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MOSCOW (Mineweb.com) — In Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island”, the adventure begins with the approach of Blind Pew, emissary of Captain Flint’s pirate crew, to deliver the Black Spot, the verdict of death, to Billy Bones, the crewman who held Flint’s precious treasure map. In fear of his life, Bones was always on the alert for the tap-tapping of the blindman’s cane.

Russia’s new Minister for Natural Resources Yury Trutnev also holds the map of the national treasure, lying in the sub-soil for which the ministry has issued some 16,000 licences to dig. Trutnev, who was appointed minister in March, has used a handful of press oppoprtunities to express his keenness to release the map to the powerful Russian and foreign companies who called him for it. That was until this week, when Trutnev appears to have heard Blind Pew’s cane.

In a speech on July 12, for example, Trutnev – who built a business fortune importing Swiss foodstuffs to his home region of Perm, before becoming governor — announced that he wanted to cut the six-month time period currently required by Russian mining law for the tendering of major mineral deposits. Specifically referring to the long-delayed Sukhoi Log gold deposit in Irkutsk region, and the Udokan deposit in Chita, Trutnev announced that he was preparing an amendment to the law, shortening the tender period to 45 days.

“We cannot commission a lot of large deposits for the simple reason, that, under the current law, from the date of the announcement of tender conditions to the award, it is necessary to wait about one half-year,” Trutnev said, according to the text of his speech provided by the Ministry spokesman. “This is a very long time, and costly. We want to reduce this term to 45 days.” He went on to hint that the Sukhoi Log tender could be issued and awarded by the end of this year.

With 33 million ounces of gold in estimated reserves, Sukhoi Log is one of the largest unmined gold deposits in the world; for more than a decade it has been attracting worldwide interest among miners. In Russia, Norilsk Nickel has been keen to accelerate this tender, as principal shareholder, Vladimir Potanin, has been in a hurry to include Sukhoi Log in his plan to spin off his gold assets, and swap them in a transaction with an international miner to give him a protected foreign shareholding worth several billion dollars. Gold Fields was the target of this scheme until recently.

Norilsk Nickel denies lobbying Trutnev for fast-track enactment of the 45-day rule. Trutnev has said through a spokesman that he will not respond to questions. Almost exactly a year ago, Norilsk Nickel successfully lobbied another minister, Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, to push through parliament an amendment of the state secrets law to allow Norilsk Nickel to disclose its metal reserves publicly, as well as sales and production figures for platinum group metals. The State Duma approved the measure in a highly unusual three-reading vote in a single day. Although President Vladimir Putin followed by signing it into law in November, the Kremlin blocked implementation twelve weeks’ later, embarrassing Potanin’s plans to issue foreign bonds and raise other debt that required the disclosures he was no longer legally allowed to make. The measure is still suspended.

If Norilsk Nickel is shy about admitting to lobbying on the Sukhoi Log tender, its rivals in the race privately concede that they are tlying to persuade the government, including President Putin’s advisor on natural resources Vladimir Litvinenko, not to make the award to Norilsk Nicke. The Irkutsk regional administration, headed by Governor Boris Govorin, appeared to be backing Norilsk Nickel for a time, but it too has conceded that the final decision is out of its hands. In his July speech, Trutnev also claimed that he was opposed to excluding foreign miners from the bidding for Sukhoi Log. “We do not see the necessity to create a distinct ban on foreigners. Although there are situations when the state should protect the national interest in the sphere of natural resources usage, such situations should not be resolved by administrative methods, and should be required to be registered in the law.”

Trutnev’s remarks hinted at a significant difference on strategy with Litvinenko, whose official position is Rector of the St Petersburg State Mining Institute, the premier geology training academy of Russia. Before Trutnev’s appointment, Litvineko told Mineweb he favoured radical changes in current mining legislation and policy towards licensing. Calling for the adoption of a mineral and mining code “on the model of developed countries with a market economy”, Litvinenko said he also favoured limiting foreign investment to the processing segment of the resource sector. As for mining, he said he favoured “a system of privileges and preferences for the domestic companies.”

He also said that he is opposed to allowing foreign investors to take shareholding control of Russian mining enterprises. Sale of shares outside Russia can be allowed, Litvinenko said, but control should be vested in a “golden share” held by the Russian government. Applying this limit on divestment by the Russian oligarchs was urgent, he said, in the cases of “Gazprom, United Energy Systems, important petroleum companies, Norilsk Nickel, and many other companies.”

Since saying that, Litvineko has fallen silent. But all the indications are that a debate over strategy has been under way between him, Trutnev, and the leading natural resource companies. Anonymous leaks from Trutnev’s ministry have claimed that the new draft of the Sub-Soil legislation, with all the amendments Trutnev was promising in July, has been signed and approved by the government for despatch to parliament. But when asked to confirm this, Trutnev’s spokesman and staff at the Committee on Natural Resources at the Duma have said they cannot. Then Trutnev appears to have heard Blind Pew’s cane tap-tapping. It was a signal from the Kremlin that he could not ignore.

The first indication was an anonymous leak last week from the ministry claiming that the oilfield operating licences of Yuganskneftegas, the principal unit of the beleaguered Yukos oil company, could be revoked within two weeks on account of non-payment of taxes. This threat was clearly part of the Kremlin-led campaign against Yukos and its imprisoned shareholders, Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev, who are on trial for fraud. The company has already been convicted of tax evasion.

The legal requirements for licence revocation are much more complicated and time-consuming than the leak suggested; that was one reason the minister wanted to do what he was bidden, without having to explain himself.

Another anonymous leak from the ministry last week claimed that there would be no accelerated award of the Sukhoi Log tender; and that the earliest this could happen would be the second quarter of 2005.

Whether Trutnev himself was behind the leaks, or the Kremlin, the minister went public himself in Irkutsk on Wednesday. This time, he repeated the threat to yank the Yuganskneftegas licence, and added a new one, indicating that the TNK-BP group – which links oligarchs Mikhail Fridman and Victor Vekselberg with British Petroleum – might lose its licence to develop the Kovykta gas field.

Then Trutnev announced that the government intends postponing the Sukhoi Log tender until next year, and may bar foreigners from bidding. “The new natural resources law,” he is quoted as saying, “will include an option to limit foreign participation in tenders for unique deposits – such as Sukhoi Log and Udokan [copper deposit].” Clarifying that the backstage fight is not yet over, Trutnev went on to explain that the proposed changes to the legislation would be discussed by the cabinet of ministers next month thus confirming there is no official consensus yet on what should be sent to parliament.

Russians who have been dealing with Trutnev say he is much more commercially minded than his predecessors, and more energetic. Russian miners say they do not know who was behind his appointment. One believes he was the candidate of German Gref, Minister of Economic Development and Trade, whose ministry has often clashed with the Natural Resources Ministry in the past. Whether it was Gref, or a Kremlin official, or Litvinenko, who promoted Trutnev to his portfolio, it is now clear that Trutnev’s auditory facility has been under constant training since he took over.

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