Plainclothes police officers raided the central Moscow offices of BP and TNK-BP on Wednesday, ratcheting up pressure on BP's Russia venture amid market rumors that it has been targeted for state control.
Officers swarmed over BP's new office on Novy Arbat around 7 p.m., hours after a similar raid against TNK-BP headquarters on Arbat in connection with a back tax claim. There was confusion as to who had ordered the raids.
The aggressive move against TNK-BP, 50-50 owned by British oil major BP and three Russian oligarchs, came as the firm continues to wrangle with Gazprom over its future.
"Representatives of law enforcement have visited our offices as part of an investigation," BP spokesman Vladimir Buyanov said by telephone late Wednesday. "We are cooperating fully with the authorities."
Buyanov said he did not know who had sent the officers and said they were still there as of 9:30 p.m.
Earlier Wednesday, three unmarked minivans, two topped with blue lights, parked along the pedestrian street in front of TNK-BP headquarters. The raid began at noon, employees said, and was still underway as of 6 p.m. One van remained at 8 p.m.
"We are not talking about a search; we are talking about the collection of documents," said Irina Dudukina, a spokeswoman for the Interior Ministry's Investigative Committee. She referred further questions to the ministry's economic crimes unit.
Two TNK-BP officials were brought in for questioning on Wednesday, said Andrei Filipchuk, a spokesman for the economic-crimes unit.
"We ... invited two managers from TNK-BP's head office to provide explanations regarding certain questions," he said, declining to identify the officials.
Dudukina said the officers were looking for documents related to an ongoing tax investigation into Sidanco, a mid-sized oil firm that BP originally bought into in 1997, before folding that stake into TNK-BP when the company was formed in early 2003, Interfax reported.
TNK-BP remains an anomaly in an energy sector that has witnessed creeping state control. The firm has come under increasing pressure in recent months, losing its flagship Kovykta gas project to Gazprom last June following pressure from environmental regulators.
Finalization of the deal, in which TNK-BP pledged to sell its 63 percent stake in Kovykta license holder Rusia Petroleum to Gazprom for between $700 million and $900 million, has been postponed several times.
This has prompted market speculation that Gazprom may be hoping to fold Kovykta into a larger deal that would see it buy out the firm's Russian shareholders -- Viktor Vekselberg's Renova, Lev Blavatnik's Access Industries and Mikhail Fridman's Alfa Group.
A clause forbidding the trio from selling their stakes expired late last year.
Gazprom spokesman Sergei Kupriyanov said the Kovykta deal had yet to be sealed "because we haven't agreed on everything yet." He declined to comment further.
President-elect Dmitry Medvedev is chairman of Gazprom's board. The raids at the offices of the British oil major could further strain already poor relations between Moscow and London.
TNK-BP employees flooded from the building starting around 4 p.m., some saying they were unable to work as computer servers had been shut down.
"They shut the doors around lunchtime for about 15 or 20 minutes, so no one could leave," said one TNK-BP employee, who declined to be identified because he was not authorized to speak with the press.
TNK-BP spokeswoman Marina Dracheva declined to comment on the investigation, saying only, "We will be ready to cooperate with the authorities, as we always do."
Several employees said they did not know who was carrying out the raid, and that no announcement had been made. The officers wore no uniforms, they said.
Around 5 p.m., two men exited TNK-BP headquarters and spoke to a man sitting inside one of the unmarked vans.
When asked if they were from the Interior Ministry, one of them, dressed in a dark blue tracksuit, said, "No. We just came to look at Arbat," one of Moscow's most famous streets.
The men then retreated to a gray Lada parked at the end of Arbat on Gogolevsky Bulvar, where they picked up McDonalds bags, before heading back inside TNK-BP headquarters.
It remained unclear who exactly carried out the search of the BP and TNK-BP offices. Dudukina said the Central Federal District's Investigative Committee had carried out the raid. Yet a spokesman for that committee told Interfax that "there is no investigation connected to these companies," referring to TNK-BP and Sidanco.
The committee had not opened a criminal case related to either firm, the spokesman added.
Filipchuk, of the economic crimes unit, stressed that there was no criminal case and said his department had not carried out the raid.
"None of our staff was there [today]," he said, referring to TNK-BP headquarters.
"Maybe there have been some violations or there is suspicion, maybe not -- I do not know," Filipchuk added.
TNK-BP, the country's third-largest oil producer, has faced a slew of back tax claims. In February, police raided the headquarters of Slavneft, a 50-50 joint venture with Gazprom, to seize documents related to a five-year investigation into suspected tax evasion.
Back tax claims were brought against Sidanco most recently in December 2005 and February 2006, relating to taxes for 2002 and 2003.
Source: The Moscow Times|By Miriam Elder and Nikolaus von Twickel