TNK, BP Air Their Differences in Public

British oil major BP and a group of Russian billionaires publicly aired their differences on Tuesday over their TNK-BP venture, which analysts expect to be pushed into a takeover by a Russian state firm.

Both the Russian and British shareholders of TNK-BP confirmed that they had differences over strategy, after Kommersant reported that CEO Robert Dudley could resign.

The Russian shareholders, who include Viktor Vekselberg, Mikhail Fridman and Len Blavatnik, said in a joint statement that they wanted to expand abroad, even if foreign acquisitions competed with existing BP businesses, and said they wanted a better balance between Russian and foreign staff at TNK-BP.

The statement echoed comments by Dudley, who recently acknowledged for the first time that the Russian and British shareholders had disagreements over the company's strategy.

The differences between the two sides come after the arrest of a TNK-BP employee on an industrial espionage charge, a raid on the firm's offices and a court injunction to stop it using BP specialists.

Last year, TNK-BP was forced to cede control of its Kovykta gas project to Gazprom after months of pressure.

Dudley said in an interview with Vedomosti published Monday that the disagreements concerned investments and the sale of some assets in Russia.

The Russian shareholders, who later said they considered Dudley's comments "deeply inappropriate," said they wanted TNK-BP to actively develop as an independent oil producer and refiner in both domestic and foreign markets.

"We believe that the company's development abroad should be considered from the point of view of its efficiency, even if such development poses competition to BP's business," their joint statement said.

BP said it was in talks with its partners to resolve the differences.

Public admissions of disagreement could be a strategy to avoid a takeover, analysts said.

"Obviously, neither side would like to sell at a forced sale," said Konstantin Reznikov, an analyst at Dresdner Kleinwort. "Therefore, they're trying to push at something else, to get some kind of short-term or long-term benefits, such as better dividends, and to resolve their differences."

Gazprom is likely the best-placed firm to buy a big chunk of shares or control of TNK-BP, though some say it could still face rivalry from Rosneft.

On Tuesday, Rosneft chairman and Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin said TNK-BP's shareholders should solve their problems internally and said the state would not interfere.

The Russian statement did not mention that the disagreements could lead to Dudley's resignation.

Kommersant on Tuesday quoted a source close to TNK-BP as saying that Vekselberg and Fridman had complained about Dudley at a meeting with BP CEO Tony Hayward last month.

They suggested that Dudley should resign and Vekselberg should take his post, the source said, adding that Hayward had rejected the suggestion.