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Irish Times: Intrigue in Russia as BP signals intent to grab slice of oil assets

Conor Sweeney in Moscow
Published: Mar 26, 2007

Kremlin intrigue shrouds tomorrow’s auction of controversial Russian oil assets, which has dragged BP deep into the country’s complex energy politics.

Although anticipated to be little more than a forced auction, the surprise bid for one of the remaining crown jewels in the bankrupt oil giant Yukos may at last be attracting international interest.

At least that’s the impression BP wishes to portray, after announcing it will compete through its Moscow-based subsidiary TNK-BP with the Kremlin- controlled Rosneft for the 9.44 per cent stake in Rosneft, which Yukos had once controlled.

However participating in the auction amounts to nothing more than handling stolen goods, executives linked to Yukos complain.

“There’s a lot of risk attached to any western company getting involved in these auctions,” said Tim Osborne, director of Yukos holding company Menatep. “Because they’re in receipt of stolen goods, they can never get good title.”

Yukos complains that the Kremlin set out to destroy what was once the country’s largest company because the main shareholder, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, had political ambitions. He is now in jail and his business empire has been broken up.

BP seems to believe it can play a different game, since it is not trying to threaten the political status quo in the country. After meeting Russia’s president Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin, BP’s outgoing chief executive, Lord John Browne, insisted that the company was sincere in its attempt to win the auction.

The meeting was just the latest indication of just how closely the Kremlin watches over the control of the country’s energy assets. It wishes to ensure, not unreasonably, that the main primers of the country’s ongoing economic resurgence are held in friendly hands, if not Russian hands.

Privately, many analysts believe BP may be participating in a fake process to legitimise the auction, which needs at least two serious bids, with the opening price set at 6.5 billion.

“We’re going into it seriously,” said Peter Henshaw, vice-president for communications with TNK-BP. “It’s about building stronger relationships and acquiring a strategic asset.”

Should BP emerge the winner, it will prove its critics wrong. TNK-BP is mounting the bid with funding from the pockets of both its Russian and British shareholders.

Even if BP’s sentiments are sincere, Rosneft has deep pockets and has already lined up about 19 billion in financing from western banks to buy not just this first item, but a whole series of looming auctions for the remaining Yukos refineries, pipelines and oil fields which are being sold off after the firm’s forced bankruptcy. These include Tomskneft and Samaraneftegaz oil production units, with output of 435,000 barrels a day at the moment; the country’s largest refinery at Angarsk and even 1,000 petrol stations.

Industry analysts in Moscow believe that the final outcome of tomorrow’s first-round battle is clear. “We continue to view Rosneft as the front-runner at the upcoming auction,” said Pavel Kushnir, energy analyst with Deutsche Bank UFG. “However, the appearance of other significant bidders may mean that the eventual price may be somewhat higher than the starting price.”

There was an even more cynical view from the Russian media, especially in the business daily Vedemosti, which revealed BP’s auction plans.

The true intentions of the British energy giant, argued commentator Tatiana Yegorova, was to emerge with at least some of its current stake in the joint venture TNK-BP intact.

BP enjoys management control in the separate venture, though it is expected that the four Russian oligarch shareholders who own the remaining 50 per cent minus one share will soon exit the firm, leaving instead a state- controlled firm, either Gazprom or Rosneft, as the uneasy partner to BP.

Yegorova, alluding to the plight of Khodorkovsky, now serving an eight-year jail term, wrote: “As past experience shows, if a state- owned corporation decides that some asset looks attractive, it will get that asset. The methods used depend on how amenable the asset’s owner is prepared to be. Those who don’t want to share their property might end up jailed in a remote part of Russia, or sent into voluntary exile abroad, at best.”

As past experience shows, the Russian environmental watchdog now hovering over TNK-BP and threatening to pull its licences once made similar noises over Shell’s Sakhalin project. Those concerns disappeared once Shell ceded its management control to Gazprom, the other major Russian state-backed energy firm.

When they met last week, Mr Putin was full of praise for BP’s role in the Russian market, a key blessing for it to prosper. “This private company is actively developing in Russia, where it has increasing reserves, production and profits,” Mr Putin was quoted as saying.

Perhaps Lord Browne believes he can strengthen his hand in negotiations over the future of TNK-BP if he wins the Rosneft shares now for sale. One Russian broker, Aton equities, points out that since BP bought more than 1 per cent of Rosneft in its recent IPO, it would end up controlling more than 10 per cent of the firm should it win – enough for a seat on the board.

Even without the seat, it would represent a major bargaining chip in BP’s efforts to negotiate from a point of strength over the future of TNK-BP.

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