MOSCOW Russian security officers who raided
BP's (BP.L) Russian venture's headquarters last month were
looking for files relating to state gas monopoly Gazprom
(GAZP.MM), industry sources told Reuters.
"They were scanning through pages of documents, looking for
the word 'Gazprom'," said one source familiar with details of
"The only thing that seemed to interest the officers, based
on their questions, was information on Gazprom," a second
source said, commenting on March raids by 78 officers at
TNK-BP's central Moscow offices.
TNK-BP, co-owned by BP and a group of Russian billionaires,
is subject of long-running speculation that the Kremlin wants
the Russian owners to sell out to a state firm to tighten
further the state grip over the energy sector.
Many analysts interpreted the raids by the Federal Security
Service (FSB), the main successor to the Soviet KGB, and the
subsequent arrest of an employee of TNK-BP on suspicion of
industrial espionage, as a sign the Kremlin is stepping up
pressure on TNK-BP and its owners.
Gazprom, whose chairman Dmitry Medvedev will be sworn in as
Russian president on May 7, has long been seen as the main
contender for a stake in TNK-BP as part of its drive to become
a global energy player.
But Medvedev denied last week that the raids on TNK-BP had
an ulterior motive.
One industry source, speaking on condition of anonymity,
said Gazprom's management was concerned that during recent gas
talks with foreign firms, counterparties appeared to have more
information about Gazprom than would normally be expected.
"This prompted the suspicion that confidential information
about Gazprom had been leaked," the source added.
Gazprom and TNK-BP declined to comment. A source close to
Gazprom described the raids as a "one-off, local incident."
"People should not read too much into it," the source said.
Although Gazprom is seen as a front runner in the race for
TNK-BP, some sources said they did not rule out state oil major
Rosneft (ROSN.MM) as another potential contender.
Rosneft's chairman and deputy head of the Kremlin
administration, Igor Sechin, is expected to remain one of
Russia's most influential men even after President Vladimir
Putin steps down to become prime minister under Medvedev.
Medvedev and Sechin are often pitted against each other as
informal leaders of the so-called liberal and hardliner clans
inside the Kremlin, which vie for control of key assets.
"The mere fact that the investigators said they were
looking for files about Gazprom does not mean that the request
for the raid came from Gazprom," said one source.
"It may actually mean the opposite because you know well
that corporate wars in Russia tend to be very complicated."
Putin's administration has poor relations with Britain,
following a spat over the murder in London last year of a
former Russian agent that provoked a mutual expulsion of
TNK-BP is the largest single British investment in Russia
and Putin blessed the creation of the venture in 2003.
"I see very little reasons why Gazprom would want to do it
(step up pressure on TNK-BP) now. They are perfectly well
positioned to do it after the (Medvedev) inauguration. So I'd
rather bet on the other (Sechin) clan," one source said.
Another way of looking at the struggle, industry insiders
say, is to consider that if Gazprom wants to buy into TNK-BP,
then either the Russian billionaires or BP has to sell.
Neither group wants to give up its stake in such a large
and highly lucrative company so the temptation for both BP and
the oligarchs is to try to cut their own deal with the Kremlin,
which would involve removing the other shareholder.
Some sources say a dispute between the Russian shareholders
and BP has been rekindled.
"I would not fully exclude this. The company itself has
become a bargaining chip in this game," a TNK-BP source said.
TNK-BP Russian shareholders, who include billionaires
Mikhail Fridman, German Khan, Viktor Vekselberg and Len
Blavatnik, have repeatedly denied plans to sell out.
(Additional reporting by Michael Stott; editing by Barbara
Lewis and James Jukwey)