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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Armed Showdown at Slavneft Office

The latest battle over control of state-owned Slavneft broke out at the company's headquarters Friday evening, casting an even bigger shadow of doubt over its scheduled privatization this fall.

Taking little heed of the U.S.-Russian summit taking place several kilometers away, Slavneft's former acting president, Anatoly Baranovsky, grabbed his lawyers and 24 policemen and forced his way through to the office of Yury Sukhanov, whom Slavneft shareholders elected company president earlier this month.

But before a victor could emerge from the face-off, an anonymous bomb threat was called in and local police ordered everyone to evacuate the building. No bomb was found.

Slavneft officials say Sukhanov will continue in his role as president on Monday.

The struggle for Slavneft has become a tragicomedy played out by powerful political groups with the federal budget being the only loser if, in fact, the sale of 20 percent of the company is delayed, as many analysts predict.

Sukhanov is said to be supported by Sibneft, where he earlier worked in management, and its owner, oligarch-turned-Chukotka Governor Roman Abramovich. But it was Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov who decided how the government would vote with its 75 percent stake at the May 13 meeting.

Sibneft is one of several oil companies that have already expressed interest in buying the Slavneft stake, which has been assessed at more than $500 million.

The losing candidate, Baranovsky, is a vice president of Rosneft, also a state-owned oil company. Behind him stand Rosneft management and Sergei Pugachev, a Federation Council member and Mezhprombank founder who wants Slavneft to become part of a greater national oil company, according to media reports.

Since the government ousted Slavneft president Mikhail Gutseriyev last month, these two groups have fought using weapons ranging from criminal investigations to regional court orders.

Shortly after he invaded Sukhanov's office, Baranovsky tried to call the game before its conclusion.

"I am fulfilling the duties of Slavneft president in all aspects," he said in a statement.

He defended his action with a May 14 district court ruling made in the city of Ufa. The court ruled in favor of Miniyaz Mingaliyev, a Slavneft shareholder who asked that Sukhanov's election be annulled. According to the shareholder registry, Mingaliyev was not a shareholder at the cut-off date for the shareholders meeting.

Before Gutseriyev unceremoniously left on vacation last month, he appointed Baranovsky as interim president.

On Friday night, Slavneft vice president Andrei Shtorkh described the situation as "tense," and added that the conflict "could not end in anything good."

"All entrances to the building have been blocked, in some cases rather brutally," Shtorkh told the Ekho Moskvy radio station. "My personal assistant was trying to leave and she nearly got beaten up. There is a list of 26 people who are not, as far as I know, company employees. They are the only ones who are allowed to enter and leave the building."

In an attempt to end the escalating conflict, Deputy Property Minister and Slavneft board member Yury Medvedev sent a letter to the Prosecutor General's Office, calling the documents presented by Baranovsky "inappropriate" and "fake."

Medvedev noted that a May 20 Moscow district court ruling prevents anyone from hindering Sukhanov as he goes about his work.

This is not the first time Sukhanov has run up against well-connected opponents. In the weeks preceding the shareholder meeting, the economic crime department of the Interior Ministry opened a criminal investigation into the conduct of Sukhanov, then Slavneft vice president, and another top manager.

While an Interior Ministry spokesman said the investigation is continuing, nothing has yet come out of it.

The sale of Slavneft will be the first big test of Russia's privatization process under President Vladimir Putin, and at least one analyst says that without Putin's explicit intervention the forces supporting Baranovsky may overwhelm Sukhanov. "But between Rosneft and the Kremlin faction supporting Sibneft, I'm really not sure who's stronger," said the analyst, who requested anonymity.