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Russian Oil Firm Buys Mysterious Bid Winner

By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, December 23, 2004; Page A01

MOSCOW, Dec. 23 -- The state-owned oil company Rosneft has acquired the unknown front company that won a controversial auction Sunday for a major production unit of the besieged oil giant Yukos, Russian news agencies reported late Wednesday.

The news agencies, Interfax and ITAR-Tass, confirmed what many analysts suspected: Shares in Yuganskneftegaz, a Yukos subsidiary, have been acquired by the state and will eventually be routed to Gazprom, the huge state-controlled natural gas and oil conglomerate.

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The move effectively nationalizes one of Russia's largest oil production units. Yuganskneftegaz pumps nearly 1 million barrels of oil a day. It was among the state-owned assets privatized in the 1990s in Russia's effort to build a market economy following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Many of the assets were acquired by young financiers for a fraction of their value.

According to the news agency reports, Rosneft on Wednesday bought 100 percent of the shares in BaikalFinansGroup, the unknown company that won the auction. Baikal bought the Yukos oil production unit at the auction for $9.3 billion. The firm Dresdner Kleinworth Wasserstein estimated in an Oct. 6 report that the unit was worth between $15.7 billion and $18.3 billion.

The Russian government asserts that Yukos owes $28 billion in back taxes and that the Yuganskneftegaz unit was being sold to recoup some of that money. Yukos has denied owing the taxes. Yukos has been under attack from the Kremlin for more than a year in what some analysts have described as retaliation for the political ambitions of its former chief executive, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who has been jailed and is on trial on separate charges of fraud and tax evasion.

The government already had plans to fold Rosneft into Gazprom, a combination that would create Russia's largest energy conglomerate when combined with the auctioned Yukos asset. The Yuganskneftegaz fields in western Siberia accounted for 60 percent of Yukos's production and yield about 11 percent of Russia's overall oil output.

It was unclear Wednesday night how Rosneft, a company that was recently valued at between $7 billion and $8.5 billion, was financing the acquisition of Baikal, which made a non-refundable $1.7 billion deposit when it purchased 76 percent of the shares of Yuganskneftegaz. The balance has to be paid within 14 days of the auction date.

Alexander Stepanenko, a spokesman for Rosneft, confirmed the deal to Dow Jones Newswires early Thursday. "The owners of Baikal made us an offer to sell their company, and we took it," he said, declining to disclose the purchase price.

Last week, Yukos sought bankruptcy protection in the United States to prevent the auction. A judge in Houston had granted the company a temporary injunction barring Gazprom from bidding at last Sunday's auction.

Gazprom declined at the last minute to bid, but the Baikal group was suspected by many analysts to be Gazprom's proxy.

Under the merger plan, when Gazprom and Rosneft are combined, the state will own just over 50 percent of the company, which will be called Gazpromneft, and a critical part of the country's burgeoning energy sector will revert to direct state control, realizing one of President Vladimir Putin's longtime ambitions.

At a hearing in Houston on Wednesday, attorneys for Yukos said they planned to wait until the sale of the Yuganskneftegaz unit is finalized and then seek $20 billion in damages from the buyer.

The Rosneft move effectively nationalizes the Yukos asset, however, and analysts speculated that litigation may become more difficult if the state claims sovereign immunity.

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