Kudrin Says Arrest Is Hurting Debt Talks

Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin warned on Wednesday that the arrest of his deputy Sergei Storchak on embezzlement charges was starting to harm the ministry's activities.

Kudrin also said he had requested a meeting with Storchak, who was arrested two weeks ago while Kudrin was attending an international conference. Storchak was charged on Friday with attempting to embezzle $43 million from the state budget.

"I need this meeting, and I need it urgently," Kudrin said in remarks broadcast by all the state television channels on their evening news programs.

After his detention on Nov. 15, FSB officers raided Storchak's home and offices, seizing key documents, Kudrin said. "The delay of the meeting is beginning to negatively affect the negotiating process ... as Storchak had up-to-date information on several issues," he said. As deputy finance minister, Storchak is chief debt negotiator and overseer of the $148 billion oil stabilization fund.

Kudrin and State Duma Deputy Alexander Lebedev have asked the Investigative Committee, which carried out the arrest, to release Storchak. He is being held in pretrial detention at Lefortovo prison, which is controlled by the Federal Security Service.

"By law, we should get an answer within three days," said Storchak's lawyer, Igor Pastukhov. The Moscow City Court is to consider an appeal Monday against Storchak's arrest, he said.

A spokesman for the Investigative Committee, which was created in September and answers directly to President Vladimir Putin, declined to comment on Kudrin's remarks.

"We do not comment on what other people say or do," spokesman Vladimir Markin said. "It does not concern us whether a minister says this or that."

Storchak, who was detained along with a businessman and a banker, is accused of planning to embezzle $43 million by manipulating the settlement of part of Algeria's Soviet-era debt to Russia. He denies wrongdoing and faces up to 10 years in jail if convicted.

Lebedev, the billionaire Duma deputy, defended Storchak in a telephone interview. "He has got an excellent reputation, and he's not subject to corruption," Lebedev said. "The procedures in government with which he was involved are very tightly regulated."

Corruption remains widespread in Russia, and Transparency International ranks Russia 143rd out of 179 countries on its corruption perception ranking.

Storchak's case has fueled speculation of pre-election infighting within the Kremlin. Storchak was a close aide to Kudrin, who was promoted to deputy prime minister in a Cabinet reshuffle in September and won praise from Putin for settling the country's Paris Club debt ahead of schedule.

Lebedev said it was possible that the arrest was the result of "some infighting inside the Kremlin, which would be most unfortunate if it turns out to be true."

He dismissed speculation that Storchak was targeted as a result of his role overseeing the stabilization fund. "It is the Kremlin who is in charge of this, rather than any one person," he said.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov declined to comment on Storchak's arrest.