- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 1, 2004

MOSCOW (AP) — The Yukos oil company suffered a double and potentially devastating blow yesterday: Hours after court bailiffs served papers giving the company five days to pay a $3.4 billion tax claim for 2000, the Tax Service said it wanted almost the same amount for 2001.

Yukos said it hadn’t received any official notification of the new claim, which drives up government demands against Yukos to a crippling $6.7 billion. Yukos could also face new claims for the years 2002 and 2003, which analyst Pavel Kushnir with the United Financial Group in Moscow called “almost certain” now.

The company’s shares plunged 15 percent in a frenzied response to media reports of a new tax claim of $3.3 billion. The company has said the 2000 back-taxes bill alone could force it into bankruptcy.

Late yesterday, the Interfax news agency reported that Yukos’ accounts in Russian banks had been frozen.

Yukos said it hadn’t received official notification of the new claim, which could prove fatal for the beleaguered oil giant. The Tax Service also had no comment.

Yukos is one of Russia’s most important companies, and its ruin could tarnish Russia’s image abroad and slow growth in the key oil sector — Russia’s main cash earner and an industry that bolsters President Vladimir Putin’s international clout.

Some analysts see the multipronged attack on Yukos as a Kremlin-directed move to punish its former chief executive, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Russia’s richest man, for his funding of opposition parties and to warn other billionaire Russian businessman to stay out of politics.

Mr. Putin said last month that the bankruptcy of the company is not in the government’s interests. But some analysts believe that Yukos’ only chance for survival is if control over its assets passes from Mr. Khodorkovsky and his associates into more Kremlin-friendly hands.

Three bailiffs accompanied by five men in camouflage uniforms arrived at Yukos’ Moscow headquarters yesterday to serve the payment order for the 2000 back taxes, said Alexander Shadrin, a Yukos spokesman. Courts could begin enforcing the claim once a five-day period for voluntary compliance expires. The order also said that the bailiffs must take inventory of Yukos’ property and put a freeze order on it, Mr. Shadrin said.

Yukos has already said that it doesn’t have the cash to pay the claim immediately and yesterday the company again pleaded with the government for leniency. Yukos said that it can satisfy the 2000 claim if a court order preventing it from selling assets is lifted and if the company is allowed to stagger the payments.

The first asset likely to be sold would be Yukos’ 35 percent share of Sibneft oil company, which it acquired in a failed merger that has yet to be formally unwound, Yukos said.

“We are ready to pay all 99.4 billion rubles [$3.4 billion], but let us pay them,” Mr. Shadrin said. So far the government has not responded to any of Yukos’ overtures.

“We will comply with the law and fulfill the decision which has entered into force,” Yukos’ deputy chairman, Yuri Beilin, told the Interfax news agency yesterday.

“Yet we still hope that the government will resolve the company’s situation in a balanced and socially responsible way.”

But bankruptcy is looking increasingly likely, Mr. Kushnir said.

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