Russian Economic Development Minister Alexei Ulyukayev was taken into custody early on November 15 and charged with exacting a $2mn bribe to facilitate the recent sale of the Bashneft oil company.
Ulyukayev is accused of extorting the money by threatening representatives of state oil giant Rosneft, which in October bought a controlling stake in Bashneft for $5bn, Interfax news agency cited Investigative Committee (IC) spokesperson Svetlana Petrenko as saying.
Marking the most senior arrest of a Russian state official since the Soviet period, Federal Security Service (FSB) operatives took the 60-year-old minister into custody in the middle of the night. The FSB had been tapping Ulyukayev’s phone since early summer, Petrenko said.
A source in law enforcement told Interfax: “The money was passed to Ulyukayev during an investigative experiment under the control of law enforcement authorities.” There was no complaint about the conduct of Rosneft officials, the source said.
Ulyukayev is said to have signed off on the evaluation of the 50% stake in Bashneft before its controversial sale to Rosneft in a deal that critics said merely moved state money from one pocket to another.
The sale was crucial to government efforts to bring the budget deficit below 3.7% by year’s end, with proceeds being paid straight into Treasury funds. A separate 19.5% stake in Rosneft itself is also expected to be sold this year for $11bn to help contain the deficit.
The Investigative Committee said the case against Ulyukayev did not compromise the legality of the Bashneft acquisition by Rosneft, which is controlled by Igor Sechin, a close associate of President Vladimir Putin.
“These are very serious charges that require very serious evidence,” Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in a first reaction from the Kremlin. “In any case, only the court can decide anything. It is known that the court does not always agree with investigators, and vice versa,” Peskov said in the early morning of November 15, adding that he did not know if the president had yet been informed of the events.
However, unnamed sources close to Kremlin told Gazeta.ru that Putin had previously approved the “design of the case” and arrest of Ulyukayev, who having headed the ministry since June 2013 is now likely to be replaced by Strategic Initiatives Agency head Andrei Nikitin.
Other sources in the government told the media outlet that Ulyukayev was close to resigning in October over the precision of the macro outlook prepared by the finance ministry, and even wrote his resignation letter.
His detention on corruption charges drew shocked reactions in the business community.
“Were Ulyukayev to be accused of running over an old lady on the highway, that would look more believable,” the head of Russian Union of Entrepreneurs and Industrialists, Alexander Shokhin, told Gazeta.ru.
“Neither experts nor officials doubted the sale price of Bashneft being the market one, thus taking a bribe for the market valuation is a strange accusation,” Shokhin added, reminding of Rosneft’s influence on the decision-making in the case.