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Putin: Gazprom Talking to Sibneft

President Vladimir Putin on Friday said he was aware that Gazprom was negotiating to buy into Roman Abramovich's Sibneft, confirming growing speculation in the market that a deal was in the offing.

"I know that Gazprom and Sibneft representatives discussed this deal," Putin told reporters Friday at the Group of Eight summit in Gleneagles, Scotland, news agencies reported.

Putin said that he had met with Sibneft's owners and that he shared his opinion that the state should treat any sale as a market deal.

"This statement indirectly but very strongly confirms that negotiations between the two companies are under way and are at a very advanced stage," said Steven Dashevsky, head of research at Aton brokerage.

Putin's statement came as speculation mounted last week that Abramovich was in talks to sell his majority 57.7 percent stake in Sibneft, following the announcement that the company would pay a record $2.3 billion in dividends for 2004.

Another 34.5 percent in Sibneft is owned by the embattled Yukos oil company, a holdover from a failed merger deal between the two companies in 2003.

"As far as the market is concerned, I don't think people will take it badly as it was widely expected," said Roland Nash, chief strategist at Renaissance Capital. "It is the next logical step toward the state getting hold of strategic sectors of the economy, particularly in the energy sector."

Putin, however, downplayed suggestions that the Kremlin had played a role in the negotiations between Gazprom and Sibneft.

"If a state company wants to buy shares in another company, this does not mean that the state also wants this deal," Putin said, Interfax reported.

"In my opinion, this is not a priority for the state; it is a private case," he said.

Analysts polled over the weekend said that since no major energy deal now went ahead without the Kremlin's blessing, Putin's comments signaled a definitive green light for the purchase to take place.

"It is a signal that the Kremlin is not against this deal," Dashevsky said.

Russian media have reported that Gazprom is looking to buy a 72 percent stake in Sibneft.

Last Wednesday, a court in the Far East region of Chukotka, where Abramovich is governor, ruled that Yukos had to hand back 14.5 percent in Sibneft to its former owners.

Yukos spokesman Alexander Shadrin said Sunday that the company would appeal the Chukotka court decision "as soon as we get the written text of the ruling."

He declined to comment on Putin's statement about the Sibneft talks.

Sibneft has consistently downplayed speculation that Abramovich has been looking to cash in his Sibneft stake, one of the last major Russian assets managed by his Millhouse Capital holding, and move permanently to Britain.

"We are always in contact with our colleagues across the industry, but that doesn't change our strategy right now, which is focusing on Sibneft as a stand-alone company," Sibneft spokesman John Mann said by telephone Sunday.

"We are not commenting on such issues until the negotiations are complete," Gazprom spokesman Sergei Kupriyanov said.

In what appeared to be a sign of differences within the government over the sale, Economic Development and Trade Minister German Gref said in Krasnoyarsk on Friday that Gazprom should abstain from buying any oil assets.

"I have repeatedly said that Gazprom does not need oil assets. I don't think that this deal would make any sense," said Gref, who is a member of the Gazprom board, Interfax reported.

A planned takeover by Gazprom of state-owned Rosneft fell through earlier this year after Rosneft bought Yuganskneftegaz, the main production unit of jailed tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky's Yukos, via a government auction last December.

Rosneft also moved last week to try to secure a foothold in Sibneft, applying for a court freeze of the 20 percent of Sibneft's shares which belong to Yukos.

Rosneft CEO Sergei Bogdanchikov said Wednesday that the shares had been frozen to prevent Yukos from selling off property.

He said, however, that he would prefer to take $3.5 billion in cash to settle Rosneft's financial claims against Yukos.

"Twenty percent in Sibneft would not give Rosneft any leverage. It's a portfolio investment, and that is not what Rosneft does," said Sergei Suverov, head of research at Gazprombank.

He said that Rosneft was not likely to seek a larger stake, as its debts were already estimated at more than $22 billion.

Bogdanchikov said that Rosneft was not planning any new borrowing.

Officials at Rosneft were not available for comment late Friday.

"Who gets Sibneft in the end is a political decision," Aton's Dashevsky said. "If it's Gazprom, then Rosneft will have to act within the framework of the decision made by the Kremlin and the government."

Putin's confirmation of the talks between Gazprom and Sibneft is the second important statement he has made abroad about energy assets.

Last December, at a joint news conference with German Chancellor Gerhard SchrЪder, Putin said that he knew who the shareholders of the shell company Baikal Finance Group were. The company was hastily set up as a vehicle for the state to acquire Yugansk at an auction to recover part of $28 billion in back taxes.

Shortly after the auction, Rosneft acquired Yugansk for $9.37 billion.

Later, Putin said the transaction was legal and "perfectly normal."

Last week, Rosneft said that Yugansk was worth $7.1 billion more than the $9.3 billion that was paid for it in December, in 2004 earnings to U.S. GAAP standards.

It was not clear what price Gazprom would likely pay for Sibneft, which has a market capitalization of $16.5 billion.

(The Moscow Times 11.vii.05)

 
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