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Analysis: Gazprom's U.S. Road Show

Moscow, Angola (UPI) Oct 26, 2005
Leading a delegation of Russian business leaders to the United States this week, Viktor Khristenko, industry and energy minister and a member of Gazprom's board, denied the Kremlin intends to nationalize Russia's oil and natural gas sector. There is every reason to believe him -- the Kremlin already has hegemonic control of the country's vast energy resources.

Khristenko's agenda was pitched as an effort to broaden bilateral industrial relations and as a way to kick-start the stalled Russia-U.S. energy dialogue, which all but died after the Yukos affair in 2003.

Previously, the embattled oil giant Yukos aggressively pushed for the construction of a million-barrel-a-day pipeline to an export terminal at Murmansk for later shipment to the U.S. market. That project has been a dead letter for the past 21/2 years, but Khristenko appears to have revived the idea. Recently, he was quoted as saying Russia would look to export crude from a Barents Sea port by 2009 and this route could rise to around 1 million barrels a day.

Few market-watchers doubt Khristenko's renewed interest in a Russian oil export terminal and negotiations to supply more liquefied natural gas to the U.S. market are sweeteners to put the Yukos affair in the past and allay fears the Kremlin intends to nationalize Russia's energy sectors through state-controlled Gazprom.

U.S. oil giants ExxonMobil, Chevron and ConocoPhillips have moved beyond the Yukos affair that saw Russia's largest privately owned oil company forcibly broken up, its crown jewel production unit fall into state hands, its core shareholders imprisoned and foreign investors stuck with almost worthless shares. Most of what was Yukos now belongs to the state-owned oil company Rosneft; the remaining large production units will most likely experience the same fate shortly due to multibillion-dollar back-tax claims.

Shareholders of Yukos American Depositary Receipts are not as accepting of the Kremlin's assault on the once mighty oil giant. Twelve shareholders filed suit in the United States this week against the Russian government, four state-owned energy giants and senior government officials, accusing them of securities fraud in what essentially has been the re-nationalization of Yukos.

Gazprom's $13.1 billion acquisition of the Russian oil company Sibneft this month led some analysts to question whether the Kremlin intends to re-nationalize the country's oil and natural gas resources.

Replying to the claim, Khristenko's said, "This is in no way a nationalization of the oil and gas sector."

One does not have to take Khristenko's words at face value; the Kremlin already has hegemonic control of Russia's oil and natural gas sectors.

The state already has majority control of domestic natural gas monopoly Gazprom. Gazprom's purchase of Sibneft from Roman Abramovich's Millhouse Capital makes the gas giant a huge energy company. State-owned Rosneft competes with Gazprom in Russia's oil patch, but is obviously in tune with the Kremlin's domestic and international agenda. Surgutneftegaz operates as if it were a state company.

The up and coming company oil company Russneft is believed to be owned by a small number of Kremlin insiders. The regional oil companies Tatneft and Bashneft are owned and controlled by individuals close to the government.

Collectively, state-owned and/or Kremlin allied company's makes the state the unchallengeable hegemon, controlling almost 60 percent of Russia's oil and gas production and about 50 percent of total exports. If Yukos' remaining production units fall into state hand, as is expected, the production mix will shift to 63 percent to 37 percent in the state's favor.

Privately owned Lukoil and British Petroleum-Tyumen Oil are hardly independent in any conventional sense, both are dependent on Transneft -- the state-controlled oil pipeline and exporter.

While visiting the United States, Khristenko wears two different hats with one purpose. Being minister of industry and energy, he represents the Russian state. As a board member of Gazprom, he represents the same. But representing both, Khristenko reminds investors and politicians of the Yukos affair and the enormous energy resources the Kremlin has gathered under its control.

The United States, looking to diversify its energy import needs, is interested in an energy dialogue with Russia. The Kremlin is just as interested -- all it has to do is prove it is a reliable partner. Doing this may be more work than amassing the largest energy empire in history.

Peter Lavelle is a Moscow-based analyst.

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