Abramovich 'out to seize control of oil giant with Putin's backing'

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The Independent Online

Roman Abramovich, the owner of Chelsea Football Club, stands accused of using the imprisonment of a business partner to seize control of Russia's biggest oil company.

The Russian billionaire, who bought Chelsea over the summer, is thought to have the backing of the President, Vladimir Putin, for a daring attempt to take over the management of Yukos-Sibneft.

Mr Abramovich agreed to sell his Sibneft oil group to the larger Yukos, run by Russia's richest man, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, in April. The merger of the businesses, which is now all but complete, has created the country's leading oil major, worth some $40bn. Sibneft, the junior partner, has 26 per cent of the combined company.

On Friday, at an extraordinary general meeting to tie up the final details of the merger, the Sibneft side dramatically called a halt to the deal. It followed the arrest in October of Mr Khodorkovsky, on charges of fraud and tax evasion. He had been bankrolling political parties opposed to the administration of President Putin.

It has emerged that Sibneft had demanded that its people take over the top management positions in the combined company before the deal is allowed to complete. When a shocked Yukos refused, Mr Abramovich's side walked away from the transaction. The move could see Sibneft having to pay a $1bn break fee.

Leonid Nevzlin, a key ally of Mr Khodorkovsky, said: "There is some kind of intrigue going on which I don't understand. But I'm deeply disappointed by the behaviour of some of our partners."

Mr Nevzlin was speaking from Israel, where he has claimed asylum. He is the largest Yukos shareholder not to be in jail. Mr Nevzlin was called on Thursday by Eugene Shvidler, the president of Sibneft, who demanded that he be made chief executive of the merged company in place of the Yukos chief executive Simon Kukes. In addition, he insisted that Alexander Voloshin, until recently President Putin's chief of staff, be made chairman.

Days before this demand was made, it is understood that Mr Abramovich, at his own instigation, went to see President Putin. At that meeting it was decided that Mr Abramovich should install his own allies at the top of Yukos-Sibneft. After the meeting, the Russian tax ministry issued a statement that Mr Abramovich was "clean".

Mr Khodorkovsky and Mr Abramovich are both leading Russian "oligarchs" who made their fortunes through the state privatisations of the 1990s.

Boris Berezovsky, another oligarch who has been exiled, to London, said: "They [the Kremlin] will tear Yukos apart. There will be no nationalisation. The shares are under arrest. Khodorkovsky will be declared a criminal. His property will be confiscated in favour of the government."

It is unclear whether Mr Abramovich was acting under pressure from President Putin or on his own initiative.

Sibneft denied over the weekend that its decision to suspend the merger was politically motivated. It said its actions were "connected exclusively to business relations between the companies' shareholders".

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