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The Money Trail Leading to Yugansk

A large chunk of the cash state-owned Rosneft paid for its acquisition of Yukos' main production unit, Yuganskneftegaz, may have been initially transferred from the Federal Treasury, Vedomosti reported Friday, citing a series of transactions shown on a database that purports to be from the Central Bank.

If the contents of the database are true, the data may indicate what many market watchers have believed for some time: that Rosneft did not immediately pay for Yugansk, but instead first borrowed money from the government in what looks like an insider deal.

If true, the disclosures appear to show that even though the government was selling off Yugansk as partial payment for tax debts owed to the state, it may have ended up helping finance a state-owned oil firm's acquisition of the unit instead.

The disclosures provoked a strong response from Yukos' main shareholder, Group Menatep, which said the Vedomosti report appeared to prove the government had expropriated Yugansk.

"This goes to prove what we always thought: that Yugansk was stolen," said Tim Osborne, director of Group Menatep, the holding company founded by former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who was sentenced to nine years in a penal colony last week in the culmination of a two-year onslaught against Yukos and Menatep. "This could only increase the belief that this was one big conspiracy to take away the major assets of Yukos," Osborne said.

Yuganskneftegaz was auctioned off for $9.35 billion on Dec. 19 to Baikal Finance Group, a previously unknown shell company registered in Tver, which had put up the required $1.7 billion deposit. Three days later, Rosneft announced that it had bought Baikal Finance Group. On Dec. 30, according to Rosneft, Baikal Finance Group completed its purchase of Yugansk.

The state's takeover of Yugansk has led to a messy tangle of international lawsuits filed against the government.

Osborne said Friday that the Vedomosti report could add weight to Group Menatep's $28 billion lawsuit against the government under the terms of the Energy Charter, an international treaty that Russia has signed. "This is very helpful in terms of the Energy Charter," he said by telephone from London. "It appears to prove what we already knew: that the government was basically expropriating the asset."

The Vedomosti investigation into payments by Rosneft for the unit was based on transactions disclosed in a database it obtained, which claims to be a database of transactions conducted through Central Bank payment centers in the fourth quarter of 2004.

The Central Bank answered an official request from Vedomosti for clarification by saying it was unable to respond because the information required was guarded by secrecy laws.

Central Bank chairman Sergei Ignatyev said Thursday that the bank was still looking for the source of leaks of information on interbank payments, Vedomosti reported Friday. In April, Ignatyev had said he was personally overseeing an investigation into leaks after Vedomosti reported that secret banking information was being circulated over the Internet. He specified that the leaked information covered interbank payments in the second and third quarters of 2004.

According to the database, the contents of which were also reviewed by The Moscow Times, on Dec. 30 the equivalent of 147.068 billion rubles ($5.3 billion) was transferred in hard currency to state-owned Vneshekonombank from an unnamed account with the same tax identification number as structures belonging to the Federal Treasury.

On the same day, Vneshekonombank received the same sum -- 147 billion rubles -- in promissory notes believed by experts to be veksels issued by Rosneft daughter companies, Vedomosti reported. These promissory notes remained on Vneshekonombank's balance for Jan. 1, 2005, the paper said.

Also on Dec. 30, a bank that services Rosneft conducted a dollar-ruble operation with Vneshekonombank, or VEB, for the same sum, and as a result 147.068 billion rubles appeared on the bank's account at Sberbank, according to the database. On the same day, Baikal Finance Group, which also had an account at Sberbank, transferred 211.403 billion rubles ($7.6 billion) that it owed for Yugansk to the Justice Ministry.

The Central Bank database only shows transfers between banks, so if the Rosneft-connected bank had transferred money from its Sberbank account to Baikal Finance Group's Sberbank account, the transaction would not appear in the database.

Market watchers have long wondered where Rosneft got the funding for its acquisition of Yugansk. The company, which was already heavily indebted at the time, has refused to say, citing commercial secrecy.

The mystery appeared to have been cleared up when Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin said in early January that the oil major would receive $6 billion from a consortium of Chinese banks. But a day later, the Finance Ministry, Rosneft and the Chinese issued hot denials that the loan had anything to do with financing Rosneft's controversial acquisition and said the loan was for prepayment of future oil supplies to China only.

