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Ally Offers to Bail Out Yukos

A consortium of investors led by Group Menatep ally Konstantin Kagalovsky is proposing to pay off up to $10 billion in Yukos tax debts and buy out the group's majority stake in the company, which is currently frozen as collateral in the state's legal onslaught against Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

The bailout proposal was sent on Thursday to President Vladimir Putin, in a letter written on behalf of an unidentified group of investors by George Miller, a consultant whose ties to Kagalovsky date from the August 1991 coup.

Kagalovsky has long held close ties to Khodorkovsky: first as a vice president of Menatep Bank, the core of the oil tycoon's financial empire in the 1990s, and then as a Yukos executive and shareholder.

His wife, Natasha Gurfinkel-Kagalovsky, resigned as head of the Bank of New York's East European division in 1999 amid a scandal over the alleged laundering of billions of dollars of Russian money, which U.S. prosecutors said was washing through accounts at the bank she was responsible for.

Some analysts speculated that Menatep could be seeking, via Kagalovsky, to strike a deal with the Kremlin over the initial 1995 bargain basement privatization of Yukos by offering to pay whatever sum the government named in back taxes, and reimburse the state for damages Khodorkovsky is alleged to have caused the state in the criminal fraud and tax evasion case against him.

But Kagalovsky strongly denied any prior contact with Yukos' majority shareholders ahead of sending the proposal -- which he said was two months in the making -- apart from putting in a call to one of Khodorkovsky's lawyers informing him of the offer one day before it was sent to the Kremlin. He said he had sold his stake in Yukos shortly after the legal attack on the company began.

Shares in Yukos nevertheless climbed nearly 6 percent Friday on the RTS to close at $5.35 on hopes that the Kremlin would view the offer as a way out of an escalating standoff with Menatep that threatens to tear apart or bankrupt Yukos.

Yukos stock plummeted last week following an announcement by the Justice Ministry that it was preparing to sell off the oil firm's 100 percent stake in its main production unit, Yuganskneftegaz.

Investors fear the government is preparing to sell off the production unit at a knockdown price to companies close to the Kremlin, such as Surgutneftegaz, or state-owned energy companies Rosneft or Gazprom.

Even though some analysts said the Kagalovsky offer could conceivably satisfy two widely perceived Kremlin objectives in its attack against Yukos -- the removal of Khodorkovsky as owner and the payment of billions of dollars in back taxes -- most analysts said it was unlikely the government would agree to such a deal now, especially because of possible mistrust over Kagalovsky's ties to Menatep.

(The Moscow Times 26.vii.04)

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