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Gazprom, Rosneft Stick by Their Guns

Both Gazprom and Rosneft refused to back down Friday in a standoff over their merger that has exposed a growing rift within the Kremlin and is threatening President Vladimir Putin's plans to forge a national oil and gas behemoth.

Gazprom spokesman Sergei Kupriyanov on Friday reiterated that the gas giant was sticking to its plan to take control of Rosneft's assets, apart from former Yukos production unit Yuganskneftegaz, under its planned merger with the state-owned oil firm. "Our position has not changed," Kupriyanov said.

But Rosneft kept silent, apparently digging in after very publicly disputing the merger terms in a statement Thursday, insisting it would retain financial control of its assets.

The continuing standoff is spooking investors amid fears of disunity in the Kremlin over control of the state's oil and gas resources that were boosted to nearly 20 percent of the country's total oil output after Rosneft acquired Yugansk. One fund manager, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that the open conflict was like watching "a bunch of thieves fighting over the spoils."

The Kremlin also stayed mum on the conflict, which is increasingly being viewed as a battle between Gazprom's CEO Alexei Miller and board chairman Dmitry Medvedev -- Putin's chief of staff -- on one side, and Rosneft's president Sergei Bogdanchikov and board chairman Igor Sechin -- Medvedev's deputy -- on the other.

The one government official who spoke out on the affair Friday was Deputy Economic Development and Trade Minister Andrei Sharonov, who told reporters, "The mess is bad for Russia's image and it's bad that the main players are not the owners, but the managers of the companies."

A Kremlin spokesman was unavailable for comment all day Friday.

Late Thursday, Interfax had cited an unnamed source it claimed was close to Rosneft's board as saying the firm's statement was a "technical error" released without the approval of Bogdanchikov. But on Friday Rosneft officials did not answer repeated calls, and the statement remained posted on the firm's web site. There was no official retraction of the statement, which also described Miller's statements earlier this week on the merger plan as "not true."

If Rosneft is fully consolidated as a Gazprom subsidiary, and Yugansk remains a separate entity, in line with Gazprom's merger plan, it could well end up controlling most of Yugansk's vast financial flows. Under a deal approved last week, Yugansk agreed to sell Rosneft almost its entire 2005 production of 55 million tons at a knockdown price of about $14 per barrel, according to calculations made by Troika Dialog's Oleg Maximov, based on the disclosed price of 154 billion rubles ($5.5 billion). Currently, it costs $19 to lift one barrel of Yugansk oil, he said.

Now that Yugansk has been torn away from Yukos, it lacks any marketing structures of its own and needs Rosneft to sell its oil, said Chris Weafer, chief strategist at Alfa Bank. If Bogdanchikov is given the job of running Yugansk while Gazprom takes over management of Rosneft's assets as it plans, Bogdanchikov's role could be little more than that of a production manager.

"That's the nub of it," Weafer said.

(The Moscow Times 05.iii.05)

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