updated 7/1/2004 3:39:56 PM ET 2004-07-01T19:39:56

The Yukos oil company suffered a double and potentially devastating blow Thursday: Hours after court bailiffs served papers giving the company five days to pay a $3.4 billion tax claim for 2000, the Tax Service said it wanted almost the same amount for 2001.

Yukos says it hadn't received any official notification of the new claim, which drives up government demands against Yukos to a crippling $6.7 billion. Yukos could also face new claims for the years 2002 and 2003, which analyst Pavel Kushnir with the United Financial Group in Moscow, called "almost certain" now.

The company's shares plunged 15 percent in a frenzied response to media reports of a new tax claim of $3.3 billion. The company has said the 2000 back taxes bill alone could force it into bankruptcy.

Yukos is one of Russia's most important companies, and its ruin could tarnish Russia's image abroad and slow growth in the key oil sector — Russia's main cash earner and an industry that bolsters President Vladimir Putin's international clout.

Some analysts see the multi-pronged attack on Yukos as a Kremlin-directed move to punish its former chief executive Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Russia's richest man, for his funding of opposition parties and to warn other billionaire Russian businessman to stay out of politics.

Putin said last month that the bankruptcy of company is not in the government's interests. But some analysts believe that Yukos' only chance for survival is if control over its assets passes from Khodorkovsky and his associates into more Kremlin-friendly hands.

Three bailiffs accompanied by five men in camouflage uniforms arrived at Yukos' Moscow headquarters on Thursday to serve the payment order for the 2000 back taxes, said Alexander Shadrin, a Yukos spokesman. Courts could begin enforcing the claim once a five-day period for voluntary compliance expires. The order also said that the bailiffs must inventory Yukos' property and put a freeze order on it, Shadrin said.

Yukos has already said that it doesn't have the cash to pay the claim immediately and on Thursday the company again pleaded with the government for leniency. Yukos says that it can satisfy the 2000 claim if a court order preventing it from selling assets is lifted and if it is allowed to stagger the payments.

The first asset likely to be sold would be Yukos' 35 percent share of Sibneft oil company, which it acquired in a failed merger that has yet to be formally unwound, Yukos said.

"We are ready to pay all 99.4 billion rubles ($3.4 billion) but let us pay them," Shadrin said.

So far the government has not responded to any of Yukos' overtures.

"We will comply with the law and fulfill the decision which has entered into force," Yukos' deputy chairman, Yuri Beilin, told the Interfax news agency on Thursday. "Yet we still hope that the government will resolve the company's situation in a balanced and socially responsible way."

However, with the report of a new claim, bankruptcy is looking increasingly likely, Kushnir said. The Sibneft stake is only valued at about $4 billion, far short of the $6.7 billion Yukos might need.

An alliance of some of Yukos' minority shareholders — holding more than 5 percent of Yukos stock — also pleaded with the government on Thursday.

"We are concerned that Russia's justice system may not take our legal rights into account in the name of punishing Yukos' core shareholders and the company itself as severely as possible," the shareholders wrote in a letter to Putin, obtained by Dow Jones Newswires. "We have already suffered very significant financial losses."

Since the beginning of the legal probe into Yukos and its key shareholders, the company's market value has dropped $20 billion, or almost half of its market value.

Khodorkovsky and his business associate Platon Lebedev — both major shareholders in Menatep which owns 61 percent of Yukos stock, not taking the Sibneft deal into account — are being tried on charges including tax evasion and fraud. Both face up to 10 years in prison if convicted, and some analysts have suggested that they might be pressed to relinquish some of their Yukos shares in exchange for a deal in their own cases.

Government officials have repeatedly insisted that the probe is part of a drive to root out corruption and ensure that businesses and their leaders — no matter their wealth or size — follow the law. Yukos has said that its use of onshore tax havens was legal and widely practiced.

Copyright 2004 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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