MOSCOW, July 1 (RIA Novosti) Putin to continue televised Q&A sessions/ Foreign managers at TNK-BP lose Russian work permits/ Khodorkovsky not eligible for parole - lawyer/ Gazprom bid kills Sakhalin-I plans to get $37 billion in profits/ Taxpayers to fund Baltic gas pipeline/ Billionaire Kerimov still buying foreign assets
Putin to continue televised Q&A sessions
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has confirmed during his meeting with the United Russia leaders late last week that he would continue his televised question and answer sessions.
The Kremlin and the government are considering ways to divide public addresses between President Dmitry Medvedev and the prime minister, according to sources there.
Medvedev is unlikely to use the forms Putin has used, said a Russian official. It would be logical to create a new medium for public functions for the new president, such as online conferences. Medvedev is comfortable with the Internet because he has used it for discussing national projects.
Putin has held annual televised Q&A sessions and major press opportunities since 2001. He has held only one online conference, in 2006, and the net users were disappointed with censoring by moderators and with the president, who answered the most pointed questions only after the conference was over.
Political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin said online conferences were not Putin's cup of tea, and that he looks better on television.
Dmitry Medvedev's rating has not grown despite a televised PR campaign. The FOM pollster puts it at approximately 45%, the same as in December 2007 when Putin presented Medvedev as his successor. The VTsIOM polling service reports an even lower figure, 40%.
Putin's rating remains stable and is higher than that of the president, 60% (VTsIOM) or even 70% (FOM).
Putin's idea of strengthening direct ties with the public could reinforce his information stance. While President Medvedev's coverage includes only official functions, Prime Minister Putin will answer burning - and carefully selected - questions from the public.
Although Medvedev is mentioned in the media more frequently than Putin, he is unlikely to defeat the prime minister who appears to be working hard to reach the people and talks to them regularly and openly.
The president and the prime minister will most probably try new forms in their PR campaigns in the fall. "We cannot say now what form Putin will use to reach the people; we will know in the fall," said a government official.
Early this fall, Medvedev is expected to debut in a new public format, said a Kremlin source, adding that this week the president would traditionally hold a briefing for G8 journalists ahead of the Group's summit in Japan in early July.
Foreign managers at TNK-BP lose Russian work permits
Russian shareholders at TNK-BP are very close to gaining control of the Russian-British oil venture as foreign executives, including vice presidents, will start leaving Russia next week.
The visas and work permits for ten of them are due to expire, while new ones have yet to be issued. The remaining 100 foreign managers employed by the oil company will have to leave, too, if they do not receive the required documentation by the end of July, including CEO Robert Dudley who Russian shareholders have persistently tried to fire.
By the end of July, none of TNK-BP's executives will have valid Russian visas and work permits. New ones are unlikely to be issued in such a short time. ""The procedure takes at least six weeks, we won't be on time even if we started now," said a source close to TNK-BP shareholders.
Reducing the number of foreign executives and firing Dudley is what Russian shareholders are currently trying to achieve in their protracted row with the other co-owner, British BP.
TNK-BP is a parity venture between BP and AAR which is a consortium of Russian shareholders - Mikhail Fridman's Alfa Group, Leonard Blavatnik's Access and Viktor Vekselberg's Renova.
Controversy between the Russian and British shareholders broke out last year over the way the company was managed. AAR accused British managers, including President Robert Dudley, of running it exclusively in BP's interests. AAR wanted to take operating control of the company and change the corporate governance structure which they see as supporting British interests. However, BP turned them down citing the 2003 shareholder agreement.
Dudley may be stripped of the right to run the joint venture if he leaves Russia. "Without a work permit he cannot be employed by the company. Otherwise, it will be charged with violating labor and migration laws," said lawyer Maksim Chernigovsky, chief analyst from the Vegas Lex law firm.
Denis Borisov, an analyst at the Solid investment financial company, said visa problems wouldn't benefit BP at negotiations with Russian partners.
Vekselberg said last week that a tentative agreement between the shareholders on new principles of the JV's development and management could be reached before the July 11 meeting of the TNK-BP International board.
TNK-BP International is a parity venture which owns TNK-BP Holding.
Khodorkovsky not eligible for parole - lawyer
On Monday, new charges were filed against Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the jailed founder of bankrupt oil firm Yukos.
