Stockbyte/Thinkstock(MOSCOW) — Russia’s Economy minister has been arrested on corruption charges, the most senior official ever detained under president Vladimir Putin, startling a country that rarely sees top functionaries punished despite rampant allegations of government misconduct.
The minister, Sergei Ulyukaev, 60, was detained on Monday night “in the act” of receiving a $2 million bribe, according to Russia’s Investigative Committee, a law enforcement body that handles major cases.
Ulyukaev is suspected of soliciting the bribe in return for approving a high profile oil deal. An Investigative Committee statement said Ulyukaev had been charged and that prosecutors would seek to have him placed under house arrest. If found guilty, Ulyukaev could face up to 15 years in jail.
“These are very serious accusations, which demand very serious proof,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitriy Peskov told reporters, adding that only a court could determine Ulyukaev’s guilt. Peskov said that president Vladimir Putin had been following the investigation from the beginning.
The arrest and charging of a serving official of Ulyukaev’s seniority is unprecedented since Putin came to power in 1999, prompting speculation of an internal struggle among the country’s elite. A technocrat, Ulyukaev was tasked with overseeing Russia’s economic development policies, working closely with Russia’s prime minister, Dmitriy Medvedev.
Speculation quickly followed that Ulyukaev’s arrest might herald wider shifts in the political balance of power in the country. It follows a series of arrests and reshuffles that have reshaped the top levels of Russian government this year. Putin has recently replaced his long-serving chief-of-staff, while overhauling Russia’s security agencies and appointing his former top bodyguard to oversee them.
Ulyukaev is known as an economic liberal with ties to Medvedev. His fall is seen by some observers as potentially dealing a blow to Medvedev’s sphere of influence in the government, in favor of hardliners in Putin’s national security council, who are known to press for more state control of the economy.
The oil deal that led to Ulyukaev’s arrest has been at the center of a struggle at high levels of the government for months. Top officials sought to block the buyout of regional oil producer Bashneft by Rosneft, the state-controlled energy giant. Both Medvedev and Ulyukaev had come out against the deal, questioning whether Rosneft, already majority state-owned, should be permitted to take part in what was supposed to be a privatization.
Opposition to the deal was overruled by president Putin, and the struggle was finally settled last month, with Rosneft agreeing to purchase the state’s 50 percent stake in Bashneft for up to $5 billion, the Financial Times reported.
The Investigative Committee Tuesday said the deal’s legality was not in question following Ulyukaev’s arrest.
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