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Russia's Putin defends Yukos auction

/ Source: The Associated Press

President Vladimir Putin affirmed the legality of the $9.3 billion sale of the crown jewel of the Yukos oil empire to a mysterious company, suggesting Tuesday that the subsidiary’s new owners could eventually link up with another Russian energy company — or even a Chinese conglomerate.

Putin’s comments, his first since little-known bidder BaikalFinansGroup snapped up Yukos’ Yuganskneftegaz unit in an auction Sunday, appeared to confirm market expectations that the heart of Yukos would ultimately wind up in the hands of state-controlled natural gas giant Gazprom.

Acquiring Yuganskneftegaz — which pumps about 11 percent of Russia’s oil — would make Gazprom an international oil-and-gas energy titan.

“As far as I understand and am informed the auction was conducted in strict accordance with Russian legislation,” Putin said at a news conference in Schleswig, Germany. “I expect that all further actions will take place in accordance with the law.”

He also said the individuals who bought Yuganskneftegaz had a long history in the energy sector.

“They, as far as I have been informed, intend to forge relations of some sort with other energy companies in Russia with an interest in this asset,” Putin said.

Analysts said Putin’s comments showed that Gazprom had a role in the auction, which was reminiscent of the notorious rigged auctions that sold off Russia’ prized industrial jewels in the 1990s.

“This confirms that Gazprom is heavily involved in the bid,” said Paul Collison, oil and gas analyst at the Brunswick UBS brokerage in Moscow. “But exactly how — the details will emerge in the coming days and weeks.”

Late Tuesday, Gazprom made a surprise announcement that it had sold off its newly created oil company Gazpromneft — a holding company that had been widely expected to buy Yuganskneftegaz.

Putin also suggested that China — a major buyer of Yukos’ oil — could play some role in Yuganskneftegaz under its new owner.

“We can’t rule out that any Chinese energy company might participate in these assets that have been sold off at the auction,” he said.

The Russian president has been keen to cultivate political and economic ties with China and India, in part as a counterweight to the United States and the European Union roles in global politics. Observers say the creation of a Russian energy giant to fuel their booming economies could play a vital role in cementing those relations.

But the Kremlin has drawn fire for aggressively seeking to retake the country’s economic high ground. The sale of Yuganskneftegaz, against its parent company’s $28 billion back tax claims, was the culmination of an 18-month legal drive against the company and its jailed former CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

The Kremlin has cast the case as a probe into shady business practices. Observers say the tax claims were orchestrated to transfer Yukos assets into Kremlin-friendly hands and punish Khodorkovsky’s perceived political aspirations.

Meanwhile, speculation among Russian media and analysts as to the likely backer for the BaikalFinansGroup bid appeared to settle on the secretive, Kremlin-backed oil company, Surgutneftegaz.

After Russian newspapers reported that the managers representing BaikalFinansGroup at the auction were from Surgutneftegaz, shares in the company jumped. They closed up 6 percent following Putin’s comments that private individuals were behind the purchase.

Analysts noted that, despite Yuganskneftegaz’s billions of back tax claims, Surgutneftegaz chief Vladimir Bogdanov is perceived as Kremlin-loyal and could have obeyed government instructions to use his company’s reported $8 billion in cash reserves to acquire Yuganskneftegaz — and ultimately transfer it to Gazprom.

“If it’s Surgutneftegaz, then they’re lending the government a helping hand in a time of need,” said Ronald Smith, oil and gas analyst at the Renaissance Capital investment bank.

Company representatives in Surgut did not answer the telephone Tuesday.

With more hearings scheduled for Wednesday in a U.S. bankruptcy court in connection with Yukos’ Chapter 11 filing, Yuganskneftegaz’s true buyers are unlikely to step from the wings until it becomes clear how that suit will develop.

Yukos said Tuesday it would be seeking $20 billion in damages from whoever the new owner of Yuganskneftegaz turns out to be.

Meanwhile, in a move sources said was intended to dodge the U.S. bankruptcy court order, Gazprom said late Tuesday it had sold off Gazpromneft, which had been created just months earlier.

Gazpromneft, which had been banned from participating in Sunday’s auction by the U.S. court, stunned observers by not even placing a bid.

Gazprom spokesman Sergei Kuprianov told The Associated Press that Gazpromneft was sold on Friday, one day after the U.S. court issued the injunction. Kuprianov said that a new holding company would be created.