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Europe: Telenor versus Alfa Group

05 июня 2009

Of all the relationships within the telecoms industry, few are more strained than that between Norwegian operator Telenor and Russia's Alfa Group.

The pair have been at loggerheads over their various shared subsidiaries in Eastern Europe for a number of years, with ongoing court cases making headlines on a monthly basis.

In recent weeks the situation has reached boiling point, with Telenor now facing the enforced sale of its stake in Russian operator Vimpelcom, a move that, while legal, would send shockwaves through the investment community in Russia.

This week the Moscow City Arbitrazh Court denied the Norwegian telco's appeal to have the enforcement of its $1.7 billion fine put on hold until its appeal against that fine has been heard. The fine was imposed by a Siberian court in February, after a fellow shareholder in Russian mobile operator Vimpelcom accused Telenor of damaging Vimpelcom's interests in the Ukraine.

In a nutshell, Wednesday's decision means that bailiffs can progress with plans to sell Telenor's stake in Vimpelcom in order to pay off the fine.

Telenor holds a 33.6% equity stake in Vimpelcom and 29.9% voting rights, while Alfa Group holds 44% of Vimpelcom's voting share (37% of common shares). Telenor owns 56.5% of Ukrainian mobile operator Kyivstar, while Alfa owns 43.5%.

The disputed damages claim is just the tip of the iceberg. A complex cross-ownership row in the Ukraine dating back several years is still ongoing. A U.S. arbitration tribunal ruled in favour of Telenor in mid-2007 and ordered Alfa Group to either sell its shares in Kyivstar or dispose of its holdings in rival companies. That has yet to happen, and in March this year a U.S. court once again levied hefty fines on the parties involved for failure to comply, and the situation seems to be far from resolved.

And the companies have also engaged in a substantial amount of mud-slinging, including allegations of insider trading, over the years.

But the current phase – that centres on the disputed damages claim - of the battle royale between Telenor and Alfa Group dates back just over a year, as our timeline demonstrates.

21 March 2008
Alfa Group subsidiary Eco Telecom commences arbitration proceeding against Telenor in Geneva, claiming the Norwegian company caused harm to Vimpelcom (and consequently to Eco Telecom) by delaying by a year Vimpelcom's 2005 acquisition of small Ukrainian mobile operator Ukrainian Radio Systems (URS).

Eco Telecom claims damages of US$1 billion.

Vimpelcom paid $231.3 million for URS in a deal that closed in November 2007. Telenor insists it opposed the acquisition because it was vastly overpriced and made no business sense.

14 April 2008
Minority Vimpelcom shareholder Farimex Products files lawsuit against Telenor in Khanty-Mansiysk business court in Siberia. This suit also alleges that Telenor damaged Vimpelcom by delaying its acquisition of URS, and by blocking its planned 2006 purchase of Kyivstar from Telenor and Alfa.

Farimex holds a stake of 0.002% in Vimpelcom. It claims damages of $3.8 billion.

20 June 2008
Telenor requests the US Federal District Court in New York to stop Farimex from pursuing its lawsuit in Khanty-Mansiysk. Telenor claims that Farimex is an affiliate of and is acting on behalf of Alfa Group and therefore asks for Farimex's suit to be heard alongside that of Eco Telecom in Geneva.

Alfa denies that it is affiliated with Farimex.

8 August 2008
Farimex increases size of its damages claim to over $5.7 billion.

16 August 2008
Court in Khanty-Mansiysk finds in favour of Farimex and holds Telenor liable for $2.82 billion plus costs.

Telenor insists case has no merit, reiterating claims that Fairmex is affiliated to Alfa Group

19 December 2008
Telenor appeals $2.8 billion fine at Eighth Arbitrazh Appellate Court in Omsk, Siberia.

29 December 2008
Siberian court cancels $2.8 billion judgment issued against Telenor, but says it will reconsider case from the beginning.

20 February 2009
After re-examining Farimex case, Siberian court holds Telenor liable for damages of $1.7 billion.

4 March 2009
Telenor appeals ruling. Says it has no intention of ever paying damages.

Case to be heard by Federal Arbitrazh Court for the West Siberian District in Tyumen.

12 March 2009
Russian bailiffs working on behalf of Farimex arrest Telenor's shares in Vimpelcom.

3 April 2009
Bailiffs officially serve Telenor with $1.7 billion damages claim. Telenor given five days to pay sum voluntarily.

8 April 2009
Telenor files complaint with Moscow court to prevent its shares in Vimpelcom from being forcibly sold by bailiffs before its appeal against damages claim is heard.

14 April 2009
Moscow Arbitration Court postpones Telenor's appeal to prevent bailiffs from selling its Vimpelcom stake to 30 April. Subsequent adjournments follow on 30 April, 6 May, 8 May. Case to be heard 3 June.

28 April 2009
Federal Arbitrazh Court of the West Siberian District in Tyumen rejects similar appeal from Telenor to prevent bailiffs selling its Vimpelcom stake before damages claim appeal is heard.

7 May 2009
Ukrainian antimonopoly committee opens investigation into Farimex's claims against Telenor.

14 May 2009
Telenor challenges $1.8 billion valuation placed on Vimpelcom shares by RTS exchange. Telenor submits objection to the Moscow Federal Bailiff Service claiming valuation is too low in light of recent stock rally.

Telenor also files appeal with Moscow Arbitration Court against a fine payable to Russian state, relating to same damages ruling. Fine can be up to 7% of the value of overall damages claim, which in this case would be $120 million.

22 May 2009
Russian bailiffs seek advice on sale of Telenor's stake in Vimpelcom, including writing to stock exchange for a valuation. Bailiffs can legally sell the shares before all appeals have been heard.

26 May 2009
Federal Arbitrazh Court adjourns Telenor's $1.7 billion damages appeal; will resume on 10 June.

3 June 2009
Moscow City Arbitrazh Court denies Telenor's request to stay enforcement proceedings begun by bailiffs.

This battle is some way from being over.

Telenor has described the various lawsuits as "attempts to steal our Vimpelcom shares with the aid of Russian courts," while legal professionals have also questioned the impartiality of the Russian courts, noting that a weak court system backed by the tacit support of the Kremlin means that foreign investors' interests are overlooked in favour of local firms.

It seems unlikely that bailiffs will manage to sell Telenor's Vimpelcom shares before the damages claim appeal is heard, although whether the appeal hearing goes ahead as planned on 10 June remains to be seen.

Although the Russian legal system appears to make it difficult for overseas companies like Telenor, the enforced sale of Telenor's Vimpelcom shares would be bad news for the investment climate in the country as a whole, since it would doubtless dissuade would-be overseas investors from operating there.

Thus a compromise seems the most likely result, although the nature of such a compromise is anyone's guess at this stage.


Источник: Total Telecom

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