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Will Medvedev's Russia tread more lightly on business?

The intense state scrutiny of private oil firm TNK-BP, now facing an environmental review, echoes Putin-era takeovers. The president-elect is reputedly more liberal.

Under fire: Russia's fourth-largest oil firm, TNK-BP (the 'THK' above is the Cyrillic spelling), was raided March 19.

Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters

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Another private oil company, the Russian-British joint venture TNK-BP, is reeling under successive attacks by police and government agencies, in a pattern reminiscent of previous state-sponsored takeovers.

The continuing troubles for Russia's fourth-largest petroleum firm are fueling a debate over whether the imminent change of Kremlin leaders from Vladimir Putin to the reputedly more liberal Dmitri Medvedev holds out hope for genuine reform.

The answer to a key question – the future power dynamic between President-elect Medvedev and his presumed prime minister, Mr. Putin – is expected to come into focus at the ruling United Russia party's ninth conference Tuesday.

On the cusp of this upcoming transition, the case of TNK-BP – which this week faces a state environmental review at its biggest oil field – suggests that little has changed at the top so far.

Over the past five years, about a third of Russia's oil production has been effectively renationalized, often in legally murky ways, and accompanied by baldly partisan actions by state agencies.

Mr. Medvedev, who has been chairman of the state-run natural gas monopoly Gazprom since 2001, has raised hopes that this era might be coming to a close.

"Respecting private property should become one of the foundations of state policy," he said in a February speech. And he decried the wave of "raiding," in which private assets are purloined by a few favored businessmen, often with the aid of corrupt police and officials. "As before, the illegal seizure of businesses has a mass scale. I consider it necessary to quickly pass antiraiding laws," he added.

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