Accessibility links

Breaking News

Business Watch: March 12, 2002

12 March 2002, Volume 2, Number 10
Benton Oil and Gas Company has signed a sale and purchase agreement to sell its 68 percent interest in Arctic Gas Company to a nominee of the Yukos oil company for $190 million. Benton will also receive approximately $30 million as repayment of intercompany loans owed to Benton by Arctic Gas. Closing of the Arctic Gas sale is conditioned upon final consent from the Russian Antimonopoly Ministry. The transaction is expected to close within 30 days. Benton intends to retire all of the $108 million outstanding 11 5/8 percent senior notes in accordance with their terms. Benton also intends to use any remaining net proceeds and cash received from the repayment of loans to further reduce debt from time to time, accelerate the strategic growth of its assets in Venezuela and Russia, and for general corporate purposes. Benton Oil and Gas Company President and Chief Executive Officer Peter J. Hill said in a company statement, "This transaction demonstrates the validity of our business strategy, which supports steady investment, prudent risk management and timely harvest of large resources of hydrocarbons for attractive value." (JMR)

Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov has approved plans to boost cooperation with Itera International Group of Companies. In early February, Itera Chairman Igor Makarov and Niyazov agreed to expand a partnership with Itera as a seller of Turkmen natural gas. Niyazov expressed his satisfaction with Itera's activities in sales and distribution of Turkmenistan gas. According to an Itera statement, agreements were also made to increase gas volumes for Itera and to allow for Itera's participation in developing gas fields in Turkmenistan. For 2002, Itera has requested 10 (billion cubic meters (bcm) in Turkmen gas. In addition, a supply of 35 bcm will be managed by Itera in accordance with the Turkmenistan-Ukraine intergovernmental agreement.

Meanwhile, Itera has informed Tbilgas that it will suspend gas supplies due to the company's failure to make payments. Itera and Tbilgas operate under a joint venture to distribute gas to Georgia's capital, Tbilisi. Itera issued a warning to Tbilgas on 27 February after Tbilgas failed to make January payments. In addition, Tbilgas failed to provide bank guarantees for the payment of gas supplied by Itera in February and March 2002. Tbilgas' debt to Itera International Gas Company for supplies in January reached $800,000 and its debt to the whole Itera Group of Companies totals $9 million. Despite the ongoing negotiations and assurances of payment from Tbilgas and the Energy Department of Georgia, no actual steps have been taken to settle the debt. (JMR)

Exxon Mobil announced on 1 March that it will shut down its operations in Turkmenistan after several prospective drillings in the Caspian Sea failed to discover oil, AP reported. In early February, Exxon Mobil received disappointing samples from its Garashyzlyk-2 oil field after drilling to a depth of 3,475 meters. The company decided to stop the drilling, although it had originally planned to drill to a depth of 5,334 meters. Exxon Mobil will close its office in Balkanabat in western Turkmenistan next week and its office in the capital Ashgabat in early May. Exxon Mobil, which has been involved in Turkmenistan since 1996, has led a consortium developing Garashyzlyk-2 since 1998. The oil giant owns 52.4 percent of the venture. Monument Caspian Resources Limited holds 27.6 percent, and Turkmenistan's state oil company Turkmenneft the remaining 20 percent. (JMR)

After holding negotiations with a delegation from the Organization for Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) led by cartel Secretary-General Ali Rodriguez and President Rilwanu Lukman, Russia announced that it will postpone a decision on future oil-export cuts. Russian Energy Minister Igor Yusufov told Reuters, "It's too premature to give any forecast. We have our commitments till the first of April and we have a whole month ahead of us." OPEC wants Russia, the world's second-largest oil exporter, to continue a 150,000 barrel-a-day supply cut -- representing 5 percent of exports -- for a further three months until the end of June. That would help the cartel defend oil prices against slack petroleum demand caused by the slow world economy. Crude oil prices have recovered by 20 percent since last year, when a stand-off between OPEC and Moscow drove Brent crude below $17 a barrel. Yusufov said on 3 March that Russia wants to keep the price of crude oil at a "fair level" of $20-25 a barrel, and he expressed satisfaction that prices recently returned to this range. Rodriguez reiterated warnings that a slow world economy would remain a risk to oil producers. "The market will be particularly weak in the second quarter when demand typically falls. That is why we want to extend oil cuts to the second quarter. Maybe the demand will rise in the second half of this year," he said. "According to our own estimates, the demand might grow only by 350,000 barrels per day [this year]." The OPEC delegation was to meet with Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov and Deputy Foreign Minister Viktor Kalyuzhny on 5 March, before departing. OPEC will hold a meeting on 15 March in Austria to discuss the oil market situation. (JMR)

