The absence of state TV correspondents at the Zamoskvorechye courtroom offered the first clues. Defendant Alexey Ulyukayev, Russia’s one-time economics minister, appeared shortly after 10am local time. But Igor Sechin – the head of state oil behemoth Rosneft, close confidante to the President Vladimir Putin and a key witness in the trial – did not follow him.
In her first comments of the day, Judge Larisa Semenova revealed Mr Sechin’s office had refused to accept her official summons. It did not seem to matter that the request was sent also by email and fax. The message was clear: today would not be the day that Mr Ulyukayev – now older, visibly thinner – would come face to face with a man so central to his scandalous fall from grace.
The story has it all: exotic locations, alleged bungs, secret recordings and a basket of sausages. It begins in Goa, India, October 2016, with a game of billiards. There, prosecutors allege, the then-economics minister pressured Mr Sechin into agreeing a $2m bung for dropping his opposition to state-owned Rosneft’s purchase of 50 per cent of rival oil company Bashneft. The Bashneft deal had been presented as a watermark test for Russian privatisation but resulted in a tug-of-war within the government.
A month after the Goa trip, Mr Sechin invited the economics minister to his offices in Moscow. Little did Mr Ulyukayev know it, but an elaborate sting lay ahead. According to secret recordings, Mr Ulyukayev was offered two “gifts” – a basket of home-made sausages, and a zipped bag. The minister accepted both. On his exit from the building, FSB officers intervened, opened the bag and “discovered” stacks of crisp dollars. Stunned, Mr Ulyukayev said he thought he had been given fine wine.
Mr Ulyukayev became the first serving minister arrested in Russia since secret police chief Lavrenty Beria was detained after Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953.
The following day, the minister was fired, placed under house arrest and banned from talking to the press, and his considerable assets were frozen. Spokesman Dmitry Peskov confirmed that President Putin had been aware of the operation from the start. But others in government expressed surprise. Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev described the case as “difficult … beyond my comprehension.”
There were many questions. How could Mr Ulyukayev influence a deal, given that it had already taken place? And how could the relatively lowly minister threaten a man considered by some to be the second most powerful politician in Russia?
Writing on Facebook, the former deputy prime minister Anatoly Chubais summed up the mood in liberal circles: “They are saying Ulukayev was threatening Rosneft … Have I suddenly stopped understanding something about this world?”
Mr Ulyukayev claims that he was the victim of a “provocation”. But Mr Sechin, usually reluctant to speak to journalists, has insisted on the ex-minister’s guilt. Speaking to journalists in September, he said: “Ulyukayev demanded the illegal payment, he dictated the size, he collected it, he loaded in his car, and according to Russian law, that is a crime.”
Unused to seeing senior politicians being tried for corruption, the trial has split the country’s ruling elite. President Putin has attempted to appear neutral arbiter between competing factions – broadly speaking liberal and protectionist – and has supported the decision to make key parts of it public. Mr Sechin, however, has not hidden his frustration at the disclosure of transcripts in court. Such behaviour amounted to “professional cretinism”, he has said.
Judging by today’s non-appearance, Mr Sechin is no more keen on the idea of his own testimony. But Judge Semenova indicated she was not about to give up. A new summons would be sent to Rosneft, she announced.
Proceedings continue on 15 November.