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Putin Drops Hint on New Rosneft Chairman

President Vladimir Putin on Friday said that state-owned Rosneft was likely to be headed by a prominent foreigner, but stopped short of confirming reports that the job had been offered to former U.S. Commerce Secretary Donald Evans.

Media reports first surfaced last week that the longtime confidante of President George W. Bush had met with Putin earlier this month and been offered the post of Rosneft board chairman, currently held by the deputy head of the Kremlin administration.

"I suppose that any of our public companies -- and Rosneft is about to become one -- ... is interested in attracting a high-class manager regardless of his country of origin or citizenship," Putin told reporters at his residence in the Black Sea resort city of Sochi, according to the presidential web site.

"Rosneft has every chance to become a world-class company. I am sure it will become one and do not rule out the possibility of invitations for foreign and high-class managers," he said.

Although Putin did not directly confirm the reports of an offer, sources close to Evans and in the Russian government have also not denied them. Evans ostensibly came to Moscow on the invitation of the American Chamber of Commerce but also paid a visit to Putin.

"I did not name names," he told reporters who bombarded him with questions about the candidate's identity. "I could name any surname at any time. But it is a matter for the negotiations between the company and the managers they are inviting."

A high-ranking government official told The Moscow Times last week that only Evans -- and no one else -- was being considered for the Rosneft job.

The government plans to sell up to 49 percent of the fully state-owned oil company in the coming year. The state wants to use the IPO as a way to repay a loan it took out to buy a majority stake in Gazprom.

A move to bring in a well-connected foreigner would appear to be a Kremlin attempt to make Rosneft attractive to foreign investors by showing that the company is serious about becoming a transparent, Western-style enterprise.

The news of the offer to Evans came just days after Gazprom announced that former German Chancellor Gerhard SchrЪder was going to head a Gazprom-led pipeline project under the Baltic Sea.

The question remains open as to whether Evans, who quit his U.S. government job in February 2005, would accept a job at Rosneft.

The decision to take the board chairmanship of the state-owned oil company would be a tough for any well-known foreigner, especially from the United States, said a businessman who knows Evans personally.

Rosneft's reputation was stained in the eyes of many international observers after it acquired Yuganskneftegaz, Yukos' largest production unit, after a forced government auction last December.

Yukos shareholders are still trying recover losses through courts in both Europe and the United States.

"I can't imagine any prominent U.S. figure walking into this with his eyes open and thus becoming a U.S.-based target for the legal battles yet to come," said the businessman, who requested anonymity because he did not want to speak on Evans' behalf without permission.

One such threat is a lawsuit that was opened by U.S.-based owners of American Depository Receipts in Yukos. During a visit to the United States in October, Industry and Energy Minister Viktor Khristenko was served with the suit, which accuses the Russian government, Rosneft and Gazprom of fraud in the de facto renationalization of the Yugansk unit.

In November 2004, Yukos' main shareholder, Group Menatep, filed a $28 billion suit against the Russian government under the terms of the Energy Charter, an international treaty that Russia has signed but not ratified.

A person close to Evans who last week was authorized to speak to the media and confirmed the Putin meeting, declined to comment on the questions about Rosneft's involvement in the Yukos affair.

Another open question related to the appointment of Evans to the Rosneft board is the fate of current chairman Igor Sechin.

Sechin is the deputy head of the presidential administration and has been a close Putin ally since the 1990s, when the president was still climbing the career ladder in the St. Petersburg mayor's office.

Sechin was appointed Rosneft's board chairman in July 2004.

Sechin has a reputation for being a powerful player among the siloviki, the Kremlin clan of mostly St. Petersburg security officers who rose to power under Putin.

Former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who is now serving an eight-year prison sentence for fraud and tax evasion, has called Sechin "the organizer and motor behind the Yukos affair."

(The Moscow Times 19.xii.05)

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