MOSCOW -- Russian Interior Ministry officials raided the offices of the British oil company BP and its Russian joint venture, TNK-BP, on March 19, raising concerns about government attempts to clamp down on foreign oil companies operating in Russia.
A spokeswoman for the Interior Ministry, Irina Dudukina, first said the officials were looking for documents relating to the Sidanco oil company, which became part of TNK-BP five years ago. But later, she said the visit was linked to a probe into management at TNK-BP.
The officials raided TNK-BP's Moscow headquarters in the afternoon, before moving on to BP's offices in the early evening. Employees were briefly detained inside the buildings. The officials were still there late in the evening, said one BP employee, who declined to be named. He also said officials wearing Federal Security Service (FSB) uniforms were present, but the FSB has denied it took part in the raid. The FSB is the successor to the Soviet-era KGB.
Observers see the raid as an attempt by the state-owned energy giant Gazprom to get its hands on privately run oil companies. Gazprom is in the process of taking over TNK-BP's vast gas field in Kovykta, Siberia, after the Russian government threatened to withdraw the contract for the field.
The BP and TNK-BP raids come at a time when relations between Moscow and London are at their lowest since the end of the Cold War. Tensions remain strained over Russia's refusal to extradite the chief suspect in the death of Aleksandr Litvinenko, a former Russian security-service officer turned British citizen, who was assassinated in London in 2006.
"We don't see clearly yet what is happening, but we can see that everything that is happening is concerned not so much with the Russian partners of TNK-BP as with the English partners," says Yulia Latynina, an economist and political commentator on Ekho Moskvy radio. "And that's a very sure indication of what's happening. The situation has changed and everything British has become the subject of vigilance, shall we say, in Russia."
In recent years, Russia and the United Kingdom have each expelled diplomats, and the British Council has been forced to close all but one of its offices in Russia after it was accused of operating without the correct license.