Ukraine's Energy Ministry is seeking to lessen the nation's dependence on Russian gas. Almost two-thirds of Ukraine's gas needs come from Russia. Ukraine and Russia often dispute the cost of gas debts and deliveries. Moscow has accused Kyiv of stealing gas from pipelines. Ukraine is looking toward suppliers in Central Asia, the Middle East, and Norway. The acting head of the oil and gas department at the Ukrainian Energy Ministry, Mykhailo Kalchenko, told Reuters, "If a country depends on one source...for its gas needs, then it is already economically dangerous.... One of the most important questions of Ukraine's existence as an independent state is to find different sources to cover our energy needs." Ukraine's demand for gas is rising. It needs large amounts of energy to power its steel and chemical sectors, and consumes about 70 billion cubic meters (bcm) of gas annually. Ukraine's consumption is set to almost double to 137 bcm by 2030 from 70.5 bcm in 2001. Ukraine produces about 18 bcm and imports the rest from Turkmenistan and Russia. Turkmen gas is transported to Ukraine via Russia by Itera, a trader linked to Russian gas giant Gazprom, increasing Ukraine's dependency on its neighbor. Experts say demand for gas is set to grow as the government lacks cash to restructure the economy, upgrade aging equipment, and improve poor energy efficiency. (JMR)

Austria's Neusiedler, a leading European manufacturer of office paper and a unit of Mondi Europe, has bid $2 billion for Russia's Syktyvkar pulp mill in a move to boost its capacity by 60 percent, Reuters reported. Mondi Europe is the forest-products division of resources giant Anglo-American PLC, and Neusiedler has six plants in Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, and Israel with a total capacity of more than 1 million tons a year. It focuses on the production of environmentally friendly unbleached paper. Syktyvkar Forest Enterprise in northwest Russia is the country's market leader, with an annual capacity of 650,000 tons, half of it going into the export market. It was a state-owned enterprise until 1993, and 19.4 percent of its stock is currently held by Austrian paper manufacturer Frantschach, a company 70 percent-owned by Mondi Europe. The cost of paper manufacturing in Russia has fallen by as much as one-third in recent years as the ruble tumbled and more efficient production methods were put in place. The majority of the Russian company's pulp is used by its own paper and cardboard mill. (JMR)

Anglo-American PLC said its forest-products subsidiary Mondi Europe is buying an additional 68.5 percent stake in Russia's Syktyvkar Forest Enterprise business for $252 million in cash, Reuters reported. Mondi Europe already has a 19.4 percent interest in Syktyvkar. Anglo said the assets include Syktyvkar, its logging and transportation, construction and engineering firms, and sales organization. The stake will form part of Mondi's wholly owned Austrian subsidiary, Neusiedler. (JMR)

Data Systems & Solutions announced it has won a pilot contract to provide Novovoronezh Nuclear Power Plant (NPP) Unit 5 with its Safety Parameter Display System (SPDS). This is the company's third installation, commissioning, and acceptance of an SPDS through the International Nuclear Safety Program. A 10-member Russian committee comprised of GAN (Nuclear Regulatory Authority), REA (owner-operator of the plant), AEP (plant designer), and NPP management granted acceptance of the system following successful completion of the site-acceptance testing last month. Data Systems & Solutions had safety-parameter display systems accepted within the same program, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, at Novovoronezh NPP Unit 3 in November 1998, and at Unit 4 in July 1999. Critical safety functions are the basis of the SPDS, which is designed to bring together a set of plant parameters from which the plant's safety status can be assessed. The SPDS allows for assessing plant status in a timely manner without having to survey the control-room instruments. Data Systems & Solutions is equally owned by Rolls-Royce and Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC) and began operations in February 1999. (JMR)

