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Court Reverses Yugansk Arrest

The arrest of Yukos' main production unit, Yuganskneftegaz, by court marshals last month was illegal, the Moscow Arbitration Court ruled late Friday.

The ruling appeared to be a rare bit of good news for Yukos, but there still was little reason to believe the state was easing its assault on the oil major. The ruling came as a consortium, said to involve investors from the Persian Gulf and working in cooperation with Menatep ally Konstantin Kagalovsky, offered to pay off Yukos' debts to the state, no matter how large, in order to save the company.

Kagalovsky, an old ally of Khodorkovsky, first forwarded his proposal to bail out Yukos and its two main shareholders in late July. Back then, however, he would not say where the money would come from. Kagalovsky, whose initial proposal was sent to President Vladimir Putin in a letter, refused to say Sunday whether he has received any reply from the Kremlin.

Yukos has less than a month left to cough up $3.4 billion in back taxes and penalties the courts ruled the company owes for 2000. Additionally, tax authorities are in the process of billing Yukos for another $3.4 billion for 2001 and are checking the company for tax evasion in 2002 and possibly 2003. So far the company has paid about one-fifth of the sum it owes for 2000.

Additionally, most of Yukos' assets and bank accounts have been frozen as part of the tax case against the company, which Yukos managers say is pushing the company toward insolvency since it now has access to only a fraction of the ash it needs to maintain operations.

Also, as part of the wide legal offensive on Yukos and its core shareholders, former CEO Khodorkovsky and his ally Lebedev are being tried on charges of massive fraud and tax evasion. Prosecutors have accused them of defrauding the state of at least $1 billion.

The offer from the Kagalovsky-led consortium, if the most generous to date, is not the first of the kind. Yukos management has said it has appealed to the government with a range of proposals at least 12 times. Another offer was made by a group of investors led by Sputnik Group president Boris Jordan in June. All proposals appear to have gone unanswered, giving more ground to speculation that the authorities are not after the cash but Yukos' assets.

Even Friday's court ruling, a rare case of the judicial system siding with the embattled oil major, could mean that a stop was put only to the court marshals' "smash and grab" tactics but not to the final goal, said Christopher Weafer, chief strategist with Alfa-Bank. Friday's ruling probably means that if court marshals try to reinstate control over Yuganskneftegaz, they would have to explain why such an expensive asset is being taken to cover sums considerably less than the production unit's value, he said.

The shares of Yuganskneftegaz, which contributes more than 60 percent of Yukos' output, were arrested on July 14. Court marshals said they intended to sell the company and use the proceeds to pay Yukos' tax debt. They refused to disclose a possible asking price, but Yukos officials said at the time that the unit was slated to go for $1.75 billion, or about one-tenth of its value. Losing Yuganskneftegaz would mean the end of Yukos as Russia's leading oil major.

The court's ruling was to be complied with immediately, but can be appealed within a month.

Yukos based its complaint on a legal clause, according to which Yuganskneftegaz cannot be the first among the assets to be sold for debts, since it is a core asset that was with the company at the time of privatization.

Friday's ruling immediately followed an array of confusing reports suggesting that Yukos had gained access to its accounts and which were strongly denied by the Justice Ministry less than 24 hours later. Overall the flow of alternating good and bad news for the oil company has made its stock the most volatile on the market.

(The Moscow Times 09.viii.04)

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