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Putin Allays TNK-BP Worries

President Vladimir Putin offered a show of support for the country's top oil exporter, TNK-BP, during a Kremlin meeting Friday with BP's chief executive, Lord Browne.

In a sign of possible upcoming relief for the oil major, which is grappling with a back tax claim of nearly $1 billion, Putin said he hoped the 50-50 joint venture between BP and Tyumen Oil would continue to grow at the same rapid rate it has since its creation in February 2003.

"We were not mistaken when we supported your decision two years ago," Putin said, praising the company for being what he called a good corporate citizen. "Let me express my hope that your business in Russia will continue to grow at the same rate."

The meeting was the first between the two men since Browne received Putin's blessing amid much fanfare for BP's groundbreaking $8 billion investment deal. Nearly two years after the deal was struck, however, TNK-BP appears to be coming under pressure in a much changed climate, as the state seeks greater control over the oil sector and foreigners look likely to be prevented from taking controlling or equal stakes in new strategic ventures.

Two weeks ago, the oil major said it had been levied with a back tax claim of nearly $1 billion for 2001, while its future growth plans have been thrown into doubt by a new government bill to bar foreign-owned companies from bidding for major strategic fields.

Putin economic aide Igor Shuvalov told reporters after the meeting that neither Putin nor TNK-BP -- including its other owners who attended the meeting, Alfa Group chairman Mikhail Fridman and Access-Renova co-owner Viktor Vekselberg -- raised the issue of the tax claim Friday.

Browne said the company felt "comfortable" in Russia, Shuvalov said.

But even though Putin appeared to offer support for the company's existing business, it was not clear if he offered much reassurance about the company's chances of being able to bid for major strategic deposits in the future.

Reporters were ushered out of the room after the first five minutes of the meeting, leaving Shuvalov to brief reporters afterward.

Addressing Browne across a table in the Kremlin's reception hall at the start of the meeting, Putin appeared to lay out a case for BP being satisfied with what it already had.

"According to the information I have, almost one-quarter of the oil BP extracts is extracted in Russia. That means almost one-quarter of the profits BP makes is being received from Russia. TNK-BP is among the top three oil companies in Russia," Putin said, adding with a steely smile that the company already had 1.2 billion tons of reserves.

Russia had not been mistaken in supporting the deal as "the profits of the joint company have increased 20 times over," Putin said, smiling. "This is proof of the quality of management."

Since TNK-BP was founded in 2003, the company has reregistered its head office onshore from its previous base in the British Virgin Islands. As its profits have risen, so have the company's tax payments. Last year it paid about $6.5 billion in taxes, customs and excise duties. This year it expects to pay $10 billion.

Browne appeared to counter by saying that BP had kept all four promises it made when Putin blessed its deal -- increasing production; boosting investment, including into new technology; improving management; and making sure the company was "a good Russian corporate citizen."

"I have not forgotten this agenda," Browne said. "I believe we have considerable facts and figures that show good progress on each of these four points.

"Most of all, however, what characterizes us is that we are here not just for today but for the long-term future," he said, in a nod to possible future investment deals.

After the meeting, which appeared brief at just over a half-hour, Shuvalov said Putin had told Browne that only six or seven major new fields would be off limits to companies that were not majority Russian-owned under the new subsoil natural resources bill.

"We have hundreds and thousands of other fields that can be developed," Shuvalov said. "Therefore, it is not correct to say that foreign investors' rights will be infringed over gaining new licenses for developing fields."

But Shuvalov also indicated that the final version of the law was far from clear and said it would be impossible to say which fields would be off limits to foreigners until the bill had been approved by both chambers of parliament and signed into law by Putin. He said he hoped the "new rules of the game" would be in place by the end of the year.

Shuvalov refused to comment on a statement earlier this month by Anatoly Ledovskikh, a senior official in the Natural Resources Ministry, that an auction for three major fields had been canceled in March in order to keep TNK-BP out, saying the statement had come merely from a "deputy minister."

But Shuvalov said the new law would help make the tender process more transparent. "A federal law will make the rules of the game absolutely clear," he said.

(The Moscow Times 25.iv.05)

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