MOSCOW – Russian investigators said on Tuesday they had detained Economy Minister Alexei Ulyukayev in a bribery case linked to a $5 billion acquisition by state oil giant Rosneft.
Russia’s main anti-corruption body, the Investigative Committee (SK), said he received a payment of $2m (£1.6m) to endorse the state takeover, the Russia Today reported on Tuesday.
Ulyukayev, a 60-year-old technocrat whose ministry has been overseeing a sell-off of state assets, is the highest-ranking Russian official to be detained while in office since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
State television was quick to present his detention as part of the authorities’ fight against corruption. It may also be evidence of infighting at the highest levels of power and may herald a wider shake-up before the 2018 presidential election.
The SK said Ulyukayev had extorted a $2 million bribe from Rosneft in exchange for signing off its purchase of a 50% stake in mid-sized oil producer Bashneft.
According to SK spokeswoman Svetlana Petrenko, “Ulyukayev was caught red-handed”, receiving a $2m bribe on 14 November for giving a favorable assessment of the Rosneft deal.
Russia’s state-run TV channels highlighted the arrest under the headline “Battle against corruption”.
President Putin was informed about the case when the investigation was first launched, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told the media. “These are serious allegations,” Peskov said. “Only a court can deliver a verdict.”
If found guilty he could face a prison sentence of between eight and 15 years.
Ulyukayev, 60, was appointed economy minister in 2013. An economic liberal in the 1990s, he became deputy chairman of Russia’s central bank in 2004.
He is not part of Putin’s inner circle, which is dominated by people who favor a commanding role for the state in the economy, but neither is he a part of the rival camp of economic liberals.
Ulyukayev is close to Andrei Kostin, the influential head of Russia’s second-biggest lender, state-owned VTB, and chairs VTB’s supervisory board.