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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Berezovsky Claims YukosSibneft Stake

The list of shareholders in Russia's new and only oil supermajor includes disgraced oligarch Boris Berezovsky -- at least according to the man himself, making the $15 billion merger between Yukos and Sibneft a potential political hot potato.

"I think the deal was a good move," Berezovsky said by telephone Wednesday from London, where the former Kremlin powerbroker who helped President Vladimir Putin come to power is now fighting extradition on fraud charges he claims were engineered to silence his opposition to Putin.

Berezovsky insisted that he still controls a stake in Sibneft, the company he created and then bought from the government for $100 million in a loans-for-shares deal in 1996.

He declined to identify the size of his stake, saying only that he is "a shareholder in Sibneft," and as a result he would also be a shareholder in the new YukosSibneft, which controls the second-largest reserves in the world.

His comments came on the heels of reports from a source close to Sibneft that the decision to merge was partially aimed at coming up with cash to buy out Berezovsky's stake.

Under the terms of the deal, Sibneft's core shareholders will receive a payment of $3 billion in cash for 20 percent of their company, while the rest of their shares are to be swapped for stakes in the new company at a ratio of .36125 percent per 1 percent of Sibneft stock.

A source close to Millhouse Capital, the London-based company that holds the assets for Roman Abramovich and other key Sibneft shareholders, said on Tuesday that Berezovsky had been in a hurry to raise cash to fund a political fight against the Putin administration ahead of December's State Duma elections, which are followed in March by the vote for president.

But Berezovsky denied on Wednesday that he was looking to cash out. It remains unclear, if his claim is true, how much of the initial $3 billion cash payment he stands to receive.

Sibneft on Wednesday denied Berezovsky had any ownership stake. "It's my understanding that Mr. Berezovsky is no longer a shareholder," a Sibneft spokesman said. But he could not say exactly when or how Berezovsky stopped being a shareholder.

Sibneft's opaque ownership structure has long been a thorny issue for investors, mainly because of Berezovsky's repeated claims of ownership. He was often on the receiving end of insults from Sibneft's minority shareholders, who accused him of siphoning off profits through a network of offshore companies.

After the 1998 financial crisis, Sibneft embarked on a campaign to turn around its shoddy reputation for corporate governance, saying it was consolidating profit centers into the company. But, unlike Yukos and LUKoil, which both took major steps toward transparency last year by publishing a breakdown of their beneficial owners, Sibneft has continued to keep investors in the dark.

If Sibneft is to be believed, its only "core shareholders" are one-time Berezovsky protege Abramovich, who is now the governor of the desolate Chukotka region, and the company's current CEO Eugene Shvidler. Core shareholders now own 93 percent of Sibneft, according to the company's web site.

The Sibneft spokesman did say, however, that YukosSibneft might choose to disclose its shareholders, but only "when the shareholders are ready."

The source said Berezovsky holds his Sibneft stake via Millhouse Capital, in which he has a 37 percent stake, while Abramovich owns 52 percent. A spokesman for Millhouse on Wednesday would neither confirm nor deny these figures. Neither would Berezovsky.

Yukos' CEO and main shareholder Mikhail Khodorkovsky was the driving force behind the merger with Sibneft. The company on Wednesday played down any political risks associated with a possible linkup with Berezovsky.

"This is a purely commercial transaction based on an understanding of the strategic interests of the shareholders of Yukos," said Hugo Erikssen, head of international communications at Yukos. He said the deal was aimed "at creating value."

A source close to Yukos told The Moscow Times, however, that Khodorkovsky had been eyeing the deal as a way to solidify ties with the Family, the clan of businessmen and politicians that rose to power under Boris Yeltsin with the help of Berezovsky, and is said to include Abramovich, Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov and metals tycoon Oleg Deripaska.

"The deal would give Khodorkovsky substantially more chances for a political career," the source said.

Yukos, however, denied that the merger had anything to do with Khodorkovsky's possible political career.

However, political observers said the merger had all the trappings of a political power play. "For Khodorkovsky, the merger is of such a scale that it seems like his bid to play a big political role in the country," said Andrei Piontkovsky, an independent political analyst.

Khodorkovsky has been rumored to be eyeing a move into politics and has already launched a number of campaigns to push Russia into a closer partnership with the United States. He recently said he would step down as Yukos CEO in 2007 -- just a year before presidential elections, which, assuming Putin wins re-election in March, will be an open field. He has also admitted that he is personally financing the liberal political factions Yabloko and Union of Right Forces this year, while another Yukos shareholder intends to spread the company's influence as wide as possible by funding the Communists.

These are the three parties Berezovsky has said he is attempting to unite in opposition to the Kremlin.

In a recent London interview, however, Berezovsky was quick to deny any chance of working with Khodorkovsky on this.

"I have no relations with Khodorkovsky," he said, "because I think that Khodorkovsky is frightened of these relations. He is frightened for his business."

Analysts said Wednesday, however, that although somewhat murky, the Yukos-Sibneft tie-up did not look as if it was ruffling any political feathers, especially following the praise for the deal from Kasyanov and Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin.

"If Berezovsky really is a shareholder in Sibneft, he has been in the shadows as far as running the company is concerned," said Konstantin Reznikov, oil and gas analyst at Alfa Bank. "He will be even more of a minority shareholder in the consolidated company."

In an interview with Vedomosti last year, Berezovsky said he still owned stakes in Sibneft and Russian Aluminum, the massive metals concern run by Deripaska. Half of Russian Aluminum is held by Millhouse.

In that interview, he declined to name the size of his stakes, however, telling the newspaper that he feared a repeat of the "nationalization" of his national television channels ORT and TV6.