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Khodorkovsky offers to give up Yukos stake

Embattled Russian oil giant Yukos has offered $7.5 billion to settle its tax arrears bill on condition it be given three years to pay, a senior Yukos source said on Sunday.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Jailed magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky renewed his offer Monday to give up the 44 percent stake he and his partners hold in the beleaguered oil company Yukos to pay its tax debt, the Interfax news agency reported.

The offer came as Khodorkovsky returned to a Moscow courtroom cage on Monday for a hearing on charges of tax evasion and fraud.

“If the government considers saving the company from bankruptcy to be necessary and its interests, it is possible to ‘unfreeze’ the packet of Yukos shares belonging to me and my partners. And then we are prepared to give this packet to the Yukos management in order to eliminate the company’s tax debt,” the Interfax news agency quoted him as saying through lawyers.

The statement repeated an offer Khodorkovsky had made last week.

Monday’s hearing was the first since the state moved toward seizing his former company’s assets as collateral for a huge tax claim.

Khodorkovsky, who was arrested in October, and his close associate Platon Lebedev are being tried on charges including tax evasion and fraud in connection with their activities as core shareholders in Yukos, Russia’s biggest oil producer. Both face prison terms of up to 10 years if convicted.

Their joint trial is just one component of a complex web of legal cases against Yukos and its owners, which the government insists is part of a drive against corruption. Many observers, however, say the legal campaign has more to do with the Kremlin’s displeasure over Khodorkovsky’s political activities in the runup to last year’s parliamentary elections.

The Moscow Arbitration Court ruled late last month that Yukos must pay $3.4 billion for a 2000 back taxes claim, and the Russian Tax Service sent the company a new demand for a nearly identical for 2001. Prosecutor General Vladimir Ustinov said that the company could expect more tax claims for subsequent years.

Bailiffs last week began work to freeze accounts in Yukos’ daughter production companies in Siberia.

The Interfax news agency reported Sunday that Yukos offered to voluntarily pay $8 billion in back taxes from 2000-2003 if it is given three years to make the payments.

Citing a high-level source in Yukos, Interfax reported that the offer was made to the government by Yukos CEO Steven Theede on Thursday. But analysts said the government was unlikely to consider the proposal.

“Why sully the country’s reputation when they’ve gone down this path only to back off at the end?” said James Fenkner, head of research at the Troika Dialog brokerage in Moscow. “If there was a time to do a deal it was a year ago.”

Yukos and its majority shareholders have already proposed numerous alternatives to settle their 2000 bill. But the government has said it won’t restructure the bill and has shown no enthusiasm for the other proposals, including Khodorkovsky’s offer last week to give up his stock to settle the claim.

The government’s position has led to speculation that it intends to seize choice Yukos assets for nonpayment of the taxes and redistribute them to Kremlin-friendly hands.

At Monday’s hearing, the court rejected a defense-supported request from journalists and a rights organization to organize broadcasts of the proceedings by setting up a microphone in the courtroom, defense lawyer Yuri Shmidt said. He said the prosecutor had argued that the broadcasts would distract participants.

Only a handful of journalists have been allowed into the courtroom for the trial, which President Vladimir Putin said should be open.

Outside the court, Toronto-based lawyer Robert Amsterdam said the defense filed three motions related to the health of Lebedev, who he said was suffering from a serious liver ailment.

Lebedev’s health has deteriorated since his jailing last July, particularly in recent weeks, and “he can hardly stand,” Amsterdam said.

The motions requested an independent medical exam, Lebedev’s release from jail during the trial, or a halt in the trial pending a diagnosis, he said. Previous requests for the release of Khodorkovsky and Lebedev have been rejected.