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Unknown Buyer Bids $9 Billion for Key Yukos Unit

Russia has sold the largest asset of the giant Yukos oil company to a mystery corporation that could be a front for the state-controlled natural gas monopoly Gazprom.

Baikal Finance Group, whose existence was previously unknown, bid more than $9 billion for Yukos' main oil-production subsidiary, Yuganskneftegaz, at an auction in Moscow Sunday. It must come up with full payment in two weeks, or the Russian government can seize the property to help pay Yukos' taxes.

Gazprom was expected to bid for the Yukos subsidiary, but its arrangement to have Western banks finance the purchase evaporated after a U.S. court tried to halt the auction. Baikal Finance Group's unexpected bid led many analysts of the Russian energy industry to conclude that it is a shell company representing either Gazprom or President Vladimir Putin's government.

Yukos executives contend the auction was illegal, and say they will fight for control of the oil-pumping company.

The bid price is said to be less than half the property's true value, but it is an even smaller fraction of Yukos' $27 billion tax bill. Yukos' problems are seen as the result of a Kremlin campaign to crush the political ambitions of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the company's chief stockholder, who is now in jail awaiting trial for fraud and tax evasion.