Khodorkovsky, who turned 45 on June 25, and Lebedev, 41, were found guilty of tax evasion and large-scale fraud by a Moscow court in May 2005 and sentenced to nine years in prison. The Moscow City Court later reduced their terms to eight years.
The Prosecutor-General's Office filed charges against Khodorkovsky under parts 3-4 of the Criminal Code's article 160 (large-scale theft of property by an organized group) and part 4 of article 174-1 (large-scale money laundering by an organized group).
Although the charges carry a maximum possible 25-year sentence, the courts usually pass concurrent sentences, the total recommended sentence that the offender must serve.
According to investigators, Khodorkovsky and Lebedev used to steal oil from Yukos production units, passing it for oil-well liquid and laundering their incomes. The state reportedly suffered losses worth 850 billion rubles ($36.3 billion).
The authorities decided to file new charges against Khodorkovsky several days after his lawyers said they would make a parole application for their client.
Khodorkovsky's lawyer, Yury Shmidt, said new amended charges were not uncommon. He said three experts in Chita had studied the official document and found no major differences.
"It is difficult to say what is new in the latest set of charges; the text dated February 3, 2007 has been slightly changed, but lacks any new episodes and offers no new interpretations of the defendant's actions," Shmidt said.
The charges were presented to the defendants on February 5.
Khodorkovsky's legal team said they believed the new charges presented on Monday highlighted the lack of confidence among investigators and were a ruse by prosecutors to play for time after recent changes in the corridors of power, to receive new orders and top-level support.
Lawyer Vladimir Zherebenkov said the Criminal Procedure Code limited the defendant's prison stay, but that it made no difference whether Khodorkovsky was being held on remand or in a prison camp.
He said the new charges could seriously delay another trial, and that Khodorkovsky was unlikely to be paroled.
Former Deputy Prosecutor of Moscow, Yury Sinelshchikov, said new charges were common and that the procedure helped eliminate mistakes, and that the authorities either knew that they had blundered or had overheard conversations between Khodorkovsky and his lawyers.
Gazprom bid kills Sakhalin-I plans to get $37 billion in profits
The bid by Russian energy giant Gazprom to buy Sakhalin-I gas for domestic needs could bring losses for investors and the state exceeding $10 billion. These are the conclusions made by the project operator, Exxon Neftegaz, after it drafted marketing plans for its gas strategy, a source close to Sakhalin-I shareholders and familiar with the document said. American experts estimate that should an alternative plan (selling gas to China) go through, the company's profits could reach $37 billion, with $19 billion making up state revenues.
The Sakhalin shareholders - Exxon Neftegaz Ltd. (30%), India's ONGC (20%), Rosneft (20%) and Japan's SODECO (30%) - have been negotiating gas exports to China for several years now. But Gazprom has been a stalwart opponent of their plans from the outset. It wants to purchase all the project's gas for domestic market needs and is adamantly opposed to building an 8 billion cu m a year export pipeline to China.
Alexander Medvedev, Gazprom deputy chairman, said that the gas monopoly had already offered Exxon to buy all the gas to be produced as part of the Sakhalin-I project.
"Gazprom's price for Sakhalin gas is too low even for the home market," said a source close to the shareholders. He said that the monopoly had bid only $25-30 per 1,000 cu m to buy the operator's 8 billion cu m of gas. And this when the official tariff for Russian industrial consumers is 1,690 rubles per 1,000 cu m ($72).
The source said that the price forecasts issued by the U.S. Energy Information Service showed that if the fuel was sold on the domestic market at the suggested price, the state and the investors would lose $10.2 billion, with the state losing $4 billion, and shareholders $6.2 billion. But if the gas is sold to China, then with an expected growth in the formula-calculated fuel price and steady demand, overall profits could amount to $37 billion, with $19.2 billion going to Russia and the rest, to the shareholders.
A Gazprom source said that the purchasing price was negotiable and could be upped a bit. But, he said, even supplies of some gas by the operator to China, outside Gazprom Export channels, looked unacceptable. He said that Exxon's marketing plans could not be acted on unless approved by the government, which is the one to decide the price and destination of the fuel.
Taxpayers to fund Baltic gas pipeline
Transneft CEO Nikolai Tokarev is going to ask the Finance Ministry to contribute up to 120 billion rubles to the company's charter fund by paying for part of the construction of the Baltic Pipeline System's (BPS) second leg. The Energy Ministry said that they have not yet considered funding for Transneft projects from the federal budget.
