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Marshals Move In on Yukos Assets

Court marshals have frozen accounts tied to one of Yukos' three main production units, according to Interfax, in a move that could threaten production at the embattled oil major facing potential bankruptcy over a $3.4 billion back tax bill. Yukos officials in Moscow, however, were unable to confirm the Interfax report, which cited an unnamed official in the Tomsk administration as saying Tomskneft's transit accounts at a Menatep St. Petersburg branch had been frozen. They were unable to contact Tomskneft executives, said Yukos spokesman Hugo Erikssen. Tomskneft produces 20 percent of overall output at Yukos, the nation's biggest oil exporter.

If confirmed, the move would mark the first concrete actions by court marshals to collect payment on a $3.4 billion back tax bill after Wednesday's crucial deadline for Yukos' voluntary payment expired. In an interview earlier Thursday Andrei Belyakov, the head of the Justice Ministry's court marshal service, said assets were already being seized in a drive to enforce payment of the bill. He would not say, however, which accounts marshals were targeting or how much money had already been frozen. In a sign marshals could be quietly moving in on Yukos-related accounts, he would only say "the situation is changing all the time."

He was not available for further comment after the report of the Tomskneft account freeze broke later Thursday. What appeared to be a softly, softly approach by court marshals to circle in on Yukos assets came despite a last-minute offer on Wednesday by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the oil firm's jailed owner, to surrender his shares so the company could pay off mounting tax debts. On Thursday, the government made no official response to the proposal. Instead, Deputy Finance Minister Sergei Shatalov told reporters the Finance Ministry had received no plea from Yukos to restructure tax payments on the $3.4 billion bill for 2000. Yukos says it was unable to make the payment within the voluntary time frame because it was unable to raise cash due to a court-ordered asset freeze and because it only has $1.4 billion on its accounts. Shatalov also said the ministry had not received any offer from Yukos to sell off Khodorkovsky's shares to settle the bill. The Financial Times reported Wednesday that Yukos executives had sent a letter to Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov and to Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin proposing the plan.

Khodorkovsky went public with the offer as a five-day deadline for voluntary payment of the bill passed. Many analysts saw his gesture as too little, too late after a massive state-run campaign to crank up pressure on the company and its owners. Yukos says the government's actions have brought it to the brink of financial ruin. Last week, court marshals froze the bank accounts of the NK Yukos holding company -- and days later presented it with another $3.4 billion tax claim for 2001. More tax bills are likely in a legal onslaught many see as payback from the Kremlin for Khodorkovsky's moves to challenge President Vladimir Putin's power base and as aimed at taking his company away from him.

In a sign court marshals could be gearing up for asset seizures at core Yukos production units, on Wednesday they searched the company that holds Yukos' share registry, M-Reyestr. According to M-Reyestr's director, Yevgeny Grigoryev, marshals told company officials they were looking for Yukos assets, including Samaraneftegaz, Yuganskneftegaz and Tomskneft, Interfax reported Thursday. Grigoryev said they also threatened to confiscate computer servers holding databases on the share registries. But in a move that could thwart any state efforts to seize shares in the company's core production units, Yukos transferred share registries belonging to Samaraneftegaz, Yuganskneftegaz and Tomskneft to the regional subsidiaries themselves last week. The transfers look like an attempt to hide the registries from marshals, said Maxim Kalinin, general director of NIKoil Registrator, another major Moscow-based share registry company.

Without access to the registries, court marshals cannot place a block on transferring ownership of the subsidiaries out of Yukos, he said.

Kalinin added that moving registries out of the reach of rivals was a typical move in takeover battles.

The tax bill is levied against NK Yukos, the holding company that is currently the owner of the production units. Marshals can only go after assets belonging to NK Yukos to enforce payment of the bill.

Even if ownership of Yukos' main production units has not been transferred out of NK Yukos yet -- a move that would leave the holding company an empty shell -- the company could do so in the future as a defense mechanism of last resort should marshals make clear they are going to seize them. Yukos spokesman Erikssen would not comment on why the shares registries were transferred.

(The Moscow Times 09.vii.04)

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