Russia's 13th richest man, a Kremlin-friendly oligarch known as the "Hermit of Siberia", emerged yesterday as the most likely buyer of Yukos' main oil production unit, Yuganskneftegaz.
The unit was sold to a mysterious shell company last Sunday for $9.4bn(£4.8bn) in a forcible auction designed to strip Yukos of its prize asset, ostensibly to help pay an enormous back tax bill.
Although he has yet to admit it, all the evidence points to Vladimir Bogdanov, the general director of Surgutneftegaz, Russia's fourth-largest oil company, being behind the sale. The man and woman who bid at the auction have been revealed as Surgutneftegaz employees; the director of the mysterious shell company is a woman affiliated with Surgut; the company has long been sitting on a pile of cash put at $8bn; and Mr Bogdanov is a Kremlin loyalist.
Surgut has denied any link to the controversial sale, possibly because an American court slapped a restraining order on the auction's declared bidders, and Surgut will be keen to avoid being drawn into legal action, though it has no assets abroad anyway. The market clearly does not believe Surgut's denials - its shares soared some 10 per cent in Moscow yesterday.
Mr Bogdanov, estimated by Forbes magazine to be worth $2.2bn, appears to be a middle man tasked with facilitating a politically sensitive sale in return for a slice of the assets and greater influence.
President Vladimir Putin gave the auction his personal blessing yesterday and suggested that Gazprom, which is 39 per cent-owned by the Russian state, would have some kind of a role in the future management of Yugansk along with the mystery buyer and China's state oil company.
When asked who had bought Yugansk he would only reveal that it had been purchased by individuals with a long history in the energy sector. His statement suggested that Mr Bogdanov agreed to sell on a large chunk of Yugansk once the controversy died down.
Mr Bogdanov, 53, headed Mr Putin's election campaign in western Siberia four years ago. He has headed the management-controlled Surgut for the past 20 years yet rarely leaves the remote oil town in which he lives.
Though his company is widely regarded as one of the best run in Russia, investors tend to grumble about its low dividends, old-fashioned accounting and under-utilised cash mountain.
If Surgut is confirmed to be Yugansk's buyer it would become Russia's biggest oil producer overnight, with a total output of some 2.4 million barrels a day.
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