Vedomosti cited a banking expert, who spoke only on condition of anonymity, as explaining the transactions likely showed that the treasury transferred $5.3 billion to Vneshekonombank, which then used the money to buy promissory notes from Rosneft daughter companies. Rosneft then exchanged the $5.3 billion it obtained via this scheme into the ruble equivalent, which ended up in the account of the Rosneft-friendly bank.

The expert was also cited as saying that the deal was not closed, however, by the end of the year because the promissory notes remained on the balance of VEB, which remained in debt to the treasury. The transaction was only completed in January when VEB received the $6 billion loan from the Chinese, the expert said, Vedomosti reported.

Rosneft spokesman Vladimir Voyevoda refused to comment on the report Friday or on any aspect of the transactions. Despite repeated calls to Vneshekonombank, press secretary Svetlana Nikitina was unavailable for comment.

Kudrin's press secretary, Gennady Yezhov, denied that treasury funds could have been used for Rosneft's acquisition of Yugansk. "If funds from the treasury are transferred to VEB, then this can only be for payment of foreign debts in line with the budget law or in line with additional decisions of the government," Yezhov said by telephone Friday. "Of course funds from the Federal Treasury cannot be used for buying companies. This is impossible."

But he said he could not comment on dealings involving the same sum of money between VEB and the Rosneft-friendly bank. "I can only speak for the treasury," he said.

Presidential economic adviser Andrei Illarionov, who has sharply criticized the Kremlin's attack on Yukos, said Sunday that no matter what the payment scheme was, the state budget would end up footing the bill.

"Independent of any concrete schemes, payment for this acquisition will come out of the budget in the end anyway," he said. "Instead of its earnings being paid into the budget via dividends as a state company, these funds will go toward paying off the loan.

"All these purchases by state companies will be made with public money," he said. "The more complicated the scheme, the more money it is going to cost the budget."

Illarionov had made similar comments at a news conference on Dec. 28, two days before the Yugansk purchase was completed. He said this showed the case against Yukos was not about tax evasion.

"In this respect, the entire affair, regrettably, clearly demonstrates that any of the official or semi-official explanations given to the public regarding the Yukos affair do not have a leg to stand on," he said at the news conference. "The issue is not that some abuses have been committed in the company Yukos. At issue is not the existence of tax arrears, because nobody was interested in tax arrears in this case. The company had started to pay those tax arrears even when it did not admit it had arrears, and they were prepared to pay even those fantastic amounts but nobody was interested in that.

"They gave up receiving additional tax payments in order to obtain property. And this is the most dramatic and the most candid statement of the genuine interest in the entire Yukos affair," Illarionov said.

Analysts said that even though the information disclosed in the database could only be regarded as unofficial, the disclosures could be embarrassing for President Vladimir Putin, who has insisted that the state's takeover of Yugansk was absolutely in line with normal legal procedures. "If people now believe this acquisition was funded internally, then that will blow a big hole in the argument that the transaction was proper and conducted with due legal process," said Chris Weafer, chief strategist at Alfa Bank. "If the paper trail can be proven, it does embarrass the president at a sensitive time for Russia's membership of the G8 and for talks on accession to the WTO.

"It gives potential legal ammunition to Menatep and to minority shareholders [in Yukos] if it is proved that Yugansk was not sold in an open auction and this was basically the state rigging the auction in its own favor to get the assets," Weafer said.

Al Breach, chief strategist at Brunswick UBS, said the scheme outlined by Vedomosti "looks essentially the same as loans-for-shares."

It is impossible, however, to prove that the money apparently transferred by the Federal Treasury into Vneshekonombank is the same money later borrowed by Rosneft because money is fungible, Breach said. But what the transfer appeared to do was provide a vital liquidity boost to VEB, without which it would have been unlikely to have been able to raise the $5.3 billion so quickly, he said.

Analysts said the disclosures could further complicate plans for Rosneft to raise some $7.5 billion in loans on international markets to pay for the government's plan to increase its stake in Gazprom to a controlling one. They said the report also looked likely to complicate plans to sell off a stake in Rosneft to pay down the loans following that transaction.

"Who's going to lend Rosneft money?" Breach said. "The whole thing is like a legal quagmire now."

(The Moscow Times 06.vi.05)

 
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