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By John Helmer, Moscow

Sergei Naryshkin (right image), the Kremlin chief of staff, who has been chairman of the board of Sovcomflot, the state-owned tanker operator, has been replaced by Ilya Klebanov (left), a former federal minister of industry, according to a Kremlin release last Friday, October 7. The appointment appears to have taken Sovcomflot by surprise, as the company, run by Sergei Frank, has yet to issue its own news release, and has been refusing for several weeks to answer questions on Naryshkin’s status on the board.

Naryshkin, who first took a seat on the Sovcomflot board in 2004 and became chairman in June of 2008, has been silent on whether he would step down or not.

President Dmitry Medvedev had ordered the replacement on state company boards of senior government ministers on April 2. Most of the replacements required had been made long before October 1, Medvedev’s final deadline for completion of the process. Those who complied early, like Deputy Prime Ministers Igor Sechin and Alexei Kudrin, were Medvedev’s rivals in the presidential and prime ministerial succession. Until September 24, when Medvedev announced he was stepping down, and that Vladimir Putin would be the next president, Naryshkin was closer to Medvedev than other officials of the same rank. Before he joined Medvedev as chief of staff in 2008, Naryshkin had been Putin’s chief of staff (2004-2007).

Naryshkin’s replacement at Sovcomflot has not been separately announced. Instead, it appears on a list issued by the Kremlin of board replacements at 34 state companies. The changeover at Sovcomflot appears at number 21.

Like Naryshkin, 57, Klebanov, 60, is a born and bred St. Petersburger; both had engineering and economics backgrounds as students, but Naryshkin went into government service first. Klebanov ran the well-known Leningrad Optics and Mechanics Association (LOMO) for several years before taking charge of industry and economic policy for the St. Petersburg city government in 1997 and 1998, succeeding Naryshkin there. When Vladimir Putin began building his power base in Moscow, Klebanov moved to the federal government, where he was deputy prime minister in charge of military industry from 1998 to 2002. He was no match for the lobbying by the military-industry complex, and was then given the post of Minister of Industry, Science and Technology for 21 months. Since November 2003, Klebanov has served as presidential representative to the northwestern federal district of Russia, which includes St. Petersburg. Viewed from Moscow, he has been well under the political horizon, and there is no sign of his involvement in the major shipyard, port and shipping controversies there during the past decade.

Last month, on September 6, it was announced that Klebanov was withdrawing from his post for what was officially described at the time as a move to another government job. Another Kremlin notice announced he was no longer a member of the Security Council on September 14, and his replacement as the northwest district representative, Nikolai Vinnichenko, installed in his place. Vinnichenko was chief prosecutor in St. Petersburg in 2003-2004; then head of the federal bailiffs’ service; and for the past three years, presidential representative to the Urals district. Vinnichenko has been moved sideways, but in mid-September it wasn’t clear whether Klebanov was moving up, down, or out.

On September 12 Sovcomflot announced that Naryshkin had chaired a board meeting at Sovcomflot; his reappointment to the board had been confirmed by the shipping company, following the state shareholder session on June 29. He was again confirmed at his post on July 1, when the company released its financial report for 2010.

A local media service reported Naryshkin as introducing Vinnichenko at a ceremony in St. Petersburg on September 15. At the time, he publicly notified Klebanov that he was being awarded a medal for meritorious service, and given a new job, which Naryshkin described as requiring “considerable knowledge and management experience, which, of course, there is in Klebanov.” Three weeks then elapsed in guarded silence at Sovcomflot headquarters.

Naryshkin has been the Sovcomflot chairman during the controversial UK High Court trial, which ended in March with judgements sharply critical of Sovcomflot and its management. Since then there has been active internal debate within the Russian government over personnel changes at the shipping company.

St Petersburg sources have an interesting, though uncorroborated tale to tell about what has happened. They claim that a month ago, Klebanov was intending to retire from government service altogether. They add that he had suffered personally (medically) during the aftermath of the Kursk submarine disaster, which began with the explosion and sinking of the vessel on August 12, 2000, and the fatally flawed rescue attempt that followed. Since then he has been close to another St. Petersburger, Dmitry Kozak, who was chairman of Sovcomflot between 2000 and 2004. Their relationship reportedly deteriorated at the start of this year for other reasons. But Klebanov’s strongest supporter in government has been Prime Minister Putin, and according to the sources, it was Putin’s decision to bring Klebanov out of retirement and put him in charge at Sovcomflot, taking management and board at Sovcomflot by surprise. What Putin has told Klebanov to do next isn’t known.

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