Norwegian mobile operator Telenor received a major shock this week when it discovered, via a press release, that a Siberian appeals court had ordered the 'arrest' of its 29.9 per cent shareholding in Russia's second biggest mobile operator Vimpelcom. The court in Omsk froze the shares following a lawsuit by a Vimpelcom minority shareholder, the British Virgin Islands-registered Farimex. In addition to freezing Telenor's shares in Vimpelcom, the court also arrested the 44 per cent stake of fellow shareholder Altimo, the telecoms arm of Mikhail Fridman's Alfa Group.
There have been problems at Vimpelcom for some months. In April Farimex filed a suit claiming damages against Telenor for holding back Vimpelcom's planned expansion into the Ukraine. The court found Telenor to be at fault and awarded US$2.8 billion in damages. This decision is being appealed by Telenor, who says the ruling is absurd and without merit, and a hearing is due in November.
This move by Farimex seems to be linked with Altimo's ongoing discussions with the Deutsche Bank. Altimo pledged its Vimpelcom holding as collateral for US$2 billion worth of bonds issued by Eco Telecom but when the Vimpelcom share price fell heavily Altimo had to institute restructuring negotiations with the Deutsche Bank. Jan Edvard Thygesen, EVP and head of Telenor's operations in Central and Eastern Europe commented, "We see absolutely no reason for the Omsk court to arrest Telenor's VimpelCom shares ahead of the scheduled appeals hearing, 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."
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