Vladimir Putin fires economy minister over bribery charges

News Hour:

Russian President Vladimir Putin dismissed Economy Minister Alexei Ulyukayev on Tuesday over allegations he extorted a $2 million bribe from top oil producer Rosneft, a case that could expose fault lines in the Russian leader’s inner circle.

Ulyukayev, a 60-year-old technocrat whose ministry oversees a politically-charged sale of state assets, is the highest-ranking Russian official to be detained while in office since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

His case heralded a possible standoff between Rosneft boss and Putin ally Igor Sechin and those in the government who have resisted Rosneft’s ambitions to acquire more state assets at a time when low oil prices and Western sanctions are biting.

Such infighting risks triggering potentially destabilising clan infighting in the run-up to a presidential election in 2018 when Putin is widely expected to run for a fourth term.

Ulyukayev, who a Moscow court ruled should be put under house arrest for two months until Jan. 15, faces up to 15 years in jail if found guilty.

Wearing a blue suit, Ulyukayev told a Moscow court he did not accept his guilt. It was in his own interests to cooperate with the investigation as he valued his reputation, he said.

The Investigative Committee, the state agency that investigates major crimes, said Ulyukayev had extorted the bribe in exchange for approving Rosneft’s $5 billion purchase of a stake in mid-sized oil producer Bashneft.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that Putin had dismissed Ulyukayev after losing trust in him. When asked if the Bashneft deal would be reviewed, he said: “This does not concern the deal in any way.”

In a twist reminiscent of the Soviet era, Ulyukayev’s detention was announced in the early hours of the morning, with state TV and pro-Kremlin politicians calling it part of the fight against corruption.

Investigators praised Rosneft for tipping them off about Ulyukayev’s alleged wrongdoing early so they were able to catch him “red-handed” in what law enforcement sources told Russian media was a carefully planned sting operation.

His phones had been tapped and his electronic communications monitored, the same sources said. Ulyukayev’s lawyer, Timofei Gridnev, told Reuters his client had been detained at Rosneft’s Moscow offices.

Investigators said Ulyukayev had threatened to use his position to cause problems for Rosneft unless it paid him.

They said they were not challenging the legality of Rosneft’s purchase of the Bashneft stake or investigating it.

Putin was informed about the case when the investigation was first launched, Peskov told reporters. “These are serious allegations,” Peskov said. “Only a court can deliver a verdict.”

Previous high-profile prosecutions during Putin’s rule have been a cover for settling commercial or political scores, according to people involved in those cases. The Kremlin and law enforcement agencies deny that, saying they only target criminals.

This article has been posted by a News Hour Correspondent. For queries, please contact through [email protected]
No Comments