Telenor and Alfa frozen out in Siberia

28 Oct 2008

Telenor of Norway has reacted angrily to the news that a court in Omsk in Siberia has arrested its 29.9% stake in Russia’s number two cellular operator Vimpelcom. ‘If this is true, it is an outrageous decision, which we intend to overturn using all available means,’ Jan Edvard Thygesen, head of Telenor’s operations in Central and Eastern Europe, said in a company statement.

The court decision stems from an earlier lawsuit filed by British Virgin Islands-registered company Farimex relating to Vimpelcom’s operations in Ukraine. In August the Khanty-Mansiysk Arbitration Court ruled that Telenor was liable to pay USD2.8 billion damages for delaying Vimpelcom’s entry into the Ukraine mobile market. Telenor has appealed that decision and the appeal is due in court on 18 November. ‘We see absolutely no reason for the Omsk court to arrest Telenor’s Vimpelcom shares ahead of the scheduled appeals hearing,’ Thygesen said.

The Omsk court has also frozen a 44% stake in Vimpelcom held by Russian industrial group Alfa via its telecoms arm Altimo, and Telenor believes that Alfa may be behind the latest court ruling. In 2007 Alfa used its Vimpelcom stake as collateral against loans with Deutsche Bank totalling USD2 billion. A recent slide in Vimpelcom’s share price has seen the value of shares drop below the level at which the bank can impose a margin call on the loan. Telenor suggests that Alfa has colluded with other Vimpelcom shareholders to have the shares frozen in order to protect its stake in the cellco ahead of the margin call. ‘The timing of the arrest and the inclusion of Altimo’s shares strongly suggests that there were other motives for this arrest, and we believe this is yet another of Alfa’s collusive actions. There are already media reports that this is meant to prevent Alfa’s creditors from getting access to Alfa’s shares. If that is the case, it could limit other Russian companies’ ability to obtain loans from international banks for many years to come. We feel confident that Russian authorities will look into the matter immediately,’ said Thygesen.

Russia, Beeline (Russia), Telenor Group, VEON