Transneft funded all of its previous projects, including the Eastern Siberia-Pacific Ocean Pipeline (ESPO) and the first leg of the Baltic pipeline, by channeling investment into the oil pumping tariff. Budget payments for the BPS-2 mean that for the first time taxpayers that have nothing to do with the oil industry will have to share part of the financial burden.
Before, Transneft explained the construction of the BPS-2 by the need to bypass Belarus, and now it is linking it with the signing of the May 22 Ukrainian-Polish agreement to build a Plotsk-Brody oil pipeline. It will deliver up to 25 million tons of oil from Odessa to Polish oil refineries, competing with the Druzhba pipeline for the markets.
Tokarev said that another 25 million tons of oil will be transported by Bimax tankers (with a capacity of up to 200,000 tons) from Ust-Luga via the Baltic Sea to foreign markets, including the United States. There are plans to cut down oil shipments in the Ukrainian ports of Yuzhny and Odessa by 9 million tons and 10 million tons, respectively, and in Gdansk, Poland, by 7 million tons. The total reduction will amount to 26 million tons.
Three years ago, in February 2005, former Deputy Minister of Economic Development Andrei Sharonov officially announced the government was refusing to finance from the budget for the ESPO construction, while last February former Transneft CEO Semyon Vainshtok dismissed the BPS-2 as an "absolutely unprofitable political project."
Deputy Energy Minister Anatoly Yanovsky said that Tokarev's idea has not yet been discussed: "We have not yet considered funding for the BPS-2. Our task was to draft a project on its design and construction. We have already sent it to the relevant ministries for endorsement."
Yesterday, a spokesman for the Finance Ministry said that Transneft's proposal "will be discussed by all means."
Billionaire Kerimov still buying foreign assets
Russian business oligarch Suleiman Kerimov, who is also a member of the Federation Council, the upper house of parliament, has invested $630 million in the Belgian-Dutch financial group Fortis. The deal will help Fortis overcome financial problems experienced by the liquidity crisis, allowing Kerimov to buy into foreign banks at the right moment.
Kerimov, the majority shareholder of Nafta-Moskva, a successor to the Soviet oil trader Soyuzneftexport, continues to acquire foreign bank assets. Kerimov's Swiss-based Millennium Group has invested 700 million euros into the Royal Bank of Scotland PLC that controls Fortis. Millennium Group still owns a 2% stake in Fortis, as well as the shares of such major international banks as Morgan Stanley, Credit Suisse Group and Deutsche Bank.
Analysts said Kerimov was buying into foreign banks whose value had plunged after the global sub-prime mortgage crisis. International banks are suffering multi-billion euro-and-dollar losses and are seeking to replenish their stock capital.
"Since early 2008, Fortis was forced to write off 6.6 billion euros due to the crisis," Veronika Chekina, an analyst at Investment Company Prospect, told the paper.
From last October, the value of Fortis shares has plunged 64%, from 29.6 to 10.7 euros, hitting an all-time low in the last five years, Financial Bridge analyst Olga Shkred said.
"This is a promising investment because Fortis remains a major international supplier of financial services in the field of insurance, banking and investment," Chekina told the paper.
Shkred said long-term investment was particularly attractive. "Fortis, a major bank with a capitalization of 23 billion euros, compares with Russia's Vneshtorgbank, ranks among the ten largest European banks and has many regional affiliates," Shkred told the paper.
"The purchase matches Kerimov's strategy because he is looking for major underpriced assets. The sufficiently stable Fortis could boost its capitalization after the crisis," said Alexander Osin, senior economist at Finam Management.
Kerimov is selling off his Russian assets, including major stakes in Sberbank (Savings Bank) and energy giant Gazprom, in exchange for a 3% Deutsche Bank stake and plans to control 9% of the largest German bank's stock capital.
Last fall, Kerimov sold Metronom AG, an operator of supermarket chain Mercado, for $200 million. This April, it became known that Kerimov had made arrangements to divest National Telecommunication, the largest cable-television network. In June 2008, Polymetal, Russia's largest silver producer controlling 68% of the market, made an official statement that Kerimov had sold its equity position in the company.
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