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State Should Privatize Its Oil - Economic Development and Trade Minister

January 12, 2005 | Moscow Times

Economic Development and Trade Minister German Gref has said he supports the privatization of both Rosneft and Yuganskneftegaz, in a move that appears to put him in opposition to the Kremlin's policy of greater state control over the oil industry.

Gref told the Kommersant newspaper in comments published Tuesday that state companies have lower growth rates than private companies because the state is "ineffective," and used Gazprom as an example.

"I consider that both Rosneft and Yugansk, if it becomes state-controlled, should be privatized," Gref told the paper. "Gazprom's lack of effectiveness is obvious."

That places Gref, one of the key architects of economic policy in President Vladimir Putin's first term, in opposition to current Kremlin policy, which seems to favor the creation of a state-controlled energy giant, possibly using some of Yukos' assets.

"I think Gref is seen as the investors' friend, but I don't think he pulls the reins any more," said James Fenkner, head of research at Troika Dialog.

"He jumpstarted reforms for Russia, and really not much has been done on reforms over the past few years. The market doesn't believe he has the ear of the president."

Putin last week stripped his maverick economic adviser Andrei Illarionov of one of his key duties as Russia's representative to the Group of Eight nations in what seemed to be punishment for his criticism of the Kremlin's conduct of the Yukos affair.

State-controlled Rosneft took control of Yugansk, Yukos' main production unit, last month after buying Baikal Finance Group, a shell company whose backers are still unknown.

Business daily Vedomosti reported Tuesday that Rosneft had acquired Baikal Finance Group, which had paid a $1.7 billion deposit to participate in the auction, for just 10,000 rubles ($358). The paper reported that Rosneft paid the balance of $7.65 billion for Yugansk into Court Marshals Service accounts in MDM Bank on New Year's Eve.

A Rosneft spokesman declined to comment on the transaction or financing. It is also still unclear from where Baikal raised the $1.7 billion deposit.

Rosneft paid $7.65 billion through state-controlled Sberbank, according to bankers in Moscow who asked not to be named.

Investors and bankers said other state banks -- such as Vneshtorgbank and Vnesheconombank -- and possibly Surgutneftegaz, the country's No.4 oil producer, may have helped to finance the Rosneft transaction.

If that is true, then state-controlled banks helped a state-controlled oil company purchase a controlling stake in Yugansk, which was being sold by the state for tax debts owed to, and defined by, the state.

"On the question of 'Where will they get the money?' we can say: They will take the money from us, from the citizens of the nation," Illarionov told reporters at a Dec. 28 news conference, a few days before he lost his G8 brief.

Confusion persists over who will eventually own Yugansk and what is happening with the oil being produced there, about 1 million barrels per day.

When Yukos controlled Yugansk, oil was sent to the oil major's refineries in Samara, which Yukos now says are oversupplied.

Yugansk's former managers are being investigated by law enforcement agencies in the Khanty-Mansiisk autonomous district for large-scale tax evasion, Itar-Tass reported, citing a prosecutor in the Urals region, from where the investigation is being controlled.

The Khanty-Mansiisk regional budget did not receive about 2 billion rubles in taxes, Itar-Tass reported, without giving any further details.

A Yukos spokesman said reports that the company was slashing its workforce at its Moscow headquarters were incorrect. But after the loss of Yugansk, managers were preparing a restructuring plan as part of the bankruptcy proceedings that could involve layoffs, the spokesman said. No employees have been dismissed so far, he said.

But as Yukos prepares to defend its bankruptcy application against arguments by Deutsche Bank that the Moscow-based company has no right to Chapter 11 protection in the United States, a lawyer for Gazpromneft said the bankruptcy case is unfounded and that Yukos itself could be the subject of damages.

"Yukos should be more concerned with the damages they and their lawyers have caused with these improper threats and their wrongful Texas suit. We are confident that the court will see it has no jurisdiction and the bankruptcy will be dismissed," Michael Goldberg, a lawyer in Houston at Baker Botts, wrote by e-mail in answer to questions about the Houston court case. Baker Botts is acting for Gazpromneft.

"By sending over one of its 100,000 employees to Houston with his laptop and money for lawyers, Yukos is trying to manufacture jurisdiction to find a Texas judge to help them settle this Russian tax dispute," Goldberg wrote.

That goes against what Illarionov told Ekho Moskvy radio last month, when he praised the Texas court for keeping Gazprom out of a costly legal battle.

"We should just thank the Texas court and the judge for having done everything possible to help Russia avoid falling into the abyss," Illarionov said.

In a frank interview published by Komsomolskaya Pravda on Tuesday, Yukos chairman Viktor Gerashchenko said a certain presidential aide told him that his involvement with Yukos went "against the line," and also said that he had been prevented from speaking on the telephone with Putin when he called the Kremlin.

Gerashchenko hinted that the aide could have been Igor Sechin, deputy head of the presidential administration, who was appointed chairman of Rosneft in July.


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