HOUSTON — The most important subsidiary of the Russian oil company Yukos was auctioned off on Dec. 19 to a little-known company, BaikalFinansGroup, for failure to pay its tax bills.

According to the New York Times, “The auction was reminiscent of the controversial, insider-led privatization deals conducted in the early 1990s — with murky financing, questionable bidding and unknown shell companies representing powerful financial groups and emerging as the winner of lucrative assets.”

BaikalFinansGroup won Yukos’ biggest asset, Yuganskneftegaz, with what observers called a low bid of $9.35 billion. Yuganskeftegaz pumps 11 percent of Russia’s oil and is thus regarded as a very rich prize.

Four days later, the state-owned Rosneft oil company bought BaikalFinansGroup for an undisclosed sum. Russian President Vladimir Putin said, “Today, the state — using absolutely legal, market mechanisms — is ensuring its interests. I consider this perfectly normal.”

As a result of these transactions, the ownership of this key oil-producing firm is once again passing into the hands of the state — a very different state, of course, than that of the former Soviet Union.

Yukos has what some might call a colorful history. Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky and his banking empire, Menatep, bought Yukos, Russia’s second largest oil company, in the chaos of the collapse of the USSR for $300 million in 1995. By the end of 2003, the oil company was worth $27 billion.

Today Khodorkovsky sits in prison. He was arrested in October 2003 on charges of personal tax evasion, fraud and embezzlement. A spokesman for the Russian prosecutor general’s office told Moscow News, “The way in which billions of rubles and dollars were so brazenly and shamelessly stolen is astonishing even to the most experienced prosecutors and investigators. … The sum of stolen money, property and unpaid taxes is … astronomical.”

Bruce Misamore, a U.S. citizen and Yukos’ chief financial officer, returned home to Houston on Dec. 4 and made a last ditch effort to thwart the auction. He asked U.S. bankruptcy judge Letitia Clark for Chapter 11 protection for Yukos and a temporary restraining order designed to block the ability of banks, including Deutsche Bank, to loan money to finance the sale of the subsidiary, according to the Houston Chronicle. He did this despite the fact that of the 100,000 Yukos employees, only one — Misamore — is based in Houston.

Such legal maneuvers appear to have failed, however.

On Dec. 28, the Russian news agency ITAR-TASS reported that Rosneft, Yuganskeftegaz’ new owner, will soon merge with Gazprom, a Russian state-owned natural gas company, although their assets will remain somewhat separate. The report said that 20 percent of Yuganskeftegaz’ shares might be sold to the China National Petroleum Corporation.

Other subsidiaries of Yukos are thought to be at risk for similar actions by the Russian government for failure to pay taxes. The Moscow Times reports that “mounting tax charges against Samaraneftegaz and Tomskneft indicate, analysts say, that these two units could soon be heading for the same fate as Yukos’ main production unit, Yuganskneftegaz.”

Rodger Baker, writing for Stratfor, offers this analysis: “We are now entering the post-Cold-War era, in which the Russian experiment with democracy and free markets has come, failed and gone. Gazprom’s state-funded quest to control the Russian energy market — be it oil, natural gas or electricity — marks a return to a centralized Russian economy, or at least a centrally controlled and state-owned oil and gas sector.”

It remains to be seen whether these actions by the Russian government will slow down or accelerate the continuing corruption and resulting impoverishment of the Russian working class seen since the collapse of the Soviet Union.