What is behind the Sibneft sale rumours?

The recent rumours that one of Russia's richest men, Roman Abramovich, wants to sell half of his 92% stake in Sibneft to western oil giants have again heightened interest in his company and the Russian oil industry in general.

Potential buyers have even been mentioned. The Financial Times believes that they are ChevronTexaco, Total and Royal Dutch/Shell, while the Wall Street Journal adds Exxon Mobil to the list.

Roman Abramovich has always been perceived as an enfant terrible of the Russian business world, an almost unpredictable person. He is also called "the generator of ideas and schemes" related to Sibneft. There have been various examples of these in recent years. For example, in 1997 it was announced that Sibneft would merge with another large Russian oil company, Yukos. This would be the same Yukos, whose former owner Mikhail Khodarkovsky is now sitting in a Moscow prison facing fraud charges. Yet three months after the merger was announced, Sibneft and Yukos began to divide their property, a process that is still underway. Yukos is demanding that Sibneft return $3 billion. And this is taking place against the backdrop of serious allegations being levelled against Abramovich - the underpayment of $1 billion in taxes.

Some analysts maintain that Sibneft's top managers worked miracles by inventing tax-dodging schemes and paid record-breaking dividends to their stockholders.

Yukos is refusing to comment on the rumours about the Sibneft sale, saying that formally Abramovich does not own Sibneft as the two companies' "divorce" has not been completed. Yukos believes that Roman Abramovich is first of all interested in spreading these rumours.

Sibneft is also refusing to comment on another "promising transaction", neither confirming nor denying the possibility.

The Moscow office of Shell, one potential buyer of Sibneft shares, says the company is ready to participate in joint ventures in Russia, not to buy Russian companies' stocks.

The Industry and Energy Ministry's official spokesman, when asked about his attitude towards the sale of a Sibneft stake, said that the purchase and sale of companies' shares was a matter for private businesses. The ministry has to ensure that the relevant laws are abided by and to protect the state's interests if they are touched upon.

Many people in Moscow believe that Abramovich's haste in selling his Sibneft stake testifies to his desire to leave big Russian business quickly and with the fewest possible losses. Moreover, it is said that he has always been "well-informed". Some analysts believe that this may be related to the quite unequivocal promises of the authorities: to bring order to the raw material sector, to review taxation rates and even introduce 'natural rent' (a form of taxation) for raw materials producers. Some oil companies have already drawn the relevant conclusions, they maintain. For example, oil giant LUKoil has promised not to use semi-legal schemes to evade taxes.

So far the speculations over the forthcoming Sibneft sale have brought the largest dividends to Roman Abramovich. They have contributed to shares rising by almost 3%, as well as to the company's increased capitalisation. At present, it is valued at $15.7 billion, which is $1 billion more than six months ago, when Yukos bought it. And the higher Sibneft's price, the fewer chances Yukos has of getting back the $3 billion it paid to Abramovich's team.

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