A company so small it didn't appear to have an office bid successfully yesterday to buy the second-biggest oil-production facility in Russia for $9. 3 billion, deepening the intrigue...
MOSCOW A company so small it didn’t appear to have an office bid successfully yesterday to buy the second-biggest oil-production facility in Russia for $9.3 billion, deepening the intrigue around the fate of Yukos Oil.
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The auction, in effect, guts Yukos, once the dominant Russian oil giant, which had relied on the 1 million barrels a day produced by its Yuganskneftegaz unit in Siberia for 60 percent of its output. The unit’s sale at barely half its value to a little-known company, BaikalFinansGroup, leaves Yukos with little hope of maintaining solvency.
Lawyers for Yukos immediately vowed to challenge the auction in courts around the world.
“Their ownership rights are in grave doubt,” company spokesman Alexander Shadrin said.
But the issue of whose ownership rights were under question was, as is often the case in the shadowy world of Russian finance, still unclear yesterday.
Analysts speculated that BaikalFinansGroup might be a hastily formed front company for Russia’s state-controlled Gazprom natural-gas company, or a facade for a wealthy private oil company such as Surgutneftegaz, which is known to have close ties to the Kremlin.
Either could be an attempt on the part of the Kremlin to quietly take control of Yukos’ key production asset without openly defying a U.S. court order and putting Gazprom’s international assets at risk.
“Russia inherited from the Soviet Union a rich experience of fooling the West, which Stalin turned into a form of art,” said Mikhail Delyagin, an economist with the Institute for Globalization Studies in Moscow. “The West is all but ready to be fooled again, and take this auction for granted as a fair and honest competition.”
On Thursday, a U.S. bankruptcy court in Houston granted a request from Yukos for a 10-day halt to the auction. Yukos conducts some business in Texas and chief financial officer Bruce Misamore, afraid to return to Russia for fear of arrest, is now working out of Houston.
Russian officials dismissed the U.S. ruling as irrelevant, but the court order probably led an international banking consortium to freeze Gazprom’s $13.4 billion credit line Friday.
Yukos has been locked in combat with the Russian government over $27 billion in taxes assessed after former chief executive Mikhail Khodorkovsky became an active political opponent of President Vladimir Putin and eventually was jailed for fraud and tax evasion.
A freeze on its assets imposed by a Russian court left the company unable to pay the tax bill, and authorities moved to sell the company’s most valuable asset: Yuganskneftegaz.
Gazprom’s oil subsidiary, Gazpromneft, showed up yesterday as the other of only two bidders at the auction, but BaikalFinansGroup opened with a bid substantially higher than the $8.65 billion minimum, prompting the Gazprom representative to excuse himself to make a telephone call. When he returned, he submitted no bid, and BaikalFinansGroup was declared the winner.
Yuri Petrov, chief of the Federal Property Fund, which conducted the auction, said he had no information on the owners of BaikalFinansGroup.
No sign of the company could be located at its official address in the town of Tver, 100 miles northwest of Moscow, according to Itar-Tass news agency, which said it found a mobile-phone office, snack bar and mini-mart at the location.
On the same street, but in a different building, are the offices of Tvernefteprodukt, the retail arm of Surgutneftegaz, Russia’s fourth-largest oil producer. The oil company’s owner, billionaire businessman Vladimir Bogdanov, has close ties to the Kremlin, and some analysts speculated that Surgutneftegaz might have bid on the property through BaikalFinansGroup with the Kremlin’s blessing.
But many analysts said it is likely that Gazprom will emerge as the true behind-the-scenes operator at BaikalFinansGroup.
“It could be that this company goes in, takes the auction, and then it actually turns out to be a Gazprom company, or Gazprom buys it from them,” said Erik Wiegerts of United Financial Group in Moscow.
BaikalFinansGroup has two weeks to pay the auction price. If it defaults, Gazprom could be declared the winner. Or if the auction is deemed to be invalid, a Justice Ministry official said yesterday, Yugansk could become state property and then assigned to Gazprom.
The least likely possibility, said economist Delyagin, is that a group of unknown investors assembled $9 billion without the knowledge of the Kremlin and decided to bid on the unit.
“No independent player, even if it happens to possess $9 billion, would want to dig its own grave and everybody knows that to break the state’s rules in this game is equal to suicide,” he said.
The Washington Post and
The Associated Press
contributed to this report.