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AFP: Kremlin games behind BP spy arrests: analysts

MOSCOW, March 23, 2008 (AFP) — The arrest this week of two British-educated men on spying charges in Moscow was less a Cold War-style incident than a Kremlin power game around who controls oil giant TNK-BP, analysts say.

Russia’s secret service said Thursday that two Russian-American brothers had been charged with industrial espionage just a day after raids on the offices of TNK-BP and BP in Moscow.

“Business cards of representatives of the CIA and foreign defence departments” were found in the raid, security services said.

Despite the spy allegations, analysts say the key to the matter is control over Russia’s third-largest oil company.

Half-owned by a group of Russian billionaires and half by British oil major BP, TNK-BP is a rarity in the Russian energy industry where state control now dominates.

Roland Nash, chief economist at Renaissance Capital investment bank in Moscow, notes that the arrests will inevitably remind investors of the way “the government wrested control of Sakhalin from Shell.”

Shell was the operator of Sakhalin-2, one of the biggest private oil and gas projects in the world, but was forced to sell to state-run gas giant Gazprom in 2007 after coming under pressure from Russian authorities over alleged environmental violations.

Russian evironmental authorities announced Friday they would investigate TNK-BP’s Samotlor oil field in Siberia, one of the largest in the country.

“The current events are consistent with the negotiating tactics of the Russian government in the past,” said Chris Weafer, head of strategy at URALSIB bank in Moscow.

“The event is a surprise, but the fact that they are putting on pressure is not,” he added.

TNK-BP has had trouble with the authorities before.

Last year, the company agreed to sell the Kovytka gas field in Siberia to Gazprom after being accused of being in breach of contract.

Now, the state wants the company to be put in Russian hands with Gazprom again the likely winner, analysts say.

“It has long been speculated that TNK-BP is on Gazprom’s target acquisition list, and the events of the past few days will add to that,” wrote Nash in an investment note.

“TNK-BP now appears to be under considerable pressure to reach an agreement with Gazprom.”

The move could also be influenced by the upcoming inauguration on May 7 of the new president Dmitry Medvedev, said one analyst.

“The government is maybe trying to push it through before Medvedev takes over,” said Weafer, “So they can start the new president with a clean slate.”

Another view is that the arrests could be a sign of the infighting amongst the Kremlin elite as President Vladimir Putin prepares to hand over to Medvedev.

“It is possible it is a fight of the clans,” said Vladimir Pribylovsky from the Panorama research centre in Moscow, saying that TNK-BP owners were backed by a security service faction that could be under attack from a rival faction.

“The fight is under the carpet,” said Pribylovsky citing Winston Churchill who said that Kremlin politics are like bulldogs having a fight under a carpet — lots of noise but you only know the winner when one emerges.

However not all analysts are convinced.

“It is politically inappropriate to launch another attack on the eve of the inauguration,” said Valery Nesterov, an analyst at Troika Dialog.

Indeed, one analyst said that Gazprom may not be ready to take over TNK-BP which was valued at 60 billion dollars (32 billion euros) by one of its owners Viktor Vekselberg recently.

“It is not so easy for Gazprom to step in” said Yelena Anankina, an analyst with Standard and Poor’s in Moscow, citing the extent of Gazprom’s already high level of debt, TNK-BP’s high capitalisation and the difficulty of obtaining loans in today’s market. “At least in the short run,” she added.

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