Russia: Alexei Ulyukayev sentenced to eight years in prison for taking bribe | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 14.12.2017
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Russia: Alexei Ulyukayev sentenced to eight years in prison for taking bribe

One of Russia's highest-profile court cases in decades has come to an end. Former Economics Minister Alexei Ulyukayev was found guilty of extorting a bribe in a trial hitting at the heart of power in the country.

A court in Moscow on Friday ruled that former Economics Minister Alexei Ulyukayev demanded and took a $2 million (€1.7 million) bribe from Igor Sechin, the CEO of oil giant Rosneft.

"Ulyukayev is guilty of having taken a bribe as he carried out official duties," judge Larisa Semyonova said.

Ulyukayev was sentenced to eight years in prison. The court also ruled that Ulyukayev must pay a fine of more than 130 million roubles ($2.21 million, €1.78 million).

Most Russians did not need a trial to have an opinion on Ulyukayev. When the state-run polling institute WZIOM conducted a survey last August, 57 percent of respondents in the country said they believed the former minister of economic development was guilty of corruption. Only 7 percent thought otherwise. The poll was conducted in front of the Moscow courthouse where Russia's most high-profile trial in recent history was about to get underway.  

Ulyukayev has been under house arrest for more than a year. Standing before the court, he appeared thin and in poor health. In his plea, Ulyukayev claimed that for a man of his age there was little difference between a long prison sentence and the death penalty.

'Gladiator with a paper sword'

The 61-year-old is the first minister in post-Soviet Russia to have been arrested while in office. Ulyukayev was detained by agents from the FSB intelligence service during a dramatic late-night raid one year ago in the parking lot of state-run oil giant Rosneft. The agents found a briefcase with $2 million in cash in the trunk of his ministry-owned BMW. Ulyukayev had received the briefcase from Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin immediately before his arrest.

Valdimir Putin and Igor Sechin (picture-alliance/AP Images)

Sechin has long been one of Putin's trusted confidants

Sechin, a former deputy chief of government and a close confidant of Russian President Vladimir Putin, was the prosecution's key witness in the case. He claims that Ulyukayev demanded the money for his approval of a billion-dollar takeover deal in which Rosneft would buy Bashneft, a state-owned oil company in the southern Russian autonomous republic of Bashkiria. 

Ulyukayev has denied the accusation and claims that he is the victim of a setup. He says he thought the briefcase contained bottles of wine, a gift that Sechin had previously promised him. There is no concrete evidence that Ulyukayev ever demanded a payment. It is one man's word against another's.

Sechin was called before the court four times and but has never appeared, citing scheduling conflicts. "A bizarre coincidence," said Ulyukayev. The defendant has described the trial as a "circus show" and compared himself with "an old gladiator trying to fend off well-armed opponents with just a paper sword at his disposal."

Puzzling backstory

Ulyukayev was an internationally respected political heavyweight in Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev's government. He had a reputation for being liberal and was a member of a right-wing liberal political party in the early 1990s. By and large, Ulyukayev remained loyal to the Kremlin throughout his career and until recently had traveled often to western Europe, including Germany, to drum up investment in Russia despite the country being sanctioned for the annexation of Crimea. Ulyukayev himself, however, was never part of Putin's inner circle and had been critical of Russia's economic stagnation.

BRICS summit in Ufa (picture-alliance/dpa/A. Druzhinin)

Ulyukayev (right) served as Russia's economic development minister from 2013 until his arrest in 2016

Russian journalist Konstantin von Eggert has pointed to a number of inconsistencies in the Ulyukayev case. The well-monitored Rosneft parking lot would seem to be an odd choice to hand over bribe payments, and it makes little sense that the money would be handed over weeks after the Bashneft purchase, at a point when Ulyukayev had no power to stop it, said Eggert. And as far as Russian bribes go, he added, the sum is unusually paltry for a deal of that magnitude.

The second most powerful man in Russia?

According to Alexey Cherepanov, who formerly worked with Ulyukayev during his own days in the Ministry of Finance, the former minister "offended a friend of Putin" and was "no longer of use to Putin's team." Sechin, on the other hand, has known Putin since the president's days as St. Petersburg's deputy mayor. Some media outlets have speculated that Sechin is now the second most powerful man in Russia after Ulyukayev's arrest; right behind Putin himself.

Ulyukayev's trial was open to the press and it is likely that Sechin stayed away because the Rosneft boss wanted to avoid seeing his name linked to a corruption trial as he seeks to expand his company abroad. Incidentally, Rosneft's board of directors is now chaired by another friend of Putin's — Germany's former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder.

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