Russian power monopoly Unified Energy Systems (EES) on 8 March will vote on a restructuring measure containing long-sought assurances that minority investors get their fair share of reformed utilities. The board is due to rule on a single blueprint for reforming each of EES's 70-plus regional subsidiaries that enshrines the spin-off of power plants from the state-controlled monopoly. These power plants would then consolidate into groups of two or five. Once generating companies and grids are divided, all shareholders would receive proportional representation of their stakes in the new companies, Reuters reported. Investors also would have an option to swap shares in generators for shares in grids if EES offered attractive terms. (JMR)

Romania's Industry Ministry has accepted plans to form a joint venture between state gas firm Romgaz and Russia's Rosneft to handle some of the country's natural-gas imports. Romgaz and Rosneft will hold equal stakes in the planned venture, Reuters reported. "The deal will be soon sealed and help reduce natural gas prices by 15-20 percent," Industry Minister Dan Popescu announced. Popescu gave no details on prices of natural gas imported by Romania, but analysts say they hover at around $120 per 1,000 cubic meters. Romania, dependent on Russian gas imports, imported around 2.87 billion cubic meters (bcm) last year, down from 3.2 bcm in 2000. Bucharest plans to clinch a direct-import deal with Russian gas giant Gazprom to ease the burden on its energy bill by eliminating intermediaries. An accord has yet to emerge. (JMR)

Russia's Economy and Trade Ministry has predicted that the economy will expand 2.8 percent in the first quarter, after reaching 4.9 percent during the same period in 2001. Earlier estimates put economic growth at 3 percent. It also said that GDP rose 3.3 percent in January after a 6.8 percent rise in the same month in 2001. Industrial output rose 2.2 percent in January after 7.8 percent in January 2001. "The economic slowdown, which started in the last quarter of 2001, continued in January," the report said. Russia's economy grew by a record 9 percent in 2000, but slowed to 5 percent growth in 2001, Reuters reported. The main reason for the slowdown has been the fall in prices for oil, which is Russia's key export and the driver of its growth. First Deputy Finance Minister Aleksei Ulyukaev has said he expects an economic pickup to begin in February. (JMR)

Effective 15 March, Russia will ban imports of Chinese pork, beef, and poultry. A Russian spokesman for the Agriculture Ministry said China failed to cooperate with Russian veterinary services, Reuters reported. "Our veterinary doctors are in China now to monitor the loading of [meat] exports," the spokesman said. "They have asked for information, but China has failed to supply the necessary data." The ministry said last week it decided to suspend imports of U.S. poultry from 10 March and to stop issuing licenses for these imports from 1 March, due to food-safety concerns. (JMR)

Kazakhstan's central bank lowered its refinancing rate from 9 percent to 8 percent, effective 6 March. The last rate change came on 20 November. The lowering of the refinancing rate was linked to slowing inflation, which fell to 0.3 percent in February from 0.7 percent in January, the bank told Reuters. Earlier, central bank chief Grigorii Marchenko said the refinancing rate could fall as low as 7.0-7.5 percent by the end of the year. The Kazakh government has forecast an inflation rate of 6.5 percent for 2002. In 2001, inflation came in at 6.4 percent, compared to 9.8 percent in 2000. (JMR)

The EastWest Institute will hold a conference called "Ukraine and the West 2002: Policies for Progress" on 27 April in Kiev. The institute said the conference will bring together policymakers and thought leaders from Ukraine, Europe, and North America to focus on the strategic issues facing Ukraine and its integration into Western institutions. Former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari is chairing the conference and will give the opening presentation, entitled "A Vision for a Broader Europe: A Place for Ukraine." The conference will hopes to harness the political energy coming out of the March parliamentary elections and deal with the political, economic, and security agendas for both Ukraine and the West. (JMR)

