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Russia: Key Yukos Shareholder Found Guilty of Tax Evasion - 2004-02-05

A key shareholder in Russia's largest oil company, Yukos, has been found guilty of tax evasion, but was given a suspended sentence. Analysts say the ruling, the first in the high-profile criminal case, could be a sign tensions between the Russian government and Yukos are easing.

Moscow's central district court found the former head of Yukos' Moscow subsidiary, Vasily Shakhnovsky, guilty of tax evasion, but cleared him of a lesser charge of fraud.

The court sentenced Shakhnovsky to a one-year suspended sentence, due to what it called changed circumstances. Mr. Shakhnovsky's lawyer, Genrikh Pavda, expressed satisfaction with the verdict, and said his client does not intend to appeal the ruling.

Mr. Pavda quoted the court's decision as saying Mr. Shakhnovsky was set free because he resigned from Yukos and did not represent a threat to society.

Mr. Shakhnovsky, a major Yukos shareholder, was charged with failing to pay about $1 million in taxes between 1998 and 2000 and forging documents.

Russian media speculated it was also because Mr. Shakhnovsky has since paid the back taxes and penalties.

The former chief executive of Yukos, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and another key shareholder Platon Lebedev, are in jail awaiting trial on similar charges of tax evasion and fraud. Three other shareholders who fled Russia late last year are wanted by Interpol.

Thursday's ruling resulted in Yukos stocks posting modest gains for the first time in weeks.

Analyst James Fenkner, with Moscow's Troika Dialogue brokerage, says he views the Shakhnovsky ruling as a positive sign the government may be moving toward resolving the case.

"Shakhnovsky was charged, and lost his case in terms of tax evasion, but was able to walk [avoid prison] due to 'changes in conditions,' and that he has 'ceased to be a threat to society.' Those are the types of terms - 'changes in conditions' and 'ceases to be a threat to society' - that would also potentially matter to any of the other core shareholders of Yukos, specifically Khodorkovsky," said James Fenkner.

Mr. Fenkner, and at least one other analyst with a major Moscow brokerage firm, say more deals may be struck in days ahead. But several other analysts have said they expect little real movement on Mikhail Khodorkovsky's case, until after Russia's presidential elections in March.

Critics say the case against Yukos is politically motivated and linked to Mr. Khodorkovsky's financing of opposition candidates in last year's parliamentary elections. The Kremlin denies the charge, and President Putin has said all people must be equal before the law.