Bailiffs on August 31 raided the offices of BP in Moscow, seeking documents on its failed deal with Rosneft, the latest chapter in the British energy giant's troubled history in Russia.
The search came less than a day after Rosneft and ExxonMobil agreed a stunning Arctic exploration deal overseen by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin which analysts said should effectively replace a now defunct BP accord.
The bailiffs said that the raid was conducted in line with a ruling by an arbitration court in the Siberian region of Tyumen, which is hearing a case over the Rosneft deal that collapsed in May.
"The agents are looking at all the files for documents relevant to the ruling of the arbitration court of the Tyumen region," the bailiffs said in a statement, quoted by the RIA Novosti news agency.
The court earlier this year agreed to hear a case from minority shareholders in the holding company of BP's Russian joint venture TNK-BP over the collapse of the planned mega-deal between BP and state-run Rosneft.
The shareholders are claiming that TNK-BP suffered losses of 87 billion rubles (US$3 billion) as a result of the protracted disintegration of the BP-Rosneft joint venture.
In London, BP confirmed that its "Russian offices in Moscow were raided by the Russian bailiff's service today in relation to an order from the court in Tyumen." It said there was no "legitimate basis" for the court case against BP or the raid. The legal entity searched in the raid -- the BP Exploration Operating Company Ltd -- had no connection to the Tyumen process, BP added.
"Its work is being illegally interfered with," the company said.
The Interfax news agency said that all employees had been requested to leave the building in central Moscow and go home, with the exception of top executives and lawyers.
The searches could take until the end of the week, Interfax quoted the head of BP Russia Jeremy Huck as saying.
Rosneft's deal with BP was initially hailed as a historic breakthrough that would see the two firms found a joint venture for Arctic exploration and take a cross-holding. But it collapsed after BP's partners in TNK-BP -- a group of Russian oligarchs -- made a legal complaint that the Rosneft deal infringed their own shareholder pact with the British firm.
The claim at the Tyumen court is led by TNK-BP Holding minority shareholder Andrei Prokhorov, who some analysts suspect is merely acting as cover for the Russian oligarchs although this has not been confirmed.
Dmitry Chepurenko, one of Prokhorov's lawyers, told the Interfax news agency that BP had failed to present documents that were needed for the inquiry. "If the documents are there, they will be confiscated and transferred to the Tyumen arbitration court."
BP has had a chequered history in Russia, even before this year's Rosneft saga. It was involved in a bruising power struggle with the authorities and the oligarchs over control of the venture that ended with TNK-BP's then chief Robert Dudley being booted out of Russia in 2008. In an astonishing irony, Dudley is now BP's overall chief executive and had championed the Rosneft deal to revive the firm after the Gulf of Mexico oil spill last year.
That deal was seen as an example of BP's pragmatism in dealing with the Kremlin, as it set aside any bitterness from the 2008 row and moral qualms over Rosneft's hoovering-up of the assets of the defunct Yukos oil giant.
The agreement between Rosneft and ExxonMobil now looks set to dash any lingering hope that BP had of reaching an agreement with Russia's largest oil firm.
Both BP and Exxon had in the past held talks over a tie-up with Yukos, which was broken up by the state after the arrest of its CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky who was convicted of fraud and remains in prison to this day.
According to analysts at IHS Global Insight, the timing of the BP raid is likely just a coincidence but one which highlights the "U.S. company's rising fortunes in Russia against the failing luck of the British giant."
Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2011