By NATALIYA VASILYEVA
MOSCOW (AP) — Breaking months of silence, the former Russian economic development minister on trial for allegedly accepting a $2 million bribe publicly accused the head of Russia’s oil company on Wednesday of setting him up.
Alexei Ulyukayev, the highest-ranking Russian official to have been arrested since 1993, was detained last year at the headquarters of Russia’s largest oil producer, Rosneft, after a sting operation set up by the FSB intelligence agency. The circumstances of the case have ignited speculation that Ulyukayev fell victim to a Kremlin power play by Igor Sechin, chief executive of Rosneft and President Vladimir Putin’s close associate.
Ulyukayev, who has been under house arrest since last November, testified in court Wednesday that he was set up by Sechin, saying the CEO had invited him to his office and handed him the briefcase with cash.
“The FSB had plotted how to hand over the money,” Ulyukayev told the court. “Sechin called me, said he needed to talk about the corporation’s affairs and convinced me to come over to Rosneft, where he gave me the money.”
Ulyukayev said the charges are trumped up and based “solely” on Sechin’s testimony.
Sechin hasn’t commented on the accusation.
Neither Ulyukayev nor his lawyers had commented on the case previously, giving rise to speculation that the former minister would not want to publicly take on Sechin, one of the most feared Kremlin insiders. Sechin has been working in different capacities under Putin since the early 1990s and is believed to wield almost unlimited influence in Russia’s energy sector.
The Ulyukayev case has been widely seen as part of Putin’s ongoing efforts to balance rival factions in the upper echelons of power in Russia.
Investigators said Ulyukayev accepted the money for having given the green light to Rosneft to take part in bidding for another oil company.
Critics, however, questioned why the payment was made a month after Rosneft completed the deal, why it was paid in cash and why the experienced Ulyukayev, who had worked in the Russian government since 2000, would be foolish enough to extort money from the super-powerful Sechin.
Ulyukayev, who was appointed a deputy finance minister in 2000 and economic development minister in 2013, has spoken out against increasing government presence in the Russian economy. He had originally opposed Rosneft’s bidding for the other company, Bashneft, saying it was wrong for a state-owned company to take part in a privatization drive.