Following last week’s raids on the Moscow offices of TNK-BP, the 50/50 joint venture between British Petroleum and three Russian oligarchs, the Federal Security Service (FSB) filed industrial espionage charges against Ilya Zaslavsky, a TNK-BP employee, and his brother Alexander, who heads the Alumni Club of the British Council, the organization that acts as the British Embassy’s cultural arm and that earlier this year was ordered by Russia’s Foreign Ministry to close its offices in St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg. Then, on March 21, Russia’s Natural Resources Ministry announced that it would investigate TNK-BP’s largest oil field, the Samotlor field in western Siberia. The ministry said the probe would be led by Oleg Mitvol, the deputy head of the ministry’s environmental watchdog, whose campaign against Shell for purported environmental violations at Sakhalin-2 ended after Shell and its Japanese partners agreed to sell a controlling stake in the project to Gazprom, Russia’s state-controlled energy giant (Moscow Times, March 24).
On one level, these actions would appear to be a signal that the Anglo-Russian tensions sparked by the murder of former FSB officer Alexander Litvinenko and London’s subsequent murder charges against ex-KGB employee Andrei Lugovoi have not subsided. The moves against TNK-BP might also be interpreted as a signal to foreign governments and investors alike that Russia is tightening control over its energy market. On top of all this – and perhaps most significantly – some Russian observers say that the developments surrounding TNK-BP may also be connected to an intensifying under-the-carpet battle between Russia’s ruling clans.
The moves against TNK-BP can be seen as benefiting Gazprom. Last year, TNK-BP was forced to sell its giant Kovykta gas field in east Siberia to Gazprom after the government accused TNK-BP of violating license terms. Last week’s raids, industrial espionage charges, and impending investigation of TNK-BP could be a prelude to its takeover by Gazprom.
But if the moves against TNK-BP benefit Gazprom, it does not necessarily follow that they also benefit Russia’s president-elect, Dmitry Medvedev. Indeed, while Medvedev is currently chairman of Gazprom’s board, he declared last December when he registered as a presidential candidate that he will step down as Gazprom’s board chairman if elected president, given that a person elected president “can’t hold another post under current legislation” (Bloomberg, December 20, 2007). Many observers believe that Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov will become Gazprom’s next board chairman after Vladimir Putin replaces him in the prime minister’s post. Zubkov is widely seen as both a Putin loyalist and an official closely linked to the siloviki,” the group informally led by Igor Sechin, the current Kremlin deputy chief of staff and board chairman of the Rosneft state oil company, which is in competition with and hostile to Medvedev and his allies.
In addition, it is by no means clear that the moves against TNK-BP and the consequent worsening of Anglo-Russian relations are in Medvedev’s interests, given that Moscow and London are reportedly working on plans for Medvedev and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown to hold a bilateral meeting at the Group of Eight summit in Japan this July (Financial Times, March 20).
Thus, some analysts believe the moves against TNK-BP were instigated by the siloviki and aimed, at least in part, at undermining Medvedev. As Svetlana Samoilova wrote in a commentary for the Politcom.ru website, the situation surrounding TNK-BP may “harm” Medvedev in the context of his planned meeting with Gordon Brown. “Obviously, he will have to answer a number of inconvenient questions: the actions of the FSB here are not very appropriate and thus far look not altogether convincing,” she wrote, adding that the moves against TNK-BP “may be connected to the inter-clan conflicts within the Russian elite.” She added that the “campaign against TNK-BP … can be regarded as an attempt by the ‘power group’ in the Putin entourage to make its presence felt in the areas of Russian-British relations and Gazprom’s collaboration with TNK, which are important for Medvedev” (Politcom.ru, March 21).
It is also worth noting that the moves against TNK-BP came just several days after officials of the Investigative Committee searched Finance Ministry offices and seized documents in connection with the criminal case against Deputy Finance Minister Sergei Storchak, who is accused of embezzlement (Gazeta.ru, March 18). Storchak’s arrest last year was widely seen as a move by the siloviki against Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, a relative “liberal” and Medvedev ally.
Ekho Moskvy radio correspondent Saken Aimurzaev said that both the search of the Finance Ministry offices and the moves against TNK-BP suggest that Russia’s political system is developing along lines similar to that of Iran – which, he noted, at one point had a government headed by a relatively liberal president, Mohammad Khatami, while the real power was held (and continues to be held) by the country’s “spiritual leader,” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Aimurzaev suggested that Medvedev, as Russia’s president, will have a role analogous to Khatami’s, while V. Putin, as Russia’s prime minister and “national leader,” will have a role analogous to Khamenei’s (“Vlast,” RTVi, Ekho Moskvy, March 21).