Russia Court Orders Arrest of Russian Oil Mogul Gutseriyev

A Russian court issued a warrant on Tuesday for the arrest of billionaire Mikhail Gutseriyev, who has accused the state of using tax evasion charges to force him out of his Russneft oil business.

The warrant for Gutseriyev, who prosecutors believe is outside Russia, could hinder a plan by Kremlin-friendly magnate Oleg Deripaska to buy Gutseriyev's mid-sized Russneft oil firm, a source close to the deal told Reuters.

Gutseriyev, whose personal wealth has been estimated at $3 billion, in July accused the Russian government of "unprecedented bullying" after Russneft received back tax demands totalling $800 million.

The case has prompted some in the Russian media to make comparisons with the case of the YUKOS oil firm, but other observers say these are misplaced.

Russneft is much smaller that YUKOS, whose founder Mikhail Khodorkovsky is now serving a prison term and says he has been punished by the Kremlin for his political ambitions. There is no apparent political motivation behind Gutseriyev's prosecution.

"Investigators ... have asked Tverskoy district court to detain Gutseriyev. The court approved the request," said Anna Usachyova, a Moscow city court spokeswoman.

"On Aug. 6, he was put on the wanted list and it was decided that he should be arrested," she said, giving no further details.

A prosecution source told Reuters such warrants were issued when investigators had firm evidence a suspect was abroad.

DEAL

Deripaska's Basic Element has said it is seeking to acquire Russneft in a deal market sources say is worth $6 billion. Gutseriyev resigned as chairman of the Russneft board last month, blaming state pressure.

He later withdrew his complaint of state pressure and issued another statement saying he was happy to sell to Deripaska.

The source close to the deal said on Tuesday the arrest warrant could cause problems because Gutseriyev's presence in the country could be needed to close the deal.

"First, I don't know whether the shares have already changed hands. If not, then the whole deal is at risk as one party can't continue negotiations," said the source.

"But even if shares have already been transferred, the development still represents big risks for the deal."

The deal was already complicated because earlier this month a Moscow court ordered the seizure of Russneft's shares as part of the tax evasion case.

Industry sources say Deripaska's plan may have encountered resistance from an interest group inside the Kremlin which wants to use the courts to nationalise Russneft.

The industry sources said the Kremlin group's plan was then to amalgamate Russneft's assets into a state major that could be built on the basis of state oil giant Rosneft, already the holder of nationalised assets of YUKOS.

Gutseriyev's 21-year-old son Chingizkhan died in a car accident last week. He was buried in the family's native region of North Ossetia in a Muslim ceremony and Kommersant newspaper reported Mikhail Gutseriyev attended it.

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