RFE/RL – Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (Autor)
A Russian court has set an August 16 starting date for the bribery trial of former Economic Development Minister Aleksei Ulyukayev, the highest-ranking government official to be arrested on corruption charges since the Stalin era.
At a preliminary hearing held behind closed doors on August 8, Moscow's Zamoskvoretsky district court also prolonged Ulyukayev’s house arrest until January 27, 2018.
Ulyukayev was detained in November 2016 after he was allegedly caught red-handed receiving a $2 million bribe in exchange for his ministry's approval for state oil giant Rosneft to acquire a majority stake in regional oil company Bashneft from the government.
Speaking to journalists before getting into a prison service car to be returned home after the hearing, Ulyukayev said he is innocent.
"I did not take a bribe," he said. "It's all a provocation."
Ulyukayev, 61, faces up to 15 years in prison if convicted.
His arrest sent shock waves through the Russian elite and sparked speculation about high-stakes economic and political battles in circles close to President Vladimir Putin.
Putin fired Ulyukayev after his arrest in November. Ulyukayev had headed the Economic Development Ministry since 2013, and had been deputy chairman of Russia's central bank for a decade before that.
Ulyukayev, who had overseen the massive privatization of state companies, initially opposed the sale of the stake in Bashneft to Rosneft, but later endorsed it after Putin said it could give the state budget a boost.
Rosneft is headed by Igor Sechin, a Kremlin insider who is regarded as Putin's close ally and one of the most powerful people in Russia.
Ulyukayev was seen as a member of the more liberal camp in circles surrounding Putin, who observers say has sought to maintain power and control by balancing various forces in the elite and playing them off one another.
The minister's arrest came amid a high-profile antigraft campaign and shake-ups among senior Russian officials that observers tied to the presidential election due in March 2018, in which Putin is widely expected to seek and secure a fourth term.
In June 2016, liberal Kirov Oblast Governor Nikita Belykh was arrested and accused of accepting a 400,000-euro bribe. He is in jail and has yet to be tried.
In September 2016, Interior Ministry Colonel Dmitry Zakharchenko was arrested after police found $120 million in cash during a raid on his Moscow apartment.
A poll conducted by the state-run Russian Public Opinion Research Center after Ulyukayev was detained indicated that most Russians saw the allegations as the result of a clan war in the government.
The polling agency said that 54 percent of respondents believed the it was most likely an "assertion of power, a settling of scores or a conflict between competing clans."
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