Russia Pulls a “Yukos” on TNK-BP

It’s not surprising that the Russian government has laid siege to TNK-BP, argues Carl Mortished, but rather the timing. After all, one would have thought that Gazprom’s appetite would have been sated for a while after the theft of the Kovykta natural gas field… Ah, but perhaps it isn’t the Gazprom clan behind this (they probably want smooth sailing as Medvedev establishes himself as president) – but rather the rival Igor Sechin and Rosneft who are seeking greater control of Russian oil with the attack on BP’s assets:

The scuttlebutt in Moscow suggests that it is not Gazprom’s ambition but the desire of its oil rival, Rosneft, the state-controlled company chaired by President Putin’s chief of staff, Igor Sechin, to expand and control a larger patch of oil. A lock-in agreement that prevented the Russian partners in TNK-BP from selling their interest expired late last year and it is rumoured that the Kremlin would like to see a state company replace the oligarchs, but the latter – tycoons Mikhail Fridman, Len Blavatnik and Viktor Vekselberg – have denied any interest in selling.

Do they need persuasion? Does BP need to contribute part of its stake such that Messrs. Fridman and Co. are not required to sell out completely? Rosneft has played a key role in the state takeover of politically sensitive assets, notably in the dubious auction of Yukos, the oil company that was bankrupted with tax claims and whose former leading shareholder, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, remains in prison. If TNK-BP is in the frame at Rosneft, it is a troubling development and does not bode well at a time when many are hoping for better things from a new Russian president.