With more witnesses testifying in the trial against former economy minister Aleksey Ulyukayev, the media have covered some unusual and downright weird details surrounding Russia’s most high-profile corruption probe in years.
Ulyukayev was detained in November 2016 on charges of allegedly receiving a $2 million bribes in return for his ministry’s support for a positive assessment allowing state oil company Rosneft to complete a deal on purchasing the government’s stake in another Russian oil major, Bashneft.
At the time of his arrest, Ulyukayev occupied the post of Russian economy minister, which makes him the highest-ranking Russian official ever to face corruption charges.
In the most recent developments, reporter Alexander Yunashev, who worked for Life TV, told the court about a meeting between Aleksey Ulyukayev, the president of Russian bank VTB24, Andrey Kostin, and head of Rosneft Igor Sechin, which took place in Goa, India in October 2016, during the BRICS summit. Prosecutors allege that this is when Ulyukayev demanded illegal compensation for his actions.
The witness says that Sechin and Kostin were playing billiards and Ulyukayev stood nearby and watched. When journalists asked the officials about the stakes in the game, Kostin answered “oil derricks,” he said, adding that they were all in good spirits.
Earlier, prosecutors presented to the court a record of the conversation that allegedly took place between Ulyukayev and Sechin shortly before the former’s detention. They also made public the circumstances that had led to the probe. According to prosecutors, Sechin and the head of Rosneft security department, Oleg Feoktistov, addressed the director of the Federal Security Service (FSB) with a complaint that economy minister Ulyukayev was demanding a $2 million bribe for his assistance in the Bashneft privatization deal. The FSB asked the two executives to participate in the investigation and they agreed.
In a transcript of the conversation that was read out in court, Ulyukayev mentions several times a request from Sechin, says that this request was fulfilled, and apologizes for the delay. Sechin thanks him and says that he can pick up “the basket,” and Ulykayev agrees. Some Russian media have even released photos of the basket, which is rather large and filled with expensive sausages and bottles of wine.
At the same hearing, prosecutors showed a video record of Ulyukayev’s arrest in which FSB agents open his car and take out the basket and a large bag with $100 bills. According to Interfax, forensics experts showed that the money, the bag, and the ex-minister’s hands were all covered in special invisible ink used to catch bribery suspects.
When reporters asked Sechin to comment on the transcript and video, he said that Ulyukayev had personally requested the unlawful payment, determined its size, collected it, put it in the car and left, and according to the Russian Criminal Code, this all constitutes a crime.
The Rosneft boss also criticized the media for drawing the public’s attention to details of the case, and later, the prosecutors for revealing facts that could include state secrets.
“There are certain things that should be completely closed from all sides… Even a single thought to reveal them must never appear – there are state secrets in these materials,” Sechin told Kommersant.
“The special services have a term for this – drawing attention to trivial matters. When they published these materials, the public immediately started becoming distracted from the essence of the issue to certain passing things,” he added.
Ulyukayev told reporters to “beware of Greeks bearing sausage,” a rephrasing of Virgil’s “Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes.” A short time later, he commented on Sechin’s complaints about distracting the public with a Russian proverb: “Don’t blame the mirror for your ugly face.”
The ex-minister pleaded not guilty at the start of the trial and continues to do so. If convicted, he can face up to 15 years behind bars and a fine of up to 100 times the amount of the bribe.