YUKOS: TIME TO DODGE TAXES, AND TIME TO PAY TAXES

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MOSCOW, October 28 (Nina Kulikova, RIA Novosti economic analyst) - The Federal Tax Service has authorised the Yukos-at last-to transfer back taxes to federal accounts. At least, rumour says it has. As we heard yesterday, banks whose client the drowning mammoth has received letters from the Service. As the messages explained, the alarming account-freezing resolution did not concern fiscal payments, so bankers are free to operate Yukos accounts within those limits.

Yukos assets and accounts are presently under arrest, and the Yuganskneftegas, biggest Yukos production branch, will be shortly auctioned off to cope with back taxes. The Tax Service interregional inspection for principal taxpayers ordered all Yukos account operations frozen, and the order has been acting till these days, with more than 600 million US dollars accumulated on the taboo accounts.

The petroleum giant will be able to pay its $3.4 billion taxes for 2000 quite soon, is general opinion. The Yukos has paid 3.2 billion of this for today, and will easily add the rest out of its involuntary savings. Back taxes for 2000-01 make 7.4 billion dollars.

The Tax Service has authorised certain Yukos operations to have its accounts cleared and so receive the arrears, say experts. If all operations stay frozen, account confiscation will naturally follow-to be promptly challenged at the law court. The Service had to arrest the accounts to prevent the company transferring money for other purposes. Now, the Yukos has got some elbowroom to pay the rest of its back taxes. Authorities will also gain by cutting the scope of expected litigation.

The situation, in fact, remains its harsh self. The Yukos may any day face another several billion dollar demand, now for 2002 arrears-most probably equal to the two preceding years' total. Unpaid arrears will make something like seven billion dollars, approaching its lump capitalisation, remarks the Prospect investment company.

Authorities stay ina dispute with Yukos minority holders. The US Department of State came up with criticism, last week. Another protest came from Sweden this week. Sven Hirdman, once Swedish Ambassador to Russia, addressed a written statement to the Ministry of Economic Development and Trade on behalf of Swedish dealers whose summary portfolio investment in Russia exceeds $3 billion. The investors fully see the Russian government's point-it is anxious to ensure fiscal revenues from tax-dodging corporations. The Swedes, however, don't think Russian officials will hit their target with the methods they have chosen. They suspect judicial authorities have other ends in view than securing back taxes. Swedish investors think international law courts alone can help them to recover their money. The Yukos controversy has prejudiced the global business community against Russia, which may hamper its further incorporation in the world economy, warns the statement.

Overseas investors' concerns are understandable-they hardly expected judicial proceedings against a company to drop its capitalisation so drastically. The letter we mentioned cannot be regarded to express another country's government opinion-Mr. Hirdman wrote it as private person. He is, however, close enough to his country's top to view his address as a transparent hint of the government backing Swedish investors.

Russian authorities shrug off international pressure to go on with their game. Many VIPs have lately spoken up on the Yukos affair. True, developments round the Yukos are not too good for Russia, but they are necessary to bring its economy into order, says Hermann Gref, Minister of Economic Development and Trade. It would be surely better if the controversy had not started at all-but it would be better still if all were duly paying taxes to avoid clashes with law enforcement agencies, he remarked on the occasion. The minister called for the utmost transparency of further Yukos-related proceedings, and said they ought to base on market rules. "Yukos bankruptcy is not coming up, as far as I know," he added.

If the Yukos is eventually forced into selling its assets, that will be done with the greatest possible publicity, reassures Igor Shuvalov, President Vladimir Putin's aide. The state is to do all it can to have an open Yugansk auction. "The state's stance on the Yukos has not changed," he says.

Be all that as it may, Russia has not lost its attraction in overseas investors' eyes. Western corporate interest in the Russian economy has not shrunken with the Yukos affair-suffice it to mention many contracts the Russian government made with the West's leading companies last summer, points out Victor Khristenko, Russia's Minister of Industry and Energy.

The Yukos problem is no obstacle to Russian-US talks on Russia to join the World Trade Organisation, and it would certainly be wrong to think that one company's plight can badly hamper those talks, says Thomas Donaghue, US Chamber of Commerce president.

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