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U.S.: Yukos, Russian Companies Headed For Texas Showdown

The struggle over the Russian oil company Yukos moves 10,000 kilometers west of Moscow this week to a courtroom in the southwestern U.S. state of Texas. There, a judge is expected to rule on whether the former oil giant -- which was stripped of its main asset in a forced auction in December -- can qualify for U.S. bankruptcy protection. A ruling in favor of Yukos could put the new owners of the asset, Rosneft, as well as the Russian government, in legal jeopardy. A ruling against Yukos would probably end its legal options.

Prague, 16 February 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The battle over Yukos reaches a decisive phase this week in a Texas courtroom.

A judge in Houston is expected to rule on whether a U.S. court has the jurisdiction to determine whether Yukos is entitled to U.S. bankruptcy protection.

If the judge rules "yes," it could pave the way for a series of billion-dollar lawsuits by Yukos owners against Russian entities.

A consortium of Russian companies and international banks have filed a motion to have the case dismissed.

Chris Weafer, the chief strategist for Alfa Bank in Moscow, says a ruling in favor of Yukos could put companies involved in December's forced auction of Yukos' main asset -- the Yuganskneftegaz oil-producing unit -- at legal risk.

"If the U.S. court rejects the Yukos claim, then those lawsuits would have very little chance of success," Weafer says. "If the U.S. court confirms the Yukos claim, then that's what gives teeth to those Yukos claims. Effectively then, companies involved in [December's] auction would have violated the international court order and that would, of course, provide tremendous ammunition for Yukos."
"There's no basis for a Russian company to be complaining about Russian taxes and the Russian government in a Texas court." -- Mike Goldberg, Baker Botts LLP

Weafer says that while a U.S. court ruling would not be enforceable in Russia, it could affect Russian companies' export revenues. He uses the Russian company Gazprom -- which exports billions of dollars of natural gas to Europe -- as an example. He says the company's revenues could be seized if European courts were compelled to uphold the U.S. court order.

The Russian government justified the Yuganskneftegaz sale by saying that Yukos owed billions of dollars in tax arrears going back several years.

Yukos opposed the auction, arguing that under Russian tax law it was illegal to force a company to sell its core assets. The company also claimed the sale was politically motivated to punish Yukos founder Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

Yuganskneftegaz was eventually purchased by the state-controlled oil firm Rosneft, leaving Yukos' future as a viable company unclear.

Yukos initially sought bankruptcy protection in the United States before the December auction as a way of halting the sale. A U.S. court issued a temporary injunction at the time, but Russian authorities rejected the order as having no legal effect.

The question for the judge in Houston this week is whether Yukos -- headquartered in Moscow -- has a sufficiently strong American presence to warrant U.S. legal protection.

Mike Goldberg is an attorney with the Houston office of the law firm Baker Botts LLP, which represents the Russian firm Gazpromneft, one of the companies hoping to have the Yukos claim tossed out.

"We all believe and we all asserted very strongly that filing this case in Houston, Texas, was absolutely inappropriate and ridiculous," he says. "There's no basis for a Russian company to be complaining about Russian taxes and the Russian government in a Texas court."

Goldberg says that, in his opinion, there's little precedent in international law that would find the case in favor of Yukos.

"This is nothing more than an attempt at manufacturing jurisdiction, and it is inappropriate," he says. "Forget everything that people talk about in terms of whether the [unpaid] taxes were right or not, the aspect of this case in Texas is wrong."

Yukos attorneys base their claim on a number of arguments. They point out the company maintains a financial office in Houston and that U.S. investors hold a sizeable number of Yukos shares. They argue additionally that the company could not receive a fair hearing in Russia.

Weafer says a finding against Yukos, ironically, would probably help the Russian market. He says investors were initially appalled by the Russian government's behavior, but now they simply want to see the case ended.

"It would remove the ongoing uncertainty and the ongoing concern that everybody has that this case could actually escalate into an international legal battle embroiling the Russian state in numerous legal fights and all of the messiness that is involved with that," Weafer says.

Observers say the ruling -- expected by 18 February -- could go either way.
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    Mark Baker

    Mark Baker is a freelance journalist and travel writer based in Prague. He has written guidebooks and articles for Lonely Planet, Frommer’s, and Fodor’s, and his articles have also appeared in National Geographic Traveler and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications.