The Clinton administration is agonizing over whether to force the U.S. Export-Import Bank to drop $500 million in loan guarantees to an upstart Siberian oil company amid mounting international criticism of Russia's aggressive military campaign in Chechnya.
The Ex-Im Bank has scheduled a board meeting Tuesday to make a decision on the long-planned loan guarantees to the Tyumen Oil Co., which Western competitors have accused of unfair business practices. Bank officials, who pride themselves on their independence from the executive branch, plan to go ahead with the deal barring a last-minute intervention by the administration.
With parliamentary elections taking place in Russia today, and Russian troops closing in on the Chechen capital, Grozny, the debate over what to do about the Ex-Im Bank guarantees is rapidly turning into a review of U.S. policy toward Russia. If the deal goes ahead, it will be the largest U.S.-backed loan to Russia since last year's crash of the ruble and will send a powerful signal about Washington's intentions toward the former communist superpower.
"People are genuinely torn about this," said one administration official. "We are reviewing just about everything."
Although administration officials have serious concerns over the credits, and have legal authority to block the deal on the grounds of "national interest," they are wary about infringing on the cherished independence of the nation's leading export financier. Instead, they appear to be looking for ways to sidestep a controversy that could roil U.S.-Russia relations as well as Vice President Gore's election campaign.
Presidential candidates George W. Bush (R), Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Bill Bradley (D) all have called on the administration to halt Ex-Im Bank loans to Russia. Gore, who is closely identified with the administration's Russia policy, has sought to put responsibility on the bank. In a statement released Friday, his foreign affairs spokesman said the vice president is confident that the bank's board will consider "allegations of serious misconduct" against Tyumen Oil.
The Russian government owns 49 percent of the company, with the remaining ownership interest shared by New York-based Access Industries and a Russian banking magnate.
Administration officials say the loan guarantees have been a subject of intense debate over the past few days, involving Russia experts, lawyers, economists and human rights officials. While there is widespread unease about going ahead with the loan, the administration does not want to take responsibility for torpedoing a lucrative export deal and placing further strain on relations with Moscow.
James A. Harmon, a former investment banker who is chairman of the Ex-Im Bank, has placed his prestige on the line in defending the decision to grant Tyumen Oil credit guarantees of $292 million to upgrade the waterlogged Samotlor field in western Siberia and $196 million to modernize an oil refinery near Moscow. He has made clear that it is up to the administration, not the Ex-Im Bank, to decide whether the proposed loan contravenes U.S. foreign policy.
Within the administration, opposition to the loan has been voiced by White House officials responsible for Russia policy, senior economic policymakers, and officials at the State Department concerned with the promotion of human rights. But so far there is no consensus over whether to invoke a little-used legal authority that permits the secretary of state to block Ex-Im Bank loans if "the president determines that any such transaction will be contrary to the national interest."
Sources said that Carlos Pasquale, who heads the Russia desk at the National Security Council, had asked the CIA to document corrupt business practices by Tyumen Oil and had relayed the information to the Ex-Im Bank. A bank spokeswoman said the information passed on by the White House was already known to the bank, which is required by its charter to be guided by commercial criteria and the interests of American exporters--rather than political considerations--in making loans.
Administration sources also said that National Economic Council Director Gene B. Sperling has "serious concerns"--shared by many at the White House--over the signal the loan would send. But White House spokesman Joe Lockhart said it is up to the Ex-Im Bank to make a decision on the loan "independent of the White House." Other officials later said the administration has not discarded the option of blocking the loan.
The commercial stakes, like the political ones, are enormous, because they involve future control of some of the world's most promising energy resources. Major Western investors in Russia, including BP Amoco and financier George Soros, charge that they have lost hundreds of millions of dollars invested in Siberia's huge Chernogorneft field as a result of unscrupulous tactics used by Tyumen Oil to take over the asset.
Business interests in favor of the loan are led by the American oil services company Halliburton, chaired by former defense secretary Richard B. Cheney, which has been hired by Tyumen Oil to upgrade the giant Samotlor field.
Tyumen Oil won control of Chernogorneft last month after paying $176 million at a bankruptcy sale of the Russian company that controls the highly profitable oil field. BP Amoco fought the sale, maintaining that the bankruptcy auction was a ruse for Tyumen to take over the company and that local judges were in Tyumen's pocket.
Tyumen's U.S.-educated director, Simon Kukes, in Washington to lobby for the loan, accused opponents of seeking to take advantage of "anti-Russian hysteria" fueled by the war in Chechnya. He defended his company's takeover of assets previously belonging to BP Amoco as "fair by Russian standards" and said that the Ex-Im Bank guarantees would lead to the creation of 3,000 American jobs because of the purchase of U.S. oil equipment.
BP Amoco has hired several well-connected lobbyists, including the Mercury Group's Randy Scheunemann, who until recently was foreign policy adviser to Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.). A group of other investors opposed to Tyumen Oil has hired former House member Charles Wilson (D-Tex.) to plead its case.
The Ex-Im Bank loans "stink from top to bottom," said Wilson. "Harmon has fallen in love with these loans and is determined that they're going to be made."
Harmon, who traveled to Moscow earlier this year for talks with Tyumen Oil officials, has said he is satisfied that Tyumen can repay the loan and defended it as a solid investment.