Russia sees $12bn drain on capital in the pipeline

Putin's clampdown on oil giant Yukos has investors running scared. Paul Lashmar and Tim Webb report
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The Independent Online

As much as $12bn (£6.7bn) is expected to be taken out of Russia this year, in the wake of the Yukos affair. Official estimates for capital flight out of Russia put the figure at nearly six times last year's $2.3bn.

The capital flight has been sparked by the targeting by Russian tax authorities of Yukos, the Russian oil company, which provides 2 per cent of the world's oil. It is feared other companies could be next.

This weekend Yukos warned it might have to cut production next month if Russian authorities do not give it more time to pay billions of dollars of backdated taxes they claim it owes.

The tax ministry has levied 100bn rubles ($3.4bn) of backdated taxes for 2000. The deadline for payment is tomorrow. Similar taxes could be charged for 2001 and 2002.

The company said last week that it was cutting spending by $700m a year so it could continue normal operations, as tax officials have frozen accounts. Officials "swept" $900m from the accounts last month to meet the back-dated 2000 bill. The company must also pay current taxes.

A company source warned: "If the level of sweeping payments continue next month it would be hard to maintain our monthly production."

The Yukos battle has spooked investors. Russian Finance Minister Alex Kudrin admitted on Thursday to a capital outflow figure of $9bn, a four-fold increase on last year. Separately, the Economic Development and Trade Ministry had said it thought the figure would reach $12bn.

Mr Kudrin played down the Yukos effect at a news conference, saying he believed the main reason for the reversal in capital flows had been the interest rate increase by the US Federal Reserve.

At the behest of President Vadimir Putin, the authorities threatened to sell off the oil giant, Russia's biggest company. The move is largely seen as an attack by Mr Putin on Yukos's biggest shareholder, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who is now on trial for fraud and tax evasion.

Mr Kudrin conceded that a mini banking crisis, which has forced eight Russian lending banks to close since May, had played a contributory role in provoking capital outflow, but maintained that the state's aggressive tactics towards Yukos had not.

"Everyone talks about Yukos, but I don't see a significant effect here," Mr Kudrin said.

No one is claiming the situation is likely to compare with the capital flight of $25bn-$30bn a year that left Russia in the early 1990s after the Soviet collapse and nearly brought the country to its knees. The Russian economy is currently flourishing on the back of big rises in oil prices.

Michael Taylor, a senior East European editor of Oxford Analitica, a research organisation, says that Mr Kudrin's figures this week are roughly right. "But I think he is being slightly disingenuous in saying that Yukos has had no effect," he said.

Pavel Erochkine of the Centre for Global Studies also agreed with the figure. "Our estimate is in the range $9bn-$10bn but it might be higher," he said.