updated 4/11/2005 2:14:50 PM ET 2005-04-11T18:14:50

The Russian-British joint oil venture TNK-BP said Monday that tax authorities had levied a tax claim of $792 million against it for 2001.

While analysts said they didn’t expect a repeat of the politically charged tax case that lead to the sale of the Yukos oil company’s biggest production unit, the statement coincided with the first day of an important international showcase for Russia’s economy and came just weeks after President Vladimir Putin promised to curb rampant tax probes.

“This is a very bad surprise,” Dow Jones Newswires quoted TNK-BP Executive Director Viktor Vekselberg as saying as he attended the Russian Economic Forum in London. “We’ll try to defend our position in court if necessary.”

The claim comes in addition to a 4 billion ruble ($144 million) bill for 2001 in connection with profit and value-added tax payments.

TNK-BP spokesman Peter Henshaw said the company, which is 50 percent owned by British oil company BP PLC, disagreed with the claim and was trying to re-negotiate it.

“We received the claim late last week,” Henshaw told Dow Jones Newswires. “This didn’t come out of the blue. We’ve been working with the tax authorities on 2001 since December.”

Earlier this year, members of Russia’s upper house of parliament asked tax authorities to investigate TNK-BP, alleging that TNK had economized on its taxes by using onshore tax havens between 2000 and 2003 before its merger with BP.

The $7 billion merger between TNK, which is controlled by tycoon Mikhail Fridman’s Alfa Group, and BP’s Russian oil assets went ahead to great fanfare in 2003 with the Putin’s blessing. The deal was one of the largest ever by a Western company in post-communist Russia.

While the news could embarrass Russian officials in London to tout Russia’s investment case, it was unlikely to escalate into a campaign similar to the one authorities have pursued against Yukos, said Chris Weafer, chief strategist at Moscow’s Alfa Bank.

“That was a one-off with readily understood objectives,” Weafer said in an investment note Monday. “This is a badly handled event but not a surprise.”

Observers say the criminal trial of Yukos founder Mikhail Khodorkovsky and the parallel $28 billion back tax claims against Yukos were organized by the Kremlin to recapture domination in the strategically important oil sector and to punish Khodorkovsky’s perceived political ambitions. Khodorkovsky is due to be sentenced April 27, and prosecutors have asked that he receive the maximum 10 years.

While no companies have received bills that could match Yukos’, the affair marked an increase in the number of tax probes launched by authorities. Most prominently Japan Tobacco’s Russian wing is currently fighting a $79 million claim, while No. 2 mobile operator Vimpelcom was slapped with a $157 million claim in December that was later slashed to $17 million.

Putin told businessmen last month that steps would be taken to rein in overzealous tax inspectors by limiting their scope to conduct back tax probes.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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