Lukoil announced in a brief statement that it is selling its network of 44 filling stations in the Czech Republic to Slovnaft, the Slovak subsidiary of Hungary's MOL Group. It added that its 75 stations in Hungary and 19 in Slovakia would both be purchased by Hungary's Norm Benzinkut Kft.
The buyers are carefully hand picked and the transactions were done in record braking short time, which decries a sense of urgency and conditionalities.
Several possible explanations are on the table and some carry ominous connocations. Given the fact that Lukoil’s CEO Vagit Alekperov is a member of the close circle of Putin, it is likely that the action follows instructions or suggestion from the top. He might have been tipped on turbulent times coming, possibly an pending army operation in East Ukraine to deny the Ukranian army full control and protect the pro-Russian separatist. Such an action will trigger a new wave of anti-Russian sentiments all across Ukraine and East Europe.
Hence the decision of Lukoil's top management to de-russify the ownership flag at the filling stations chain, thus sparing violent public reactions to symbols of Russian business presence.
Why Romania and Bulgaria are not on the list?
Two explanations – one, Lukoil owns much more than downstream assets - it owns refineries that are considered of strategic importance and are not easy to dispose of. He might also believe that there have enough political assets and levers on the ground in these two Balkan EU members to protect them in the case of further escalation of tension in Ukraine.
Most observers believe that Lukoil, as a private company, would have been spared the US and EU sanctions lists. Obviously Alekperov’s is of a different opinion.
With record high 75 billion dollars in the first 6 month of 2014 capital flight – twice the amount from same period of last year – and Putin and Medvedev both openly talking of raising taxes it is clear that the Russian business elite has read the new mood at the Kremlin - bring home cash and get ready for battle.