Alexei Ulyukayev trial: Kremlin airs its dirty laundry in rare public display of division

Oliver Carroll
Russian former Economy Minister Alexei Ulyukayev, who was charged with accepting a bribe, arrives at court in Moscow: Reuters

Russia is not used to seeing its senior politicians tried for corruption – let alone see them sent to a high-security prison colony. Likewise, Kremlin infighting is normally hidden far from public view. Alexei Ulyukayev’s trial proved the exception in both cases.

Several theories have been put forward as to why.

One: that Mr Ulyukayev stood in the way of all-powerful Igor Sechin as he tried to acquire a stake in the Bashneft oil company.

The public record supports such an interpretation. Mr Ulyukayev opposed the deal before switching at the last minute.

Two: that President Putin wanted to send a signal about new rules of the game in a cash-poor government.

Many governors and officials, used to supplementing paltry official wages with excellent bungs, will be no doubt reconsidering their behaviour today.

Three: that in a context of growing chaos within government, this was a reminder of who was in charge and a warning not to expect weakness.

Four: the imprisonment of a rich minister will play well to the impoverished Russian electorate’s sense of justice ahead of next March’s presidential elections.

Of course, it may well be that all four reasons were at play.

The trial has split the elite from the very start. Writing on Facebook, Anatoly Chubais, a former deputy prime minister, doubted its very premise: “They are saying Ulyukayev was threatening [state-owned oil company] Rosneft. Have I suddenly stopped understanding something about this world?”

Alexei Kudrin, another former deputy prime minister, and close friend of the President, today described the verdict as “awful” and “groundless".

Anyone can fall victim to such injustice in Russia, he wrote on Twitter.