Russia's Finance Ministry denied rumors it is buying up the country's foreign debt on the market to reduce the huge cost of repayments, Reuters reported. Deputy Finance Minister Sergei Kolotukhin said it is the Russian Central Bank and state-controlled banks that are buying the debt. He also denied the Finance Ministry has been paying Russia's foreign-debt agent Vneshekonombank (VEB), Central Bank-owned Vneshtorgbank (VTB), Central Bank-controlled Sberbank, or the Central Bank itself to buy debt in the market. He said one should not assume that banks under state control are always operating for the government. "They have commercial business of their own," he said. "The Finance Ministry did not and is not buying Eurobonds and other securities. However, it does not mean that in the future the Finance Ministry will abstain from such operations." Kolotukhin said Russia's foreign-debt payments in 2003, the peak year, will amount to $15-17 billion from a previously expected $19 billion and will decrease further to $13.2-14.1 billion in 2004. "The figures differ due to different estimates of [exchange] rates, interest rates, and the terms we shall get on settling part of the debt," he said. Overall foreign debt should fall to $121-122 billion at the end of this year from $130.1 billion at the start of 2002. (JMR)

A group of drunken hunters in Bishkek caused a blackout to one-third of the nation's capital, after using ceramic insulators on high-voltage lines for target practice, Reuters reported. One building that suffered the 30-minute blackout was a hotel hosting a conference on alcohol abuse. Delegates, including First Deputy Prime Minister Nikolai Tanaev, were obliged to take a coffee break. (Reuters)

On 4 March, investment bank Morgan Stanley cut Russia's debt from out-perform to market-perform. It noted that current prices have run ahead of economic fundamentals. Morgan Stanley said it expects the country's credit standing to improve and economic reform to continue. However, it said the reforms now underway are longer-term and will not translate as quickly into higher bond prices as those that have already taken place. According to the bank's statement, "Current trading levels already reflect the credit improvements likely over the next 12 months. The market is already pricing Russia as a solid mid-BB credit." Russia is rated B+ by ratings agency Standard & Poor's, Ba3 by Moody's Investors Service, and B+ by Fitch. Only one of these ratings -- Moody's -- is in the double-B range. "Russia is the most expensive credit...[for] its credit rating, after Bulgaria," Morgan Stanley said. "A surge in local demand seems to be largely responsible for the recent leg of the Russia rally," it added. The bank said international investors have been net sellers of Russian bonds, while local banks have been net buyers. "We believe that strong local demand has been an effect of a seasonal increase in U.S. dollar liquidity in Russian banks which should fade shortly," said Morgan Stanley. (JMR)

Boris Berezovsky, the self-exiled Russian business tycoon and newly labeled "ex-oligarch" within the press, is facing new accusations and charges. These may result in his extradition to Russia. The Russian Prosecutor-General's Office is alleging that Berezovsky was involved in a number of horrendous crimes in Chechnya, including the kidnapping and assassination of Major General Gennadii Shpigun, the Interior Ministry's (MVD) envoy to Chechnya in late 1998, reported on 5 March. A witness, who said he preferred to remain anonymous for safety reasons, stated that Shpigun found out about the "kidnapping business" of Chechen warlord Shamil Basaev, Movladi Ugutov, and Vakha Arsanov. According to that purported witness' testimony, "at Berezovsky's request, Shpigun was kidnapped at Grozny airport," National News Service reported on 5 March.

Another charge against Berezovsky, according to, is "sponsorship of international terrorism." Specifically, Berezovsky is accused of "training mercenaries for the invasion of Daghestan" in summer 1999, reported. A witness reportedly told prosecutors that Berezovsky's "close associate" -- described as "a Georgian named Badri [Patarkatsishvili]" (see "RFE/RL Business Watch," 1 March 2002) �- delivered "Berezovsky's 30 million rubles ($1 million) for preparing the invasion of Daghestan" to Kazbeg Makhashev and Movladi Ugutov at Nalchik airport in summer 1999. The witness also alleged that, "Berezovsky is keeping close relations, including business ones, with notorious leaders of the Chechen mafia in Moscow �- Hodzh Ahmed Nuhaev (see "RFE/RL Business Watch," 24 and 31 August 2001) and Movladi Atlangeriev," reported on 5 March. Pavel Barkovskii, a deputy prosecutor-general, was quoted by as saying that, "The money transfers to the terrorists were conducted under a pretext of paying ransoms for victims kidnapped by the Chechen guerrillas and under a pretext of financing the restoration of the Chechen economy." Once recognized by Moscow as the legitimate president of Chechnya, Aslan Maskhadov stated earlier that Berezovsky "deliberately gave money to the Chechen guerrillas for purchasing arms that would further be used against Russia." According to an "Izvestiya" source within the military intelligence, "We traced numerous contacts of Berezovsky's with Raduev, Basaev, and other Chechen field commanders of a lower level. We oversaw the transfer of money and office equipment to the Chechens. We obtained information which, if made public, will turn upside down our opinion on how and why the first Chechen war was conducted."

