French courts caught up in Yukos vs. Russia assets fight

PARIS – The fight between Russia’s government and magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s dismantled Yukos oil company has spread to courtrooms across Europe — and even into space.

France has seen multiple court cases in recent months that had entangled rocket and satellite builders and others, in Yukos’ efforts to recover money it says the Kremlin unfairly appropriated. Former Yukos shareholders won a key case in December, but the Russian state has chalked up several French legal victories since, including a multi-pronged ruling Friday in Paris involving half a billion dollars in assets.

Both sides are watching the French cases ahead of a higher-stakes decision in the Netherlands next week, involving a 2014 arbitration ruling ordering Russia to pay ex-Yukos shareholders $50 billion.

Russia doesn’t recognize that ruling, so shareholders have tried to seize Russian assets abroad, including in France.

The dispute dates to Khodorkovsky’s 2003 arrest on charges of tax evasion, embezzlement and money laundering that were seen as a punishment for challenging Vladimir Putin’s power. Yukos was destroyed and Khodorkovsky now lives in exile after 10 years in prison.

Lawyers for the Russian government say the recent decisions in France bode well for the broader Netherlands case. Representatives for Yukos shareholders argue that the cases have nothing to do with each other, and describe the latest French rulings as merely a hiccup in efforts to claw back Yukos assets.

Bailiffs hired by shareholder Hulley Enterprises seized 400 million euros last July that French company Eutelsat owed to Russian company RSCC for satellite co-operation deals.

A Paris court on Friday invalidated the seizure, according to a statement from RSCC. The judge Friday also annulled seizures at news agency RIA Novosti, now called Sputnik, and the Russian agency for management of state property abroad.

A different shareholder, Veteran Petroleum, ordered assets seized last year at France’s Arianespace, which owed hundreds of millions of euros to Russian state space agency Roscosmos involving rocket launches from French Guiana.

On Tuesday, a court in the Paris suburb of Evry invalidated that seizure. That same court in January invalidated an earlier seizure targeting Arianespace, by shareholder Hulley. The court found that Roscosmos is a separate legal entity from the Russian state and cannot be held accountable for any eventual debts owed by Russia.

Eutelsat and Arianespace have not commented on the decisions.

The French piece of this legal saga isn’t over, however. The Russian assets remain frozen because lawyers for the shareholders are appealing this week’s decisions — and proceedings are under way in nine other courts around France, according to GML, a holding company created for Yukos’ five major shareholders.

And the Russian government asked French courts last year to suspend all Yukos-related seizures in France — but the Paris appeals court said no. So GML says it will continue to seize assets. GML remains hopeful it can get the $50 billion, though acknowledges it could take years.

“This is not yet the end of the story and, perhaps, there will be its continuation but we have won this stage. This is how we are safeguarding our interests and will continue doing so,” Roscosmos spokesman Igor Burenkov said after Tuesday’s ruling, according to the Tass news agency.

Khodorkovsky himself is not seeking damages because he transferred his assets to business associates.