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Thursday, August 30, 2007

Another One Bites the Dust: Who Will be Next?

The Moscow Times reports that an arrest warrant has issued for Mikhail Gutseriyev. When we predicted this four weeks ago, some Russophile slugs responded by saying we were over-reacting and this wouldn't happen. Well, it has. Now the only question is: Who will be next as Russia slips down in to the neo-Soviet abyss. If you are in Russia, dear reader, it could be you. Ask not for whom the bell tolls.

A Moscow court on Tuesday issued an arrest warrant for billionaire Mikhail Gutseriyev, amid speculation that the former Russneft president had fled the country to avoid what he last month called a politically motivated campaign against him. The Tverskoi District Court approved an Aug. 6 request by prosecutors to issue an arrest warrant for Gutseriyev, spokeswoman Anna Usachyova said. "When they find him, they'll arrest him," she said. Gutseriyev had broken a vow not to leave the city, a police spokesperson said, Interfax reported.

Gutseriyev, who stepped down last month as head of Russneft, was charged in May with "illegal entrepreneurship" for exceeding production quotas at the country's seventh-largest oil company. He also stands accused of tax evasion. Gutseriyev wrote a scathing letter to employees upon his departure July 30, accusing tax and legal authorities of pressuring him to step down in favor of a more state-friendly leader. A source inside the company, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the case, said he had not seen Gutseriyev for about two weeks. "I don't think he's in the country," the source said.

Gutseriyev has been placed on an international wanted list and has fled the country, an unidentified Interior Ministry official said, Bloomberg reported. Interior ministry spokespeople declined to comment, and Interpol's Moscow office and headquarters in France did not respond to requests for comment. The move against Russneft comes amid renewed speculation that the Kremlin is heading closer to creating a giant state-run oil holding, which would include assets from firms such as Rosneft, Surgutneftegaz and Russneft. Gutseriyev created Russneft from scratch in 2002 after leaving state-run oil firm Slavneft and subsequently buying its assets on the cheap. Forbes magazine estimates his personal fortune at $2.9 billion. "This [arrest warrant] is a different matter. It has nothing to do with Russneft," the company source said.

The Federal Tax Service has brought a total of eight lawsuits against 11 companies that are or have been shareholders in Russneft, and some of its shares and all of its assets have been frozen. Basic Element, the holding company controlled by Kremlin-friendly oligarch Oleg Deripaska, is hoping to buy the embattled oil firm. "Our plans regarding Russneft have not changed," Basic Element spokesman Sergei Rybak said Tuesday. Yet Irina Kashunina, a spokeswoman for the Federal Anti-Monopoly Service, said Deripaska's holding had yet to send the service a request for approval of its bid.

Gutseriyev explained the reasons behind his departure in a letter published in Russneft's internal magazine in late July. "I was invited to leave the oil business 'on good terms.' I refused. Then, to make me more compliant, the company was subjected to unprecedented hounding," Gutseriyev wrote. "I am handing control of the holding to a new owner whose appearance, I am sure, will ensure that all Russneft's problems will be resolved in time," he wrote. The letter was quickly removed from Russneft's web site, however, and Gutseriyev subsequently disavowed the statements in interviews with Russian news agencies.

Yet the letter appeared to provide insight into the workings of a sector coming under increasing state control, with a boldness unseen since former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky accused the Kremlin of orchestrating his arrest to wrest the company from him. Khodorkovsky and his associate Platon Lebedev are currently serving eight-year prison terms on charges of fraud and tax evasion, while other high-ranking Yukos officials live in exile in Britain and Israel. It remains unclear when Gutseriyev was last seen. According to Kommersant, Gutseriyev attended the funeral of his son, Chingiskhan, who died after a car crash in Moscow on Aug. 22. The funeral was held Thursday in the family's native republic of North Ossetia. The newspaper said Chingiskhan, 21, died at home of a brain hemorrhage from injuries sustained in the crash and that police and hospitals had no record of the accident. The version of events presented by tabloid newspaper Tvoi Den was similar, adding that Chingiskhan Gutseriyev called his father from home after the crash to say his Ferrari was a write-off, but that he felt well enough not to seek medical assistance. The tabloid said Gutseriyev did not attend his son's funeral.

On July 31, Moscow's Lefortovsky District Court froze all of Russneft's assets, blocking Gutseriyev's ability to sell or transfer his stake of about 70 percent in the company. The city's courts have consistently upheld multimillion-dollar lawsuits against Russneft. In late July, a Moscow court upheld a 3.4 billion ruble ($134 million) lawsuit against the firm on tax evasion charges, and earlier this month a Moscow arbitration court upheld a further 17 billion ruble ($665 million) tax evasion lawsuit. The arbitration court was due to hear a further two lawsuits Wednesday brought by the Federal Tax Service over invalid share transactions. The Energy Intelligence newsletter reported last week that the Kremlin was aiming to incorporate Russneft into a new state oil holding, which would also include the assets of state-run Rosneft and Zarubezhneft, the state-run oil company that focuses on oil projects abroad.

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