Head of Russia's Rosneft could be removed: sources

By Ekaterina Golubkova and Alexander Ershov

MOSCOW (Reuters) - The president of Russian oil producer Rosneft <ROSN.MM> could soon be replaced, industry sources said on Friday, little more than a week after the state company signed an Arctic offshore development deal with ExxonMobil <XOM.N>.

A Rosneft spokesman said Eduard Khudainatov was continuing work and dismissed what he called rumors.

Rosneft has been under pressure since the collapse of an earlier Arctic deal with BP <BP.L>, which was blocked by minority shareholders in the British oil company's Russian joint venture TNK-BP <TNBP.MM>.

The sources did not say whether Khudainatov's potential dismissal was linked to the failure of the BP deal, but said he had fallen out of favor with Deputy Prime Minister Sechin, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's oil tsar.

"(Deputy Prime Minister) Igor Ivanovich (Sechin) is dissatisfied with (Eduard) Khudainatov's actions," one of the sources said.

Another source close to Rosneft said Khudainatov's removal from the post, which he took up a year ago, could be discussed at a board meeting next week.

"People in Rosneft are discussing the possibility of his departure," the source said. "He was elected as a temporary person ... But the only problem is that there is no obvious candidate to replace him."

A Rosneft spokesman said: "These rumors are groundless."

Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for Putin, said "this looks like a rumor."

"The company's work is stable, the results are solid ... Let's remember the Exxon deal as an example. I think it is speculation," he said.

Khudainatov replaced Rosneft's long-serving chief, Sergei Bogdanchikov, last September. Bogdanchikov's contract was not extended after he lost the confidence of Sechin.

Western industry executives welcomed Khudainatov when he was appointed to replace Bogdanchikov, who was seen as a counterweight to Sechin.

Khudainatov, seen as close to Sechin, met a mixed response in the Russian energy industry, where loyalties are often divided among interest groups -- some loyal to Sechin and Putin, and others closer to President Dmitry Medvedev's camp.

But the sources said Western oil firms, including ExxonMobil, found it easier to deal with Rosneft than expected under Khudainatov and reported that he was willing to use his influence to help them resolve business problems.

Khudainatov's first deputy, Pavel Fedorov, who joined the company from Morgan Stanley, has been credited with much of the day-to-day running of Rosneft in recent months.

Fedorov has earned praise from industry insiders although he has limited experience in the energy sector.

(Additional reporting by Olesya Astakhova, Melissa Akin and Ludmila Zaramenskikh, editing by Timothy Heritage, Gary Hill)