These accusations are not new. It is interesting that they are now being placed at the feet of Berezovsky. In January 2000, former Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin revealed astonishing facts concerning the motives and preparations of the Russian military campaign against Chechen rebels. He said the offensive that began in September had been planned at least five months earlier -- before the invasion by Chechens in Daghestan when he was still serving as interior minister and President Vladimir Putin was serving as head of the Federal Security Service (FSB). Stepashin noted that the military action was developed during a meeting with the inner Cabinet and army and security chiefs, after the kidnapping of a Russian general by Chechen bandits. He said that in March 1999 there was already a plan to create a "buffer zone" occupied by federal troops in the northern third of Chechnya, as far as the Terek River. The Russian government, after gaining control of this position, said it was moving on with Phase Two of the operation. Stepashin remarked that passing into the southern section of Chechnya diverged from the original plan. He said that active preparations continued throughout his term as prime minister and that he had played a central role in organizing the military buildup. Some analysts believe that Stepashin was sacked because he was unwilling to play the Kremlin's public-relations war game. Stepashin said, "Terrorist camps throughout Chechnya were to be discovered and destroyed. But there were not supposed to be full-scale hostilities." Earlier, he had said, "The plan of action in [Chechnya] was being elaborated starting in March. We were planning to reach the Terek [River] in August to September. This would have happened even if there had been no explosions in Moscow."

Analysts are reviewing evidence that the invasions into Daghestan and the apartment bombings were planned by the Kremlin but carried out by Chechen warlords. Boris Kagalitskii, a member of the Russian Academy of Sciences Institute of Comparative Politics, said a source provided him with information that the invasion of Daghestan by Chechen warlord Shamil Basaev was pre-arranged at a meeting in France in July with the head of the presidential administration, Aleksandr Voloshin, Basaev, and Anton Surikov, a former official belonging to the army's special services. [Editor's note: In September, an article published in "Izvestiya" claimed that a meeting occurred between Basaev and members of the presidential administration at the home of Adnan Kashoghi in Nice, France, supposedly to plan the Daghestan invasion.] It is important to note that Basaev and the Arab-born Chechen commander known as Khattab managed to escape the wrath of federal troops during the invasion. Kagalitskii's source added that the apartment bombings were arranged by the GRU, which hired a gang controlled by Shirvani Basaev, Shamil's brother, to plant the bombs.

Speculation has persisted since the start of the second Chechen war that the entire military offensive was planned and has been used as a tool to influence parliamentary and early presidential elections. Retired Colonel Aleksandr Shilin, a military analyst with the weekly "Moskovskiye Novosti," in February 2000 said, "I am absolutely convinced that from the very beginning the war was planned as a powerful and extremely cynical Kremlin PR campaign. It became clear to everybody quite a while ago that notorious [Chechen] terrorist [Shamil] Basaev and Khattab were puppets used by their masters in Moscow to make this war as popular as possible with the Russian public." It is hard to ignore the coincidence that the military offensive had plans to fly a Russian flag over Grozny the day before the parliamentary elections and that Putin, during his first day as acting president, presented soldiers with military-issued hunting knives.

