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Way Seen Open for Yukos Endgame

A slowdown in court hearings into a $3.4 billion back tax claim against Yukos and the appointment of two new heavy hitters onto the oil major's board last week could signal the start of talks to decide the fate of the embattled company and its owners.

The judge chairing hearings into the tax claim appeared to open a window for behind-the-scenes negotiations Friday by saying it could be two weeks before he is able to make a decision on the case, news agencies reported.

But despite recent overtures by the government suggesting it is ready for talks, it remains far from clear whether Menatep is prepared to bow to the state's will and strike a deal to stave off bankruptcy in a politically charged standoff seen as aimed at replacing the group with owners more loyal to the state.

Simon Kukes was dismissed as Yukos CEO late Thursday amid talk of a growing rift between management and the company's majority owners, Group Menatep, over a management rescue plan sent to the government. Replacing Kukes as CEO is U.S. oilman Steven Theede, who has been Yukos' chief operating officer since last November. Before then, Theede was head of exploration operations for ConocoPhillips in Russia, Europe and the Caspian. Kukes left his post amid speculation that there had been a clash between sections of the company's owners and management over the plan.

Appearing to go over Menatep's head, Kukes' deputy Yury Beilin sent a letter to Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov, blaming the financial policies of the company's majority owners for "significant nonpayment of taxes" from 2000 to 2003, a statement that could strengthen the government's legal case against Yukos' founders.

Yukos chief financial officer Bruce Misamore and a Menatep director, Tim Osborne, both slammed that statement in interviews last week. Kukes is believed to have given his backing to the plan. The Beilin proposal also appeared to seize the initiative from Yukos' parent company by proposing a buyout of Menatep's stake as a way of paying off the $3.4 billion tax bill for 2000 and other potential bills. Osborne has said Menatep is willing to consider "any reasonable proposal," but was ready to fight its corner. In interviews last week, he appeared to indicate that the management's proposals did not have the group's full sanction.

Menatep has said that it is willing to provide financial guarantees for the tax bill. But so far, there are no concrete plans on the table. The election of former Central Bank Chairman Viktor Gerashchenko as Yukos board chairman also appears aimed at strengthening Menatep's negotiating position.

A heavy hitter with links to the U.S. government was also elected to the Yukos board Thursday. That new board member is Edgar Ortiz, a former Halliburton vice president during U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney's time as Halliburton CEO.

In a conflict that has already landed Yukos founders Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev in jail and landed other owners on an Interpol wanted list, Menatep's only bargaining chip so far has been that the legal onslaught against Yukos could bankrupt the company and bring down the rest of the market with it, analysts said.

Weeks and months of perilous negotiations could still be ahead, even though it seems clear that Menatep will eventually be forced out of Yukos, analysts said. Putin has said it is not in the government's interest to bankrupt Yukos. Other experts said it was unlikely the group would be able to maintain any united strategy.

But even after spending eight months in pretrial detention, Khodorkovsky still appears to be in a fighting mood. In his first appearance on trial with Lebedev two weeks ago, Khodorkovsky again said he considered the charges against him groundless. Then, through his lawyer Anton Drel, he told the Financial Times last week that if he was freed from jail, he had no intention of leaving the country as other oligarchs that have crossed swords with the Kremlin have. Instead, Drel said, he would continue public and social work, hardly the promise to leave the political scene that analysts have said he must make if he has any chance of striking a deal for leniency.

(The Moscow Times 28.vi.04)

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