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BP prepares itself for battles with Russian oligarchs

Times Online
August 16, 2008

BP prepares itself for battles with Russian oligarchs

BP and its Russian partners are set to discuss next month a partial float of its TNK-BP joint venture.

At a board meeting on September 25, AAR is expected to press for a secondary listing of shares in TNK-BP Limited, the company that at present is owned 50-50 by the consortium of four Soviet-born billionaires and BP. The float would allow TNK-BP to raise billions of dollars of fresh capital and would also dilute the current shareholders’ control of the business – a key reason why BP is likely to try to reject the plan.

It was unclear where AAR would seek a listing, although it is likely to be either London or Moscow.

Only a small part of the TNK-BP group, a subsidiary called TNK-BP Holding, is listed, with only 5 per cent of its shares free-floated and traded in Moscow. Previously, AAR had proposed extending the free float to 25 per cent – a suggestion that was opposed by BP. The UK oil company declined to comment on the latest proposals for a secondary float but said that the agenda for the board meeting had not been set.

In addition to the secondary listing, the board meeting is also likely to focus on management changes, in particular the departure of Bob Dudley, the chief executive, who on Thursday was barred from working in Russia for two years by a Moscow court after allegations that he breached Russian labour regulations.

The ruling, against which BP plans to appeal, represented a fresh setback in the fierce battle for control of TNK-BP with AAR. The latter has sought to dislodge Mr Dudley from his position, accusing him of favouritism towards BP and of poor financial performance. Mr Dudley was forced to flee Moscow last month after visa problems and a campaign of harassment apparently orchestrated by AAR.

TNK-BP, Russia’s third-largest oil producer, generates a quarter of BP’s total output. Talks between AAR and BP have been “progressing very slowly”, according to sources close to BP, although they are continuing at a low level.

Lamar McKay, of BP, and Alex Knaster, of AAR, have held a series of telephone conversations in recent weeks after a face-to-face meeting between Mikhail Fridman, of AAR, and Tony Hayward, of BP, in Prague at the end of July.

Analysts still feel the dispute is likely to be resolved by a Russian state-controlled company taking a majority stake in the company. Gazpromneft and Rosneft, both of which are controlled by the Kremlin, are thought to be potential buyers.

The company has been paralysed for weeks by the dispute, which has triggered the departure of several executives.

James Owen, finance director, resigned this month after Mr Dudley’s departure. Jean-Luc Vermeulen, an independent board member, also left in May. Almost 150 seconded BP staff have now been forced to leave the country after a dispute over work permits.

One industry source said that Russia would be forced to intervene at some point because the management vacuum would lead to falling production, in turn hitting the State’s tax take.

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