Fri, Jan 21, 2005 - Page 9 News List

Is the death of Yukos just an isolated case?

If the fall of Yukos was an anomaly, then the Russian economy need not be overly concerned, but if it was part of a grander political plan, then trouble lies in store

By Christopher Granville

Yukos, once Russia's leading oil company and a favorite of international investors, is in its death throes. At what many perceived to be a rigged auction, the company's best assets were sold off to a previously unknown bidder and are now back in the hands of the Russian state. The shell of what remains continues to challenge the company's fate, notably in a Houston, Texas courtroom. But these spasms will not revive the corpse. What matters now is whether Russia's economy will share Yukos' fate.

The damage to Russia's economic growth prospects from the Yukos affair may yet prove temporary, barring a repeat performance with other companies. But whether the Yukos affair proves to be an isolated case, as the Kremlin insists, depends on a reading of Russian President Vladimir Putin's motives.

One possibility is that Putin is not sincere about his aim of doubling Russia's GDP in a decade. Recent opinion polls suggest that this is the view of much of Russia's cynical public. On this view, the privatizations of the 1990s were a scam serving only the powers that be.

But any reversal of those privatizations -- such as the effective expropriation of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and his Menatep partners in Yukos -- signifies not the dawn of social justice but rather a new group of bosses "expropriating the expropriators," as Lenin used to say.

A less nihilistic view is that the Yukos affair suggests above all a series of improvisations by Putin rather than a coherent agenda. This is somewhat reassuring. Much evidence points to the affair originating not in a systematic nationalization project, but rather in the Kremlin's perception that Khodorkovsky aimed to use his wealth to privatize the Russian state itself.

Such "state capture" oc-curred in Russia in the late 1990s and to an even greater extent under the Kuchma regime in neighboring Ukraine which, ironically, Putin tried to preserve. Neutralizing the perceived threat from Khodorkovsky meant depriving him of the means to achieve his ambitions by separating his Menatep Group from Yukos' future cash flow.

The massive tax claims against Yukos used for this purpose were precisely that -- the means rather than the end. Had the goal been mere recovery of tax arrears, there would have been no need to break up the company: Yukos could have settled even these colossal liabilities on a civilized installment schedule.

To be sure, expropriating Menatep made shares in Yukos -- a company that by 2003 attracted more domestic and foreign savings than any other in Russia -- virtually worthless. But this seems like collateral damage from the pursuit of an overriding political objective.

Much now depends on whether the same is true of the other major outcome, which is that Yukos' principal asset -- Yuganskneftegaz -- is now in state hands, while its remaining units appear doomed to nationalization. Is this another incidental by-product of the campaign against Khodorkovsky, or is it part of the core Kremlin agenda?

Nationalization certainly seems to appeal to the powerful faction comprising Putin's former KGB colleagues and associates from his native St. Petersburg, one of whom last year became the chairman of Rosneft, the wholly state-owned oil company which acquired Yuganskneftegaz.

But if the influence of these so-called siloviki was unbridled, similar attacks would have been launched against other major companies by now. As it is, even Roman Abramovich's Sibneft -- potentially the most vulnerable company due to its oligarch ownership and its use of the same tax minimization schemes that were the undoing of Yukos -- merely faces a preliminary claim for back taxes. In contrast to Yukos, the claim does not exceed the company's cash on hand and so poses no threat to its existence.

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