Dudley's Contract Puts Visa In Peril

The Federal Migration Service has until Saturday to decide whether to extend the visa of TNK-BP CEO Robert Dudley, in a key decision in the shareholder dispute between BP and its Russian partners in the 50-50 joint venture.

Dudley's visa expires on Saturday and, unless it is extended, he will have to leave Russia — and TNK-BP — within 10 days, a spokeswoman for the Federal Migration Service said Wednesday.

At issue is the contract that Dudley supplied with his application for a work visa earlier this month, the spokeswoman said. It expired at the end of last year, but officials could still recognize it as valid, she said.

Dudley's expulsion would be a blow to relations with foreign investors and raise doubts over repeated government statements that it is not involved in the dispute.

Most recently, the Foreign Ministry said Tuesday that, "We have repeatedly said that the problem is exclusively one of relations between economic entities."

The departure of Dudley, a U.S. citizen, would be a victory for four Russian shareholders in TNK-BP — Viktor Vekselberg, Mikhail Fridman, German Khan and Len Blavatnik — who have accused him of putting BP's interests ahead of theirs in the joint venture and calling for his replacement.

The Russian shareholders say BP has sent too many of its own high-paid employees to work at TNK-BP and has blocked foreign expansion abroad to protect its own international activities. BP has replied with the charge that the Russian side is trying to take control of the company.

Federal Migration Service lawyers are studying whether the contract could be considered valid under a clause in the Labor Code that says contracts remain in force after they expire unless one party to the contract wants it terminated, the service's spokeswoman said.

The Russian shareholders, who are grouped in a consortium called AAR, appear to have demanded just that.

Dudley's contract calls for him to remain in place until a replacement is appointed, AAR chief Stan Polovets said Wednesday. But he also said a law stipulating that CEOs can only serve for a fixed period takes precedence.

Polovets reiterated Wednesday that BP should name a replacement for Dudley. The contract between the sides says BP chooses candidates for the position.

"AAR has clearly stated that it would like a new CEO to be independent [and] without any ties to either side," Polovets said by e-mail.

Marina Dracheva, a spokeswoman for TNK-BP, declined to comment on how the company would operate if Dudley has to leave but said the company was in contact with the migration service in an effort to avoid that outcome.

BP said it regarded Dudley as still holding office.

"We believe that Bob Dudley's contract is still valid and that all the correct documentation was given to the FMS," BP spokesman Toby Odone, said by e-mail.

TNK-BP staff joined in Wednesday, filing a suit against Dudley arguing he does not have a proper contract and that the company discriminates against Russian employees, an unidentified company manager said, Interfax reported.

Odone said it was the Russian side that originally wanted BP's employees.

"They wanted expertise, the technology that BP … uses all over the world," he said.

"I think it's now 60 out of the original 148 who are actually available to work, and the rest of them have been redeployed within BP," Odone said. "What will happen to the others is not immediately clear."