Russia Releases Jailed Economy Minister Alexei Ulyukayev Early Amid Crisis

The highest-ranking Russian lawmaker to be jailed since the breakup of the Soviet Union has been released early from prison, where he was serving an eight-year term for bribery.

Russian news agencies reported last month that the former economic development minister, Alexei Ulyukayev, would be freed after less than five years of his sentence in a case that shook Russia's political establishment.

Ulyukayev left Correctional Colony No. 1 in the Tver region, about 90 miles northwest of Moscow, on Thursday in a Range Rover SUV that was accompanied by two other vehicles without license plates, Radio Free Europe reported.

The release comes as Russia faces economic hardship and political turmoil nearly three months after the start of President Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine.

He was released after prosecutors decided not to appeal a court ruling last month that accepted his request for early parole, with the court noting his "good behavior."

Ulyukayev had been jailed following a December 2017 conviction of soliciting a $2 million bribe from Igor Sechin, the head of state-owned oil giant Rosneft and a close ally of Putin.

Prosecutors said the bribe was in exchange for Ulyukayev approving the sale of Bashneft, a state-controlled oil company, to Rosneft.

Ulyukayev was arrested inside Rosneft's headquarters in November 2016, after Sechin gave him cash inside a brown bag. Ulyukayev denied the charges and said that he had been framed and thought the bag contained a gift instead.

Putin fired Ulyukayev just before his arrest and his sentence also included a fine of 130 million roubles ($2 million).

Ulyukayev, 66, was part of the liberal camp in Russia's ruling elite and before his sentencing, gave an address to the court in which he quoted Socrates and former Cuban leader, Fidel Castro.

"I served the citizens of Russia as best I could, tried to do my job as best I could," he told the court in 2017, although he admitted that he was culpable because he "compromised too often, chose easy ways, often preferred well-being to upholding principles."

"The accusations are absurd, the evidence is absurd, but every absurdity, as you know, must have its own system," he told the court before his jailing.

The case sparked speculation that Ulyukayev had been caught up in political infighting involving Sechin. His conviction was seen as a victory for Kremlin hardliners and showed the extent of political infighting in Moscow, the BBC reported.

Ulyukayev was a long serving Russian official who had held a number of senior positions. They included first deputy finance minister, first deputy chairman of the Central Bank of Russia, before his appointment as economic development minister in 2013.

Russia's ex-economy minister Alexei Ulyukayev
Russia's ex-economy minister Alexei Ulyukayev at the Zamoskvoretsky district court in Moscow on December 15, 2017. He was released early on May 12, 2022, after serving five years of an eight-year jail term for bribery. MAXIM ZMEYEV/Getty Images