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Putin's right-hand man exits Kremlin shadows

A former Soviet military interpreter is the informal leader of the  nationalist, ex-military and security service officers fighting to maintain a big state role in the Russian economy.
Image: Russia's top energy official Deputy Prime Minister Sechin speaks during an interview with Reuters during the St. Petersburg International Economic forum in St. Petersburg
Russia's top energy official is Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin.ALEXANDER DEMIANCHUK / Reuters
/ Source: Reuters

Igor Sechin's soft tones and courteous manner belie his fearsome reputation.

Ambassadors and officials regard Sechin, a former Soviet military interpreter, as the informal leader of the "siloviki" clan of nationalist, ex-military and security service officers fighting to maintain a big state role in the Russian economy.

Gatekeeper for Vladimir Putin during his 2000-2008 presidency, Sechin is now a deputy prime minister overseeing Russia's vast energy and metals sectors, the world's biggest.

Oligarchs snap to attention in his presence and Forbes magazine ranks Sechin among the world's top 50 most powerful people, one notch above Kremlin chief Dmitry Medvedev, widely regarded as junior to Putin.

The role has brought unaccustomed public attention to a man more comfortable with life in the shadows and Sechin, 49, used a rare interview with Reuters during the St. Petersburg Economic Forum to try to soften his intimidating reputation.

"This seems to me to be something from the realm of legends and myth," he said when asked during the 90-minute conversation whether he was indeed the leader of the Kremlin "siloviki." "It's not serious, just not serious to hang a label on someone."

So how would Sechin like to be described?

"A normal citizen should be a patriot of his country," the deputy premier replied. "A decent person, professional if you work in the government and effective, that's all."

Many U.S. senators and congressmen have a military background, he adds, and they are never described as "siloviki."

Sechin bristles at the notion that his background, political alliances and duties running Russia's oil and gas industry put him at odds with Medvedev's vision of Russia as a modern, democratic, pro-Western knowledge economy.

"The president is talking about the risks (of an oil-based economy), he is not saying we should move away from using natural resources -- that is already a given which is the foundation of the Russian economy," Sechin explained.

Medvedev, he goes on, is right to want to reduce the role of the state in the economy "but we need to sell the share efficiently." He cites the IPO of the state oil giant he chairs, Rosneft, as an example of how to do this.

Although it was "bad" that oligarchs got their hands on highly lucrative natural resource assets for almost nothing during Russia's chaotic sell-offs in the 1990s, Sechin said: "What has happened has happened. Privatization took place. We do not intend to revise privatizations but we hope ... that these assets will be used effectively."

Sechin has been especially active recently in Latin America, traveling to Venezuela to help negotiate arms sales and oil industry partnerships and rebuilding Moscow's Soviet-era trade and finance links with Cuba.

How do his deals with Washington's main foes in Latin America fit with Medvedev's policy of showing a friendly face to the West and boosting relations with Washington?

"It's nothing personal," Sechin replies smoothly. He says that socialist Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez is a "natural partner" for Russia because the two nations have common interests.

As for $4 billion of arms sales to Venezuela, "all countries with high industrial production potential do this" and if Moscow does not supply Caracas with weapons, then someone else will. "Why do we need to refuse?"

A long-term Kremlin insider, Sechin is especially cautious when pressed on Russia's 2012 presidential election.

Many insiders expect Putin, now prime minister, to return to the presidency -- but they do not rule out a continuation of the current "tandem" structure with Medvedev in the Kremlin and Putin running the country as premier.

Could Sechin be a third candidate?

"I have never heard a more interesting question," he comments caustically. "At least not from the realms of fairy tales and fantasy."

The question proves so sensitive that his spokesman calls back hours later asking to suggest another response on a possible Sechin presidential candidature: "This is not possible for objective and subjective reasons."

The deputy premier, who began his association with Putin when the two men worked together in the St Petersburg town hall in the 1990s, said he was surprised to have been invited to work in Moscow's corridors of power on Red Square.

"I somehow unexpectedly ended up in the Kremlin," he said. "There is a special feeling there that this place is holy and deeply significant. There is a very good aura there."