|Tymoshenko and Naftogaz are reaching for a score with Ukrtatnafta – From sportsline.com / Getty|
Even as the government of Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko is working to shake up the country’s electricity sphere, she is also attempting to reassert control over the country’s largest oil refinery. However, this move is deepening a rift between her and the financial group Privat, a relationship she is depending on for support in her electricity moves.
A March 18th ruling by Ukraine’s Supreme Court nullified a series of lower court decisions concerning the status of an 18% piece of the downstream oil company Ukrtatnafta. Dispute over the ownership of these shares erupted into a forceful seizure of the company’s Kremenchug refinery in October 2007.
Tatarstan believes the 18% should be under its control, which would give it a majority. Lower court decisions have supported this interpretation.
The latest Supreme Court ruling, however, annulled Tatarstan’s claim to the shares, putting them back into play. Tymoshenko seized the opportunity to assert that the shares are rightfully under Ukrainian government control (likely by Naftogaz), giving her side a majority stake. She announced the government’s plans to insert new leadership, replacing the management put in place by the seizure alleged to have been orchestrated by Privat.
Korsan, a Privat-affiliated company that owns just over 1% of Ukrtatnafta, joined Tatarstan in objecting to the ruling and the moves by Tymoshenko. This puts Privat and Tatarstan into an uneasy partnership with the aim of prolonging the status quo at Ukrtatnafta.
Tatarstan had earlier halted crude shipments to the refinery in protest of the seizure, and recently opened an international arbitration case over the raid. Tatneft, Tatarstan’s government-owned oil firm and a partner in Ukrtatnafta, alleges that it never received payment for crude in the refinery at the time of the seizure and is now seeking hundreds of millions of dollars.
Naftogaz had earlier this month tried to call an Ukrtatnafta shareholders meeting with the aim of replacing the company’s leadership. Ukrtatnafta contested the legality of the proposed meeting, however, and it did not take place.
A further meeting attempt by Naftogaz on March 14th at Kremenchug was supported Ukrtatnafta’s shareholders register–in the hands of the Privat-controlled Ukrneftegaz–showing the state energy firm with a 62% holding in the company. Naftogaz and Tymoshenko assert that the meeting was successfully opened on company property, with proceedings immediately transfered to a new meeting to be held on March 18th at Naftogaz’s premises in Kyiv. However, the legality of this meeting was disputed by the regional shareholders and securities government commission.
Nonetheless, Naftogaz proceeded as a legitimate meeting had taken place. The March 18th meeting was further delayed to March 28th (tomorrow), likely giving the government time to secure a favorable ruling from the Supreme Court on the disputed shares. With that decision in hand, it appears poised to attempt to insert its own management team.
Tymoshenko allegedly discussed the fate of Ukrtatnafta with Putin during her visit to Moscow last month. She also apparently recently held a closed-door meeting with President Viktor Yushchenko to discuss the situation, possibly to clear her strategy for resolving the conflict with him. The Supreme Court ruling may be an attempt to insert a semblance of the rule of law into the dispute, giving her enough justification to proceed with her version of a resolution.
Perhaps she is aiming for a compromise: ceding control of the disputed shares to Ukraine in exchange for removing Privat–the alleged instigators of the corporate raid–from the picture. If this is the case, expect a decrease in the protests lodged by Tatarstan, especially if they receive a favorable ruling on the arbitration case.
(Tatneft has learned to survive without its direct oil shipments to Kremenchug, instead boosting its Novorossiysk deliveries and exports to central Europe via the Druzhba pipeline. It is also increasing its own local refinery production. Given this mixed output, Tatarstan may be willing to simply subsist on earnings from its current Ukrtatnafta share and not push for a further development.)
However, the effect of these moves with Ukrtatnafta may lead to consequences in Ukraine’s electricity sphere because there is an overlap of key players in both dramas.
As I wrote on Tuesday, Privat and the Electricity Company of Ukraine (EKU) have partnered up in an attempt to change the leadership of the power generating company Dniproenergo. Tymoshenko’s privatization plan for the firm–and three other major generators–relies on the same interpretation of the company’s disputed shareholding used by the attempted raiders.
It is unclear exactly how Ukrneftegaz, the shareholder registrar for both Dniproenergo and Ukrtatnafta, will behave as these conflicts deepen. Privat and Naftogaz already have a strained relationship over Ukrnafta, the majority state-owned oil company effectively controlled by Privat due to its 42% stake. The outcome of these disputes will go a long way in predicting how their future relationship will turn out.
I’ll try to follow tomorrow’s meeting and update accordingly.
Note: Igor Kolomoisky, a key owner of Privat, recently suggested (English) he was interested in buying out the interests of both Dmitry Firtash and Ivan Fursin from the maligned gas intermediary RosUkrEnergo. Such a move would add a further nuanced wrinkle to Privat’s relationship to the Ukrainian government.
Update (3/28/08): A Gazprom source told Kommersant that Kolomoisky’s overtures toward RUE are “childish and not serious.” Konstantin Chuychenko, a member of Gazprom’s board and an executive at RUE pointed out that Gazprom has a right of first refusal should Firtash and Fursin decide sell their stakes. The source said that in this event, Gazprom would go ahead and buy the shares. However, Kolomoisky maneuvered past a similar clause in picking up a significant stake in the 1+1 TV station through a court case decided last year, suggesting he has experience in this type of operation.