Minister's arrest leaves Russian officials asking: Who's next?
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By Darya Korsunskaya, Svetlana Reiter and Vladimir Soldatkin
MOSCOW (Reuters) - The arrest of Russia's economy minister on bribery charges has sown fear across the Moscow political elite that a wider purge may be coming of other senior officials.
Several officials who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity described a febrile atmosphere inside government ministries following the detention of Alexei Ulyukayev, the first serving cabinet minister to be arrested in decades.
Russia's Vedomosti newspaper, citing an unnamed senior security source, published names of other officials that it said had been under surveillance by domestic intelligence agencies looking for evidence of graft.
They included Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich and an aide to Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov. Representatives of Dvorkovich and Shuvalov did not respond to requests for comment.
Asked about further repercussions, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said he saw no connection between the Ulyukayev case and others in the government, and that only investigators could say if other officials were under surveillance.
The investigative committee, the state body which investigates major crimes, denied in a statement that it had other suspects in the case and said media reports about further arrests were ill-informed.
"We have officially stated that the criminal case concerns one individual and one episode," the committee said. "All contrary information ... lies on the conscience of those publications that rely on dishonest, ignorant and incompetent sources."
But officials say privately that they believe more arrests may be coming. One government official drew a parallel with purges of senior Communist Party figures in the Soviet Union, which often ended with the victims shot or sent to a labor camp.
He noted that state investigators had said Ulyukayev had been under secret surveillance for a year before his detention, and said this was contributing to the wider sense of fear. "All of us now are under scrutiny," he said.
Some of his acquaintances had considered leaving the state bureaucracy, but they were fearful this would not make them immune from arrest, he said: "You can't run away."
Ulyukayev has been charged with extorting $2 million in bribes. He is under house arrest pending trial. His lawyer, Timofei Gridnyev, said his client denied the charges.
The anxiety among the ruling elite, officials said privately, was fueled in part by the circumstances of Ulyukayev's arrest, which took place inside the offices of the state oil firm Rosneft, whose boss Igor Sechin has clashed with Ulyukayev and other top officials over policy.
They said this sent a message that the prosecution was backed by Sechin, a powerful lieutenant of President Vladimir Putin, and so was likely to be pursued forcefully.
Russian prosecutors have publicly acknowledged that Rosneft played a role in Ulyukayev's case, saying the company alerted investigators in a timely fashion to evidence of wrongdoing.
According to a law enforcement source and a government source, investigators have been collaborating for months with one member of Sechin's security detail, ex-intelligence officer Oleg Feoktistov, to build a case against Ulyukayev.
A Rosneft spokesman did not respond to a request for comment on the company's role in the case, or the roles of its boss Sechin and his bodyguard Feoktistov. Sechin and Feoktistov could not be reached directly.
Several government sources who spoke about the case to Reuters said there was no evidence that Sechin or Rosneft had any motive in assisting the investigation beyond helping fight corruption.
Sechin's Rosneft became Russia's biggest oil company early in Putin's rule after swallowing assets seized by the state from Yukos, a privatised firm whose boss Mikhail Khordokovsky was jailed for fraud.
Sechin has known Putin for decades and has never denied reports that he, like Putin, served years ago overseas as a Soviet spy. He is considered one of the leading figures in the Kremlin faction of former security forces veterans given top jobs running state companies under Putin.
The United States has put him on a sanctions blacklist as a member of Putin's inner circle culpable for Russia's military intervention in Ukraine.
While no evidence has been publicly produced that Ulyukayev was framed, that has not stopped many officials inside government ministries from reaching the conclusion that other foes of Sechin could be next.
Ulyukayev, along with other senior figures in the government of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, had tried to block Rosneft's plans to take over a smaller state owned oil company, Bashneft.
Some sources in the government or close to it told Reuters on condition of anonymity that they believed Sechin was pursuing a vendetta against people close to Medvedev.
Said one: "It's a message to other ministers. 'If you keep arguing back, you'll end up in the same place'" as Ulyukayev ended up.
Medvedev's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
(Additional reporting by Anastasia Lyrchikova, Olesya Astakhova, Denis Pinchuk, Katya Golubkova and Tatiana Ustinova; writing by Christian Lowe; editing by Peter Graff)
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