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29 Aug, 2007 05:26

Former Russneft head wanted for tax evasion

A Moscow court has issued an international arrest warrant for the former head of the Russneft oil company. Russian billionaire Mikhail Gutseriev is charged with illegal business activities and tax evasion, and is in violation of an oath not to leave the a

Russia's Kommersant newspaper says he could be in London. Vedomosti quotes two sources saying he is in the Azerbaijani capital, Baku, and allegedly holding $US 3 BLN from the ongoing sale of Russneft to fellow oligarch Oleg Deripaska’s Basic Element holding.

His charges are described as being “of medium severity” – tax evasion and illegal entrepreneurship, but his absence from his home address, and failure to respond to legal summons have worsened his cause.

“An investigator from the Russian Interior Ministry’s Investigation Committee has filed a request at the Tverskoy Court of Moscow to change Gutseriev’s measure of restraint from a written pledge not to leave the city to being taken into custody. Having reviewed all the materials, the judge of the Tverskoy Court has granted the request and issued an arrest warrant for Mikhail Gutseriev,” said Anna Usachyova, press secretary of the Moscow City Court.

Russneft, established in 2002 by Mikhail Gutseriev and his partners, is one of Russia's top ten oil and gas companies. Listed number 31 on the Forbes magazine list of richest Russians, Gutseriev ran into trouble back in January.

The Interior Ministry Investigation Committee launched an inquiry into the company on tax evasion.

In July a Moscow court seized 100% of the company's shares after a request from the investigation committee.

In the same month a Moscow arbitration court approved the decision of the Federal Tax Service to claim unpaid tax from Russneft to the amount of $US 145 MLN – and Gutseriev left his position as head of the company.

Plans to sell the shares of the company were announced last month.

For experts it is a familiar scenario, Aleksey Makarkin from the Centre for Political Technologies says this case appears to be following the Yukos model.

“The destiny of the company will follow the court scenario: thetax authorities will file a suit against Russneft which aims at the seizure of the company's shares. The tax authorities will win the case and its shares will be confiscated. The company has no future,” he notes.

Details of the status of Russneft’s shares are unclear. Oleg Deripaska’s Basic Element allegedly denies a deal has been completed.

Nevertheless Gutseriev is under increasing pressure.  He is quoted as saying the death of his son on August 22 in a car accident was not an accident and his disappearance is now a graphic reminder of his rift with Russia’s authorities.