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RUSSIA

BP Chief Hayward Meets Gazprom, Rosneft Heads

BP chief Tony Hayward and Gazprom CEO Alexei Miller agreed to look at new opportunities Thursday, just two weeks after law enforcement agents raided the British energy firm's Moscow offices.

Hayward also met with the head of the other major state-controlled energy firm, Rosneft, as the fate of BP's Russian venture, TNK-BP, hung in the balance.

TNK-BP, 50-50 owned by the British firm and three Russian billionaires, has faced back tax charges and raids by the Federal Security Service, as analysts believe that it is the latest private venture marked for state control.

The meeting with Miller at the gas giant's Moscow headquarters officially concerned a memorandum of understanding that calls for TNK-BP to sell its 63 percent stake in the vast Kovykta gas field to Gazprom and for the establishment of a joint venture between the two companies.

The document was signed last summer after months of pressure from environmental authorities.

Spokesmen for neither Gazprom nor BP would elaborate on the new opportunities under examination.

Miller later met TNK-BP shareholder Viktor Vekselberg to discuss the deal, Gazprom said in a statement. Vekselberg, along with Mikhail Fridman and Len Blavatnik, owns 50 percent of TNK-BP.

Hayward's meeting with Rosneft CEO Sergei Bogdanchikov was to discuss work on the companies' joint oil-exploration project off the Sakhalin island, Rosneft and BP spokesmen in Moscow said.

Furthermore, Hayward was scheduled to meet BP's Russian partners in TNK-BP on Thursday or Friday, said the BP spokesman, Vladimir Buyanov. Hayward arrived in Moscow late Wednesday and, Buyanov said, could leave Friday.

This flurry of activity and the message that corporate ties will continue and widen comes as analysts have said the joint company's recent troubles were part of an effort to knock down its price, making it a cheaper for either of state company to buy half of TNK-BP from billionaires Mikhail Fridman, Len Blavatnik and Viktor Vekselberg.

In the saga's latest twist, Rosneft is studying a possible share swap with BP for a stake in TNK-BP, four sources familiar with the matter said earlier this week, Dow Jones reported Wednesday.

One of the sources said Rosneft's interest in the company was likely motivated by a need to gain leverage over Gazprom on possible future deals.

Gazprom and Rosneft have denied that they were after a stake in TNK-BP.

Problems rained down on TNK-BP last month, beginning with the arrests of an employee and his brother on charges of industrial espionage and a raid by security services on BP and TNK-BP offices in Moscow. The Natural Resources Ministry subsequently said it would check TNK-BP's largest oil field for environmental violations and the Interior Ministry accused the company of breaking visa rules.

Nevertheless, TNK-BP chief executive Robert Dudley said Thursday that neither BP nor its partners in the venture were negotiating to sell out.

"They continue to provide support for all the company's plans, investments and strategy," Dudley said, Interfax reported in Russian. "They are behaving in a way that confirms they are committed to the company for the long term."

A woman who answered the phone at Blavatnik's Access Industries in Moscow said the company had no spokesperson and wouldn't comment. A spokeswoman for Fridman's Alfa Bank declined comment, while a spokesman for Vekselberg couldn't be reached Thursday afternoon because he was in a meeting.

Hayward's trip to Moscow was, in part, an attempt to show BP shareholders that the company's still had good prospects for business in Russia, said Konstantin Reznikov, an analyst at Dresdner Kleinwort.

Dudley expressed hope Thursday that Gazprom and TNK-BP would finalize their long-delayed deal on the enormous Kovykta gas field in Siberia by the end of this month.

Gazprom agreed in June to buy a controlling stake in the company holding the license for the field, Rusia Petroleum, at a price to be determined in the next 90 days, but the deal stalled.

Dudley said Thursday that TNK-BP was seeking a price close to $1 billion, which would take into account the company's investment in the field plus interest, Interfax reported.

Gazprom in June valued the stake at between $600 million and $800 million.

Miller on Thursday met Vekselberg to speak about the Kovykta deal, Gazprom said in a statement, providing no further details.

(The Moscow Times 7.iv.08)