Russian Government Ordered To Pay $50 Billion Settlement To Plundered Oil Company Shareholders. But Will They Pay?

By on August 2, 2014 in ArticlesEntertainment

The strange arrest, trial, conviction, and imprisonment of Mikhail Khodorkovsky are just the start of the story.  Consider the shady way in which Khodorkovsky was arrested, charged, and imprisoned. His legal team had been presenting his case before International Human Rights courts for nearly a decade. But beyond the personal treatment of Russia's former richest person, we have to consider his oil company Yukos. The Russian government under Putin systematically seized and destroyed that business – which was one of the largest in Russia with employees, shareholders, etc. Can you imagine? Yukos had five major shareholders and 30,000 employees.  Those employees had paychecks and benefits and pensions – all stolen by the Russian government. But it looks like these shareholders might be getting some restitution…

Khodorkovsky gained control of Yukos in the 1990s after perestroika and glasnost. Russia's move towards privatization of its economy allowed private citizens to run businesses.  The attack on Yukos was seen by many as the Kremlin's efforts to roll back the country's privatization. Others, including Yukos shareholders, saw Khodorkovsky's prison sentence and the systematic dismantling of the company to be the Russian government's way of punishing him for his political ambitions, particularly the way he supported Putin's liberal opponents, as well as  a way for the government to regain control of the oil and gas industry.

During the free-market rush of the early 1990s, the Russian government allowed a small handful of aggressive financiers and traders to take over much of the oil business that was formerly controlled by the state. Khodorkovsky, who had started a bank called Menatep, got control of Yukos in 1995 at auction for $300 million – a bargain basement price. The auction was largely considered to be rigged.  Khodorkovsky didn't have a background in energy, oil or gas, yet he revived the company by converting to Western drilling practices like water injection and fracking. From 1995 to 2003 the oil production at Yukos nearly doubled and made Khodorkovsky Russia's richest person with a net worth of $15 billion.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky

Mikhail Khodorkovsky / Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Then Khodorkovsky fell out of favor with Vladimir Putin. Khodorkovsky's political ambitions and fierce criticism of the Kremlin are said to have pissed off Putin.  In October 2003, Khodorkovsky was arrested. He served 10 years in jail on charges of embezzlement and tax fraud. He was pardoned by Putin in December 2013.

After Khodorkovsky was arrested, the Russian government set in action a course of moves that drove the worth of Yukos into the ground and then sold the company off. Not coincidentally, Yukos was picked up by Rosneft, the state-controlled oil company, for a bargain basement price. This also allowed Yukos to beef up its operations and challenge Gazprom, Russia's other big, private, energy company.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky

Mikhail Khodorkovsky / TATYANA MAKEYEVA/AFP/Getty Images

Now, an international court has awarded the Yukos shareholders more than $50 billion in a ruling that determined the Russian government wrongly seized the company from one of the country's most powerful oligarchs.  The judgment comes down from The Hague and is the largest ever award in international arbitration.

The ruling and award adds to the pressure currently on Russia, which is facing exceptional scrutiny from the U.S. and Europe as a result of the growing crisis in Ukraine.  The Yukos case also highlights the fact that under President Vladimir Putin's leadership, Russia has been on a mission to stifle opposition and ensure valuable assets are claimed and put under control of Kremlin insiders only.

The tribunal that considered the case consisted of three people who issued a 600-page ruling which portrayed the seizure and dismantling of Yukos as a politically driven campaign to strip Khodorkovsky, a known critic of the Kremlin, of power and wealth.

The panel said Russia "was not driven by motives of tax collection" in auctioning off a core business but "by the desire of the state to acquire Yukos' most valuable asset. In short, it was in effect a devious and calculated expropriation."

The $50 billion award was less than shareholders wanted, and may prove to be hard to collect. How does one collect a judgment from a country, especially when that country is Russia.  Attorneys for the shareholders said they fully expect the Russian government to balk at paying the award. Typically, the case will likely drag on for years.

However, if Russia doesn't pay, the lawyers have said they will go to court outside Russia, as they did in this case, to seize state-owned assets. That is a case of payback being a bitch, since that is essentially what Russia did to Yukos. The attorneys expect their strategy to focus on Rosneft, the state-owned oil conglomerate that bought Yukos after the government drove the company's valuation into the toilet.

The Russian Ministry of Finance indicated that it would appeal the tribunal's verdict. A payout of $50 billion, even spread out over many years, could further hurt Russia's already weak economic forecast.  The ruling could ultimately damage the country's ability to borrow in international markets. Though really, the Kremlin is already under threat of sanctions from the U.S. and Europe.

As part of the ruling, the tribunal did admit that Yukos was aggressive on their tax filings and it is possible that down the line they could have faced some legitimate claims from the Russian government.  Of course, down the line is one thing, falsely accusing and imprisoning man for things he has not yet done is another, which is essentially what Russia did to Khodorkovsky. The court said that Russia took advantage of Yukos' vulnerability in this area to "bankrupt Yukos and appropriate its assets while at the same time removing Mr. Khodorkovsky from the political arena."  Putin must have really seen Mikhail Khodorkovsky as a political threat.

Nonetheless, the ruling is considered a victory for shareholders.

Putin and Khodorkovsky

Putin and Khodorkovsky / STF/AFP/Getty Images

It is expected that Russia will apply to courts in the Netherlands, where the Hague is located, to set aside the verdict.  It is also possible that the shareholders would accept a settlement. After all, getting paid right away and up front is better than waiting on a traditionally corrupt government to pay up.

If Russia does not pay, it is expected that the Yukos shareholders will go after state-owned refineries, pipelines, and energy companies such as Rosneft and Gazprom.  Rosneft issued a statement after the verdict indicating that they purchased Yukos' assets fair and square.

Khodorkovsky has stated that he wants nothing to do with the settlement. He is currently residing in Europe and will not enter Russia again unless he is sure he will be able to leave. Smart man. I wouldn't trust a Putin ruled Russia if I were him either. In an emailed statement, he called the Yukos debacle an "unabashed plundering of a successful company by a mafia with links to the state."

Khodorkovsky turned over his stake in Yukos to one of his partners, Leonid Nevzlin in 2005.  Nevzlin owned 70 percent of Yukos at that point. The other key beneficiaries of the verdict  include former business associates of Mr. Khodorkovsky — Platon Lebedev, Vasily Shakhnovsky, Mikhail Brudno and Vladimir Dubov — who own 7.5 percent each, and the pension fund for about 30,000 former Yukos employees.

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