Putin's Kremlin Asserting More Control of Economy
But the Lukoil sale would not offset the Gazprom buyback, meaning the state would acquire more assets than it divests in 2004 -- and more assets than it has sold during Putin's entire presidency.
Many analysts say this would be bad for economic development. "State ownership is an old-school recipe for inefficiency, with political patronage winning out over incentives to maximize profits," the Troika Dialog investment firm said in a report this week.
Moreover, even in releasing ownership in Lukoil, the state is not really surrendering control. Lukoil is a prime example of the Kremlin's favored version of private companies -- aligned with the state even if not owned by it. The company helped shut down a television station critical of the Kremlin, voluntarily gave up legal tax breaks and regularly coughs up funds for Kremlin pet projects, such as reconstruction of Konstantinovsky Palace outside St. Petersburg, used by Putin for state events.
The Kremlin has concentrated on reasserting influence over the energy industry, the driving force in Russia's resource-based economy. While the state still owns about 21 percent of the value of Russia's equity market, it retains just 4 percent of the oil sector, according to Troika Dialog.
Many political leaders accept the need for a greater state role in the energy sector. "It's a reasonable position, not only because it's a strategic industry but because the energy sector gives us at least 55 percent of exports and close to 25 percent" of gross national product, said Mikhail Zadornov, a former finance minister and one of the few members of a pro-market political party left in parliament.
The state does not need to take over companies to get greater revenue from them. A government study showed that the state and the oil firms evenly split $50 billion in profits last year; since then, taxes on oil above $25 a barrel have risen from 70 percent to 90 percent, and Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov on Thursday suggested that the government impose another oil tax increase.
"As the owners of natural resources, it should have the right to get profits like any other owner," said Sergei Glazyev, a prominent former Communist economist.
The Khodorkovsky dispute stems in part from his challenges to state supremacy in the energy industry. Some in the Kremlin, according to analysts, resented Khodorkovsky's attempts to infringe on the pipeline monopoly of state-owned Transneft by proposing a new oil line to China. In a meeting with Putin, Khodorkovsky also challenged state-owned Rosneft's purchase of a lucrative oil field, implying that an inordinate sum had been paid to line the pockets of insiders.
"I'm not a supporter of oligarchs," said Mikhail Delyagin, a former government economics adviser who now works for the Motherland party. "But Khodorkovsky's problems appeared not because he's bad but because he was better than the others and he got really concerned with the problems the others were willing to put up with -- corruption, inefficiency of the state and others."
To some entrepreneurs and analysts, the real force behind the drive for greater control is the siloviki, or former KGB officers known as "men of power," who missed out on the 1990s sell-offs and now want in on the action.
It's "simple greed," said Yulia Latynina, a broadcast and newspaper commentator who specializes in money and politics. "I don't think the president or the people around him want to nationalize property. I think they want to redistribute property."
Even Belkovsky, the Kremlin-allied political analyst, is among people expressing disappointment with the Kremlin's handling of the Khodorkovsky case. Rather than single out one oligarch, he said, the government should require winners of corrupt privatizations to collectively give back up as much as $25 billion in exchange for legitimizing their purchases permanently. "The Yukos affair does not show such an approach," he said, "and I believe it unfortunately just repeats the logic of the 1990s."
Putin said the Yukos case would not lead to a broader review of privatization, but state auditors are now conducting a wide reexamination of 1990s sell-offs and have concluded that $1.6 billion was lost in crooked or undervalued deals.
Latynina said the state would not stop with Yukos. "Appetite comes when you are eating -- first Yukos, then everyone else," she said.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company