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Putin Says State Firms Can Buy Yukos Assets

State-controlled companies have every right to bid for Yukos assets if they are sold to pay off the firm's whopping tax debt, although the government is not seeking to nationalize the company, President Vladimir Putin said Friday.

Yukos is facing a sell-off of its key production unit Yuganskneftegaz, which produces about two-thirds of the company's total output. The oil major has been grappling with an onslaught of multibillion-dollar tax claims for months.

Putin also issued reassurances that the recently announced merger of two state-owned energy companies, Gazprom and Rosneft, was not related to any pending sales of Yukos assets.

"As for Yukos and the announcement of the merger of Gazprom and Rosneft, these things are absolutely not related to each other. Yukos is a private company and the state suspects it of tax evasion," Putin said.

Putin said the Gazprom-Rosneft merger is going through in the name of "better meeting market economy standards and at the same time preserving government control" over Gazprom after foreign investors are allowed to buy local shares in the gas giant.

The Justice Ministry earmarked Yuganskneftegaz for sale in July as part of the state's pursuit of $3.4 billion it claims Yukos owes it in unpaid taxes and penalties for 2000. The company also faces a similar bill for 2001.

The valuation of Yuganskneftegaz by Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein is expected to be announced by the end of the month.

If Yuganskneftegaz is indeed auctioned off, the list of possible buyers remains a mystery. Vedomosti reported last week that the value has already been set at $15 billion to $17 billion. Energy analysts agree no Russian energy company, including Gazprom, would be in a position to come up with such a sum without the involvement of foreign partners or a lowering of the price.

The Natural Resources Ministry will decide this week on whether to revoke Yuganskneftegaz's license, a ministry spokesman said Friday. A revocation could lower the unit's value dramatically.

On Friday, Gazprom CEO Alexei Miller said that the natural gas monopoly has no interest in purchasing Yukos' assets.

In August, Miller told Putin that Gazprom is planning to expand its oil production, and earlier this month the merger of Gazprom and Rosneft was announced.

(The Moscow Times 27.ix.04)

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