Russia 'aiming to sell 100 per cent of Rosneft'

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The Independent Online

Rosneft, the state-owned Russian oil company that controversially floated on the London stock market this summer, should be 100 per cent privatised, a senior Moscow official said yesterday.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, the highly placed Kremlin official said while this had not been the original intention, it was now the preferred option for Rosneft. The company, he said, should be 100 per cent privatised within one year.

While the timescale appears highly improbable - only 15 per cent of the company has been sold off and the remaining 85 per cent could be worth $68bn (£36bn) - the intention appears clear. According to the official, the Kremlin plans to keep the energy giant, Gazprom, in majority state ownership and with a monopoly on Russia's energy exports.

But the idea is also to encourage more competition on the domestic market, with big, medium-size and small companies invited to compete for customers. A fully privatised Rosneft could be the flagship for that policy. The official admitted this was a change of strategy. The earlier intention was for Gazprom to buy a controlling interest in Rosneft and use it as its subsidiary company for Russian oil exports. The official was answering questions from an international group of academics and reporters.

When Rosneft acquired the remains of Mikhail Khodorkovsky's Yukos company for a knockdown price, however, the Kremlin recognised that the original plan was unsustainable. It would be economically and politically unsustainable for Gazprom to absorb Rosneft, not only because it was now a bigger company but because of the dubious circumstances - Khodorkovsky's arrest for alleged tax evasion, widely seen as a political move to curb an increasingly dominant businessman.

In stressing that Gazprom would remain majority state-owned, and with a monopoly on Russian energy exports, the Kremlin official also revealed it was President Putin's intention not to lose control of what were considered crucial strategic assets. A similar approach will also apply to the motor manufacturer Avtovaz, and probably to the merchant shipping fleet.

It also emerged yesterday that European countries buying Russian gas through Gazprom could face higher prices in the not-too-distant future. A senior Russian economist said with Russia's energy consumption rising sharply over the past half year, the domestic market could in effect become a rival to European and other customers.

While it was stressed that deals already signed would be honoured, it is likely the price will rise when they come up for renewal and that the terms could be significantly revised.