator in the Nizhny Novgorod branch of Sberbank, who first crossed paths with Kiriyenko 10 years ago when both worked in the regional administration.

"It's about time our country finally started to recognize and promote people who are decent, highly professional and who also respect their elders," she said.

Until Monday, when Yeltsin plucked Kiriyenko from the Fuel and Energy Ministry and put him in temporary charge of the Cabinet, few outside Russia's tight business circles could recognize his face in a crowd.

Yeltsin has sought to counter Kiriyenko's political anonymity by playing up his appointee's managerial strengths. "Kiriyenko is what they call a technocrat, an expert in management," Yeltsin said in his radio address to the nation Friday.

In Moscow only since May 1997, Kiriyenko has developed a reputation as a market economist who has refused to ally himself with any of the country's financial elite while quietly and efficiently going about his energy sector duties.

When Yeltsin in January issued a 12-point action program and attached names of ministers to each job, Kiriyenko was mentioned just once. He was the last of five officials named in point number six -- reducing charges on transportation of freight and energy.

His old colleagues, however, are not too surprised by Kiriyenko's meteoric rise through the Kremlin hierarchy. They say he did the same thing back home.

"We are all very lucky," said Sergei Dirgunov, an aide to the chairman of Garantiya Bank, which Kiriyenko helped form and headed from January 1994 until November 1996, when he was asked to chair the Norsi Oil Company.

"His chief asset is that he has never been tainted by corruption, nobody ever tells stories behind his back," Dirgunov said.

Kiriyenko was born on July 26, 1962, to an ethnically mixed family in Sukhumi, Abkhazia. His father, Vladilen Israitel, taught communist ideology courses at the Nizhny Novgorod Marine Academy. Kiriyenko adopted the last name of his mother, who is an ethnic Russian.

After serving two years in the army, Kiriyenko settled in the Nizhny Novgorod district, then known as Gorkiy. He specialized in shipbuilding while a student at the Gorkiy Institute of Maritime Transport, and then briefly entered local politics.

Friends say Kiriyenko first met the man who would eventually bring him to Moscow, acting First Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov, in 1989, when both became prominent members of a pro-democracy faction of the region's Soviet-era Komsomol.

Nemtsov continued with politics and soon became governor of the Nizhny Novgorod region. Kiriyenko went into business and, using resources from the region's pension fund, launched the Garantiya Bank.

"He had a brilliant reputation in our business and media circles," said Alexei Starodubtsev, a reporter with Nizhny Novgorod's Kurs business weekly.

"But he was never flashy like Nemtsov. When Nemtsov left for Moscow there was some talk about rallying behind Kiriyenko as his replacement. But several polls showed that nobody knew who Kiriyenko was," Starodubtsev added.

Nemtsov helped draft Kiriyenko into the Kremlin in May 1997, when Kiriyenko became a deputy in the Fuel and Energy Ministry. He was appointed to head the ministry in November.

Oil and energy sector analysts have praised Kiriyenko's track record in Moscow.

Last summer, he helped end a program under which Russia's privately owned oil companies had to turn over about 15 percent of production to the federal government to fund so-called "special needs."

Western oil majors and analysts were pleased, citing this as a sign that Kiriyenko was cracking down on Soviet-era waste.

He is credited with helping break Gazprom's monopoly on the nation's natural gas pipelines. He has also helped ease recent electricity black-outs in Russia's Far East.

Economists say Kiriyenko has not sided with any single bank or business figure. Some political analysts put a different spin on this, however, saying Kiriyenko has been friendly with everyone from Nemtsov to former Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin to tycoon Boris Berezovsky.

Recently, his work was applauded by prominent Communist Aman Tuleyev, now governor of the coal-producing Kuzbass region which, in recent years, has been gripped by a non-payment crisis.

Tuleyev said Kiriyenko's approach to his region's problems was tough but just.

In one of his rare face-to-face interviews with Yeltsin, Kiriyenko was applauded by the president for his work. But Yeltsin did take a jab at Kiriyenko's youth.

"They put you in a very high position. Do you have enough air to breathe?" Yeltsin jokingly asked Kiriyenko after meeting him earlier this month.

Kiriyenko is married with two children. His older daughter turned eight last Monday, the day Kiriyenko became Russia's acting prime minister.