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TeliaSonera’s plans for Russian group at risk

12 апреля 2010

TeliaSonera, the Swedish mobile operator, is facing a threat to its ambitions in Russia as Alisher Usmanov, the billionaire oligarch, signals interest in a possible deal to fold Megafon into a state-owned telecoms group.

Mr Usmanov is resisting rival proposals by TeliaSonera, which owns a minority stake in Megafon, to seize joint control of Russia's number three mobile operator through an alliance with Altimo, the telecoms arm of Mikhail Fridman’s Alfa Group.

Instead, Mr Usmanov, the biggest shareholder in Megafon, could be open to merging the company with Rostelecom, part of state-owned Svyazinvest, according to the head of his telecoms investment unit.

Ivan Streshinsky, chief executive of Telecominvest, told the Financial Times that Megafon was a “good fit” for Svyazinvest, which dominates the Russian fixed-line network but lacks a presence in the mobile market. His comments will fuel speculation that the Kremlin wants to create a state-backed “national champion” in the telecoms industry, with Megafon at its heart, thwarting efforts by TeliaSonera to gain greater influence over its Russian investment.

Telecominvest last week filed a lawsuit aimed at blocking the proposed joint venture between TeliaSonera and Altimo, in which the two companies would pool their holdings in Megafon and Turkcell, the Turkish mobile operator. Altimo says it has not breached any laws.

Mr Usmanov controls 39 per cent of Megafon through Telecominvest and AF Telecom, while TeliaSonera owns 35.6 per cent and Altimo 25 per cent. Further complication is added by the 26 per cent stake that TeliaSonera owns in Telecominvest.

Mr Streshinsky said a tie-up between TeliaSonera and Altimo would violate Russian laws barring foreign state-owned companies controlling strategic Russian assets, including mobile phone operators. TeliaSonera is 37 per cent owned by the Swedish government, while the Finnish state holds just over 13 per cent. Under the proposed deal, TeliaSonera and Altimo would have equal control of their joint venture but the Nordic company would have the greater economic share.

Mr Streshinsky said the deal appeared designed primarily to solve a protracted ownership dispute involving Turkcell and offered no benefits to Megafon and its other shareholders.

Mr Usmanov was invited to join their venture but Mr Streshinsky said the proposal would dilute his ownership of Megafon by more than half. “That does not hold any interest for us.”

He also highlighted what he said were conflicts of interest between Altimo’s role in Megafon and its joint control of Vimpelcom, Russia’s biggest mobile operator, through an alliance with Telenor of Norway that was recently approved by regulators. “It would not be allowed by antitrust authorities in any western country,” he claimed.

Altimo says the two joint ventures would be independent of each other and would compete like any other companies.

Mr Streshinsky said Telecominvest would consider buying out TeliaSonera and Altimo from Megafon. Both companies said on Sunday said they had no plans to sell.

A spokeswoman for TeliaSonera said it remained committed to its deal with Altimo and insisted it could go ahead without Mr Usmanov’s backing, provided legal and regulatory hurdles were cleared.

Both companies stressed that work would not start on forming the joint venture before resolution of several lawsuits aimed at securing control of Turkcell from its founder Cukorova.

Источник: Financial Times

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