Activist Takes Aim at Gunvor Trades

APA worker at a Surgutneftegaz field. The country's No. 4 producer is one of the firms that exports oil through Gunvor.
A maverick political activist and minor shareholder in three of the country's top oil producers called Thursday for more transparency in their deals with Gunvor, the secretive oil trader co-owned by St. Petersburg businessman Gennady Timchenko.

Alexei Navalny, a former Yabloko party activist and organizer of a small nationalist group, said closely held Surgutneftegaz and state-controlled Rosneft and Gazprom Neft were going to pay too small dividends for last year, and he wanted to know if Gunvor was to blame.

Navalny said he had asked the oil producers to reveal how much oil they sold to Gunvor and for how much, and threatened to sue them if they did not. He said he had not heard back from the three oil companies.

Navalny said he owned shares worth 50,000 rubles to 100,000 rubles ($2,100 to $4,200) in each of the three companies. and that he was prompted to begin his crusade for shareholder rights after seeing that U.S. Forbes magazine this year for the first time included Timchenko, a close ally of then-President Vladimir Putin, on its global rich list with an estimated fortune of $2.5 billion.

"Are these not our billions?" Navalny told a news conference Thursday.

The call for greater transparency comes as Gunvor has faced increased scrutiny in recent months over its political connections in Russia and as opposition politicians and some political analysts have accused the firm of having financial links to Putin.

Putin has dismissed the allegations as ridiculous.

Navalny's demands for information about Gunvor also appeared politically tinged as he was flanked by two lawyers linked to the liberal Union of Right Forces party, or SPS.

SPS leader Nikita Belykh on Thursday denied any links between the party and Navalny's threat of legal action, although he said it was "correct" to defend minority shareholders. The lawyers were free to seek other clients, he said.

Navalny used to be deputy head of the Moscow branch of liberal party Yabloko but was kicked out in December over what the party said were his nationalist views. While being a Yabloko member, Navalny helped set up a movement called the National Russian Liberation Movement.

Nikolai Manvelov, a Rosneft spokesman, said the company had received Navalny's request and was studying it. Gazprom Neft's spokeswoman was not available Thursday afternoon, and calls to Surgutneftegaz's press office went unanswered.

Surgut general director Vladimir Bogdanov said last month that Gunvor exported less than 10 percent of his company's output.

Manvelov declined to say how much oil Rosneft sold to Gunvor.

Gunvor's top three Russian clients are Rosneft, Gazprom Neft and TNK-BP, but TNK-BP sells all its crude at open tenders. Gunvor holds contracts with every single Russian oil company except LUKoil, Tornqvist said, the Financial Times reported Thursday.

The three oil companies will likely not give Navalny direct answers about their business with Gunvor, said Yevgenia Borzilo, a lawyer at law firm Pepeliaev, Goltsblat & Partners. But he could gain an insight into oil sales to Gunvor by analyzing documents that the companies have to provide shareholders by law, she said.

The oil trader's rapid expansion over the past five years was fueled by having "one very good friend" who is "at the very top level," the FT cited sources as saying in an investigative report published Thursday. Gunvor boosted its share of Russia's seaborne oil exports from less than 10 percent in 2003 to around 30 percent this year, and expects revenues of $70 billion, the FT said.

The report linked Gunvor co-founder Gennady Timchenko to Putin through a firm called Golden Gates, which the two formed in the early 1990s to build an oil terminal at St. Petersburg's port. The port project failed, amid clashes with local mafia, the FT said.

Gunvor co-founder Torbjorn Tornqvist denied that the Swiss-registered firm enjoyed special relations with Putin and his inner circle. In an interview with Reuters last year, however, he said: "Mr Timchenko has excellent contacts because he is Russian and part of the industry. I also have good contacts. We don't deny we have excellent contacts."