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Financial Times: Gruff Russian makes habit of campaigning

By Catherine Belton in Moscow
Published: April 19 2007 11:35 | Last updated: April 19 2007 11:35

Oleg Mitvol’s calls yesterday for Imperial Energy’s licences to be revoked are not the first time the gruff Russian official has tangled with foreign resource companies, writes Catherine Belton in Moscow.

Mr Mitvol, who heads the Russian government’s environmental watchdog, hit the headlines when he ledthe state campaign last year against Royal Dutch Shell’s$22bn (£11bn) Sakhalin-2 oiland gas venture.

His six-month campaign against the venture over alleged ecological violations ended in Gazprom, Russia’s state-controlled gas giant, taking control of Sakhalin-2 for $7.4bn.

He is also leading calls to revoke TNK-BP’s licence to develop a vital asset, its vast east Siberian Kovykta gas field, over production violations in what many analysts see as part of a battle to force TNK-BP’s Russian shareholders to sell to a state energy group.

But not all his threats have produced results. Mr Mitvol’s claims last December that Peter Hambro Mining had breached licence requirements badly hit the shares of the London-listed gold producer. But just two weeks later Mr Mitvol pronounced that Peter Hambro was in the clear.

Critics say Mr Mitvol serves as a government “attack dog”, instrumental in a Kremlin drive to transfer control from foreign companies to the Russian state. But he denies his role has anything to do with politics. In a recent interview, he said that his function was only to make sure that companies – whether Russian or foreign – abide by the law.

But he reserves particular vigour for foreign companies, which he says got used to ruling the roost in the chaotic 1990s.

Now, he says, all he asks is for foreign companies to stick to the rules.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007

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