Exclusive: Only special Russian decree could bar Rosneft from Bashneft sale - ministry letter

LONDON/MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia's Economy Ministry has advised Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev he would have to issue an unprecedented special decree if he wants to bar state-controlled oil major Rosneft ROSN.MM from the privatization of a mid-sized energy group, according to a letter seen by Reuters.

Pump jacks pump oil at an oil field Buzovyazovskoye owned by Bashneft company, north of Ufa, Bashkortostan, Russia, July 11, 2015. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin/File Photo

The planned auction of a 50 percent stake in state-owned oil producer Bashneft BANE.MM later this year will pit some of Russia's most powerful businessmen, executives and officials against each other if Rosneft and other state-controlled groups are allowed to participate.

The sale is designed to plug holes in the government budget caused by a slump in oil prices and Western sanctions imposed over Russia’s actions in Ukraine.

However, the interest shown by Rosneft, whose head Igor Sechin is a close ally of President Vladimir Putin, has drawn criticism from some government officials who have said this would essentially involve the state transferring assets from one firm to another.

Rosneft argues its involvement would boost competition and the price the government can fetch for Bashneft.

Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich and some other officials have opposed the idea of allowing Rosneft to take part but Putin - who holds the ultimate say-so over such major decisions in Russia - has so far stayed silent on the subject.

Rosneft has said it is considering a bid for Bashneft, which produces around 20 million tonnes of oil a year. If it goes head, Sechin is likely to be up against Vagit Alekperov, one of Russia's richest men whose private group Lukoil LKOH.MM is interested in buying all of the company.

In its letter to Medvedev, dated Aug. 10, the Economy Ministry said the government has no legal grounds for stopping state-controlled groups such as Rosneft from bidding.

“It is possible to set additional criteria to limit the participation in the transaction of entities directly or indirectly controlled by the state ... based only on a separate decree by the government,” it said.

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The economy ministry was not immediately available for comment.


The letter gave no indication of Medvedev’s views on the issue. But if such a decree were issued, it would be a setback for Sechin and would leave Lukoil, Rosneft’s main rival, as the main contender to buy Bashneft.

Lukoil has said it would not overpay for the company, whose market capitalization is around $10 billion. Lukoil says it values the firm at no more than $4.0-$4.5 billion.

If the government decided against issuing such an order, it would turn the Bashneft privatization into one of Russia’s most hotly contested auctions of the past decade and could allow Sechin to expand his giant firm further.

Russia also plans to sell a minority stake of 19.5 percent in Rosneft to reduce its budget deficit.

Sechin argues that Rosneft’s participation would increase competition at the Bashneft auction. Rosneft became the world’s largest listed oil producer by output in 2013 when it acquired Anglo-Russian oil company TNK-BP for $55 billion.

The economy ministry’s letter to Medvedev cites a letter from Sechin to the ministry from Aug. 5 as saying that if Rosneft were banned from the privatization it could see its shares fall and possibly draw law suits from its minority shareholders.

Sechin also argues that if Rosneft were allowed to purchase Bashneft, it would create synergies of around 160 billion rubles ($2.5 billion) and result in higher revenues for the government when the Rosneft stake is sold.

Rosneft declined to comment.

Russia appointed state-controlled bank VTB Capital VTBR.MM as its agent to sell Bashneft. VTB has invited around 10 potential bidders including state-controlled Gazprom, Tatneft and the Russian Direct Investment Fund.

If the government banned all state firms from bidding, this would leave Lukoil as well as mid-sized firms Russneft, Independent Petroleum Company, Tatneftegas, Energia and the Antipinsky refinery among remaining bidders.

editing by David Stamp