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 investigation.
"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 diplomats.
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)