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Russian firm could acquire 49% stake in Transpetrol

AFTER almost a year of trying to regain ownership of an all-important 49 percent stake in Transpetrol, the only oil pipeline operator in Slovakia, the Robert Fico government is now saying it will not stand in the way if a Russian firm is interested in buying the shares.

AFTER almost a year of trying to regain ownership of an all-important 49 percent stake in Transpetrol, the only oil pipeline operator in Slovakia, the Robert Fico government is now saying it will not stand in the way if a Russian firm is interested in buying the shares.

"The shares could be acquired by a Russian company," Fico said after meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin in Moscow on May 4.

Transpetrol operates the Slovak part of the Druzhba oil pipeline that runs from Russia to the Czech Republic and stores oil for both commercial use and the State Material Reserves Administration. In 2002, the Moscow-based Yukos Oil Company acquired a 49-percent stake in Transpetrol for $74 million (€54.6 million). Slovakia maintained a majority 51 percent stake in the company and, until March 31, had the right to veto sale of the Yukos stake to a third party. The Druzhba oil pipeline was launched in 1963 and at present is one of the world's longest, at more than 5,000 kilometres. It is run by the Russian company Transneft. The Druzhba pipeline goes one-way from Russia through Belarus and Poland to the eastern part of Germany, as well as to Baltic states. A second branch supplies the Ukrainian seaside of the Black Sea and a third goes through western Ukraine, either to Slovakia and the Czech Republic or to Hungary. The only operator of the oil pipeline system in the Slovak Republic is Transpetrol.

Fico said Russia has a number of possibilities for transporting its oil to Europe.

"It does not have to be through Slovakia at all," he said. "So it is necessary to think about this reasonably, whether we want to destroy Transpetrol and make it an irrelevant pipeline, or make it a strategic company."

Fico said Putin promised to help solve the problem.

"Putin assured me that the Russian side has no reason to delay the matter," Fico said.

According to MP Stanislav Janiš (SDKÚ), the government would be wise to bring Transpetrol back under state control given the present circumstances. However, he thinks the government is playing for time to avoid influencing what happens to the shares.

"Worries about whether oil will flow through the pipeline if a Russian firm does not acquire the shares are unfounded," Janiš told the Sme daily. "If there is a customer on the other side, the pipeline will be full."

However, the Russian weekly Vedomosti, citing comments from former vice-president of the Yukos board of directors, Alexander Temerko, claims the 49-percent stake in Transpetrol is heading into the hands of Russian oil giant Gazprom, the Sme daily reported.

"Transpetrol shares owned by Yukos could be sold to the Slovak government, which would subsequently sell them to the Gazprom group," Temerko said.

A source close to the management of Yukos Finance B.V., a subsidiary of Yukos, also confirmed this information for Vedomosti.

Yukos Finance has rejected that specualtion.

"At present, an appraisal of the 49 percent stake in Transpetrol is being finalized," Claire Davidson, spokeswoman of Yukos Finance, told to SITA news wire. "The intention of Yukos Finance is to auction these shares to the highest bidder." According to her, the appraisal is being carried out by an independent audit firm, and should be concluded by next month.

Russia wants to diminish the influence of Belarus and Ukraine as transit countries by increasing the capacity of the terminal in the port city of Primorsk in the Leningrad region and concluding new contracts for oil supplies to be shipped to customers by sea, the Aktuálne.sk news website writes. The opening of a 1,300 kilometre-long "pan-European" pipeline that will transport oil from the Black Sea port of Constanta to the Italian city of Trieste is also being planned for 2012, and a number of southern European countries have already expressed interest in using it, such as Italy, Croatia, Slovenia, Serbia, Albania and Romania.

Within five years, these projects will reduce the need for the southern branch of the Druzhba oil pipeline, and Slovakia's position as a transit and customer country for the Russian oil will be threatened, the Aktuálne.sk website says.

The Slovak Economy Ministry is not concerned that a third party might acquire the 49-percent stake in Transpetrol without Slovakia's consent. According to the ministry, Transpetrol cannot adopt any decision without concent from the Slovak side.

Economy Minister Ľubomír Jahnátek agreed to a buy-back for the Transpetrol stake with the former management of the Dutch subsidiary of Yukos Finance on August 9 of last year. However, the court-appointed liquidator, Eduard Rebgun, dismissed the former top representatives of Yukos Finance, Bruce Misamor and David Godfrey, on August 13. According to him, the former managers were acting against shareholder interests while negotiating the sale of Yukos' foreign assets.

A Dutch court decided on August 17 that Rebgun has the right to claim a part of the firm's foreign assets that are controlled by Yukos Finance and registered in the Netherlands. However, the court did not grant him full control over the Yukos Finance company.

Yukos, once the largest Russian oil company, decided to sell its stake in Transpetrol after Russian authorities charged it with tax evasion and demanded $27.5 billion (€20.3 billion) in back taxes and fines. Then in December 2004, Yukos lost its main production division, Yuganskneftgaz, in a forced auction.

On August 1, 2006, a Moscow bankruptcy court approved the liquidator's request to pronounce Yukos officially bankrupt.

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