Putin to take direct ownership of main Yukos asset

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The Independent Online

The Russian government has announced plans to take direct ownership of the main production business of Yukos, which it forcibly took away from the oil company this month.

It had seemed likely that the state-owned energy group, Rosneft, would buy Yukos' Yuganskneftegaz (Yugansk) unit, which in turn would be bought by Gazprom, another state-controlled energy company.

Yukos immediately denounced yesterday's government move as further evidence that the authorities were seeking to insulate their assault on the company from legal redress. Yukos vowed this week that it would sue Rosneft-Gazprom in the US courts, and any other party involved in the "illegal" purchase of Yugansk, including the international banks that advised and funded Gazprom.

Yukos has been hit by a $27bn (£14bn) tax bill, while its former chief executive and principal owner, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, has been in jail for the past 15 months on fraud charges.

Robert Amsterdam, the lawyer representing Mr Khodorkovsky and his holding company Menatep, said yesterday's development was just the latest in a constantly changing Kremlin strategy for taking over Yukos. He said: "The Russian Federation are attempting to construct something bulletproof. They are trying to avoid their international legal obligations."

The Russian authorities conducted a bizarre "auction" of Yugansk this month. Prior to the event, Yukos filed for bankruptcy protection in the US. This meant that Gazprom, which had planned to buy Yugansk at the auction, did not bid. Yugansk wentto the previously unknown Baikal Finance. Rosneft then said it would buy Baikal, and Gazprom announced it would buy Rosneft.

Russia's energy minister, Viktor Khristenko, said yesterday that the Gazprom-Rosneft deal would go ahead but Yugansk would be excluded from the transaction. It is thought it would be more difficult for Yukos to use US law against the Russian government.

Mr Khristenko also said that Russia may sell a 20 per cent stake in Yugansk to China's leading oil group, CNPC.