BP Holds Talks With Partners and Ministers

BP chief executive Tony Hayward held talks with a Russian shareholder of joint venture TNK-BP on Friday after an outbreak of public sparring between the partners amid speculation the Russian side could sell out.

A BP spokesman said Hayward had met with TNK-BP shareholder Mikhail Fridman, the head of Alfa Group, describing the talks as "positive" and adding that they would continue to try to resolve their differences.

Fridman's partner and another major Russian shareholder Viktor Vekselberg said he expected the dispute to be resolved within days, while sources close to the Russian shareholders said the parties would meet again in three days.

Hayward, whose firm owns half of the country's third-largest oil producer, flew to Moscow on Thursday to discuss the future of the embattled company, which many analysts expect to fall under the control of a Russian state firm.

BP and TNK-BP's Russian shareholders, who split control of TNK-BP 50-50, last week publicly confirmed that they had differences over the company's strategy for the first time.

A source close to TNK-BP said Hayward had also met with Fridman's partners in the Alfa Group conglomerate, German Khan and Pyotr Aven, as well as Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin, who is responsible for coordinating government energy policy.

"Positive developments were evident," a source close to TNK-BP said.

The Russian owners — Fridman, Khan, Vekselberg and Len Blavatnik — have demanded the resignation of TNK-BP chief executive Robert Dudley. But he, with the backing of BP, has resisted calls to step down.

On Thursday, Hayward held talks with Alexei Miller, the CEO of state-controlled Gazprom; Sechin, who is also the chairman of state-controlled Rosneft; and First Deputy Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov, who is poised to become chairman of Gazprom later this month.

Also on Thursday, TNK-BP said an Interior Ministry department had issued a summons to Dudley as part of a tax probe into TNK for 2001 to 2003.

The summons came on top of other TNK-BP problems including the arrest of an employee on an industrial-espionage charge, a raid on the company's central Moscow offices and a court injunction to stop it using BP specialists.

Analysts have said the government is likely behind the pressure on TNK-BP as it seeks to increase its control over the strategic energy sector, and that it prefers to have a state company such as Gazprom take control of TNK-BP.

Russian shareholders have repeatedly denied plans to sell out, and Vekselberg reiterated on Friday that the sale was not on the agenda. "Such rumors have no grounds," he said.

He said he did not want to run TNK-BP after media reported that the Russian shareholders had asked BP to replace Dudley with Vekselberg.

Vekselberg also said that the company's management "shouldn't take sides" when the shareholders differ in their positions,'' Bloomberg reported, but added: "We shouldn't be exaggerating the problem with Mr. Dudley."