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  Business / Legislation

Tuesday, Sep. 4, 2001. Page 5

Miller Tightens Grip on Gazprom

By Torrey Clark
Staff Writer

Alexei Miller did some major housecleaning on his 100th day as CEO of Gazprom, sacking the right-hand man of his predecessor and installing a fellow St. Petersburger to run the company "treasury" Gazprombank.

At an operational meeting Monday, Miller ousted deputy CEO Vyacheslav Sheremet, who together with Miller's predecessor, Rem Vyakhirev, presided over what even President Vladimir Putin acknowledged as massive asset stripping that made Gazprom synonymous with bad corporate governance.

On the same day, Gazprom, which controls 97 percent of its pocket bank Gazprombank, voted to fire Vyakhirev crony Viktor Tarasov as the bank's CEO. Deputy Finance Minister Yury Lvov, former head of Bank St. Petersburg and Putin's pointman on anti-money-laundering legislation, replaced Tarasov.

Analysts said the two-pronged move -- Miller's first major one since he ousted Vyakhirev in a boardroom coup orchestrated by Putin in May -- further tightened his, and the government's, control over the company's cash flows.

"Sheremet used to control the bank accounts. Who controls them going forward is the key to whether this is a sign of more reform at Gazprom," said William Browder, managing director of Hermitage Capital Management and an outspoken defender of minority shareholders in Gazprom and other natural monopolies.

"It is a tradition that people are judged by their first 100 days. On the last day, Miller got rid of Sheremet, Vyakhirev's heir," said Ivan Mazalov, oil and gas analyst at Troika Dialog.

Miller transferred Sheremet's duties to Pyotr Rodionov, a deputy CEO and "one of the least controversial figures under Vyakhirev," according to Mazalov.

Miller also swept away three other Vyakhirev associates at Gazprom: Alexander Pushkin, Nikolai Guslisty and Yury Goryainov, the former deputy CEOs in charge of exports to the Commonwealth of Independent States and the Baltics, procurement, and capital expenditures and construction, respectively.

Yury Komarov, the head of exports to Europe, takes over the CIS and Baltics briefs, while Sergei Lukash replaces Guslisty and Mikhail Axelrod replaces Goryainov.

Gazprom said in a statement the move was aimed at better coordinating its export policy to Europe, the CIS and the Baltics, as well as potential Asian markets, especially China, Reuters reported.

Analysts praised the developments as the first step in the right direction, but cautioned that the company had a long way to go to reach corporate respectability.

"It is a small step on a very, very long journey. But you have to cheer every step," said Steve Dashevsky, oil and gas analyst at Aton. "Gazprom is too big for its own good. Before it was run in the interests of the managers, then the government, then the shareholders. Now it is run in the interests of the government. It will be a while before it is run for the shareholders," he said.

"The easiest way to stop misuse of assets is to take firm control over all of the financial flows. The way you do it is take control of the bank, which is Gazprombank, and you also replace the guy in charge of the financial unit, which used to be Sheremet," Dashevsky said.

Gazprombank had capital of $570 million and assets of $3.2 billion as of July 1, according to Interfax Rating Agency. Although Gazprom itself is not a major borrower, eight Gazprom business partners account for about 68 percent of the bank's 48.7 billion ruble ($1.7 billion) loan portfolio. "This risk concentration is enormous," said Interfax Rating Agency deputy chief Mikhail Matovnikov.

"Now they need to take action. Clearing out the older members of management and the Vyakhirev team was the first step, and clearly Sheremet was a very big part of that team. ... Now the path is clear. It's like what Putin did when he came to power in terms of the Russian state," said James Henderson, head of research at Renaissance Capital.

"Everyone is waiting for something in the ring fence from the commission and, as we go towards December, more and more about whether Gazprom will be broken up, how the restructuring of the whole sector will take place. These are really the burning issues. The management issue is a positive sign ... but what everyone wants to know is what action is the government going to take," said Henderson.

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