Russian Economy Minister Alexei Ulyukayev has been arrested on suspicion of accepting a $2 million (€1.86 million) bribe.
The 60-year-old, who was in charge of reviving the country’s ailing economy, was detained by armed police during a sting operation following a year-long investigation, which Vladimir Putin was aware of throughout.
The Investigative Committee claims that Ulyukayev accepted a bribe for allowing energy giant Rosneft to secure a major deal during a massive sell-off of government assets, namely a 50% stake in oil producer Bashneft.
Deputy head of the Investigative Committee Svetlana Petrenko said in an official statement: “The circumstances of the crime are connected with Aleksey Ulyukayev, who occupies a public post in the Russian Federation, receiving $2 million on November 14 for the positive assessment provided by the Economic Development Ministry that allowed Rosneft to complete the deal on purchasing the government’s 50% stake in Bashneft.”
According to the committee, Ulyukayev “was caught red-handed when receiving a bribe” after he and his associates were overheard discussing the deal in bugged telephone calls. In return for the money, Ulyukayev allegedly agreed that the Economic Development Ministry would give the green light to Rosneft’s proposal to buy the Kremlin’s $5 billion stake in Bashneft. Investigators said Ulyukayev threatened to use his position to make things difficult for the firm if he did not receive the money.
“The minister is detained. In the near future investigators plan to bring charges against Alexei Ulyukayev,” the committee added, stressing that there was no suggestion of wrongdoing on the part of Rosneft, which was aware of the operation to snare Ulyukayev from its beginning.
If found guilty of “large-scale bribery”, he could face up to 15 years in jail. Ulyukayev’s arrest makes him the highest-ranking political figure to face prosecution since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. His detention has been framed in the media by pro-Kremlin voices as a significant victory in the fight against corruption.
Some pro-western observers have cast doubt on the allegations, suggesting that Ulyukayev’s detention might be part of a Kremlin bid to purge the government of “liberals” ahead of presidential elections due to take place in 2018. Ulyukayev, who previously worked as Deputy Chairman of the Russian Central Bank, was seen as strongly pro-western.
“It’s hard to tell who’s actually gaining from all this, apart from the [Investigative Committee], which is diverting attention away from their generals, who are being investigated,” Alexander Shokhin, head of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, told a Russian radio station, according to a translation by the BBC.
A spokesperson from Rosneft said: “The company is not commenting on activities of the Investigative Committee. Bashneft shares were bought according to Russian legislation, based on the best commercial offer.”