Now the government appears to be attempting to blunt these accusations and any potential negative impact from a Berezovsky-sponsored film released in London this week concerning the government's involvement in the bombings -- and hence the second Chechen campaign. "Izvestiya" reported recently that Berezovsky was raised by authorities to the dubious "rank" of the "Russian [suspected terrorist Osama] bin Laden." The daily even cited a joke: "They caught bin Laden. When shaved, he turned out to be Berezovsky." Oleg Lurye of "Versiya" goes further with his allegations (a former KGB general has described Lurye as a transmission agent for the FSB). He asserts that Berezovsky maintains contacts with bin Laden's cousin, Islam. Lurye stated that he has obtained information on a number of "deals" between Berezovsky and Islam bin Laden. According to Swiss investigators quoted by Lurye, Berezovsky and Tatyana Dyachenko, the daughter of former Russian President Boris Yeltsin, have had a number of meetings with Islam bin Laden on the French Riviera. The prosecutors were quoted by "Versiya" as saying: "We know about the contacts between Berezovsky and the Russian-Chechen mafia. A connection between Berezovsky, [businessman and reputed arms dealer Grigorii] Luchanskii, Islam, and his cousin Osama bin Laden could be considered by the investigation as 'the Russian link.'" Lurye also stated that Islam bin Laden's lawyer, Charles Rochas, involved in a number of Islam's financial schemes, is also one of Berezovsky's business intermediaries in Switzerland.

Amid these accusations, Berezovsky presented a documentary-style film in London supposedly providing evidence that a series of apartment-building explosions in September 1999 was the work of the FSB, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported. Two explosions in Moscow followed by a third in the southern city of Volgodonsk, which left some 300 people dead in all, served as justification for the Kremlin to launch a second campaign in Chechnya. Initial success in the Chechen war contributed to then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's soaring public-approval ratings just a few months before he ran for the presidency. The government blames the explosions on Chechen terrorists but has yet to produce evidence to back up that claim. The FSB recently announced that all those responsible for the explosions were "known" and that some have been arrested, but the security service provided no further information, "The Moscow Times" reported on 5 March. Critics said Berezovsky and "The Family" had used the apartment-building explosions as a ploy to maintain their grip on power in the waning months of an ailing President Yeltsin's administration. At the time, Putin, a former spy, had only recently resigned as FSB chief to become prime minister. The release of the film by Berezovsky coincided with the anniversary of the 1953 death of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. Berezovsky said his film relies heavily on the documentation of an incident in Ryazan which the government called an emergency exercise but critics called a foiled attempt to blow up yet another building. Only a week after the 1999 explosion in Volgodonsk, residents of a Ryazan apartment building noticed a suspicious car parked near a basement door. Inside, police found bags of white powder wired to a detonator and a timing device. Police evacuated the building, claiming they had averted a terrorist act. Investigators said the bags contained hexogen, an explosive. Two days after that discovery, however, FSB chief Nikolai Patrushev announced his agency had staged the incident, planting a dummy bomb in an exercise meant to test public vigilance. All traces of the bomb were removed, "The Moscow Times" reported. The physical evidence of that exercise has been sealed by authorities for 75 years (until the year 2076).

Berezovsky says Putin's presidency will not last long despite his ratings and that exposing the motives behind the apartment bombings might help undermine the administration. Vladimir Pribylovskii of the Panorama think tank said he doubted Berezovsky's film would provide any new information into the explosions, adding it would nonetheless call attention to the fact that the government has yet to respond to charges that it was responsible. Pribylovskii said the government would most likely respond to the film in its usual manner: silence. "Any bombs put under the president could explode in the future," he added. "But as long as people believe in Putin as 'the good tsar,' nothing will come of such accusations." The press also remained skeptical of any sensational effect of the documentary, titled "An Assault Against Russia." According to "Kommersant," the film lasted for 10 minutes and no sensational revelations emerged. "Kommersant" noted, however, that "for the first time, documentary filmmakers collected all the facts and minor details related to the Ryazan case, placed them chronologically, [and] added some controversial testimonies and statements made by the highest official, including then-Prime Minister Putin." Both "Izvestiya" and "Vedomosti" concluded that, "Berezovsky failed to provide direct evidence of the FSB's participation in the terrorist acts."

Berezovsky turned against President Putin shortly after having played a pivotal role in his election in 2000. He now lives in London, where he offers criticism of Putin, who he says is quashing freedom of the press and undermining democratic values established under his predecessor in the presidency, Boris Yeltsin. In an interview with "Le Figaro" in February, Berezovsky conceded that his fight against the FSB represents a fight with Putin. "There is not room for both of us [in Russia]," Berezovsky concluded. After all, Berezovsky has predicted in the past that Putin will not finish his first term. (PMJ, TSK)