MOSCOW (Reuters) - An intractable dispute over control of telecoms group Vimpelcom VIP.N resurfaced on Tuesday as comments by Norway’s Telenor (TEL.OL) over the Russian company’s ownership were challenged by two of its major co-investors.
Telenor had said on Monday that Alfa spoke for the biggest stake in Vimpelcom on the basis of lumping its holding together with that of Ukraine-based EastOne, a suggestion which Alfa and EastOne rejected with a threat of legal action.
The ownership issue is important given Russian regulatory pressure for Russia-based Alfa’s holding to match Vimpelcom’s foreign investors, because of the strategic importance of a company which holds a quarter of Russia’s mobile market.
The latest argument comes after a years-long wrangle over control and strategy at Vimpelcom, a dispute that has typified the challenges many overseas investors face in Russia’s oligarch-dominated business world.
Telenor had argued that a 6 percent stake held by EastOne should be counted as part of Alfa’s stake.
But in emailed comments on Tuesday, Altimo, a unit of billionaire Mikhail Fridman’s Alfa-Group, turned that argument on its head.
Altimo said Telenor and other foreign investors - including EastOne as well as Norwegian state funds - controlled at least a combined 51 percent of Vimpelcom’s votes, against Altimo’s 40.5 percent.
“We flatly reject all accusations that ... EastOne nominally owns Vimpelcom shares in Altimo’s interests,” said Altimo Vice President Evgeny Dumalkin in the email. He added Altimo reserved the right to sue Telenor for this suggestion.
EastOne, which manages the Vimpelcom stake owned by Ukrainian tycoon Viktor Pinchuk via his Bertofan Investments Ltd, also said Telenor’s claims were groundless and warned it could take legal action over them.
The dispute over which side has greater control of the telecoms operator has stalled the momentum of a Russian campaign for the pair to hold similar stakes.
Parity of ownership is seen as a precondition for withdrawal of a lawsuit by Russian regulator FAS. The suit challenges the dominant position of Telenor in Vimpelcom, whose Russian unit is Russia’s no.3 mobile phone operator and is considered by the Russian government a strategic asset.
Altimo raised its holding to 40.5 percent last Wednesday and urged Telenor to sell it some of its own Vimpelcom shares to achieve parity of ownership. Telenor’s stake is set to rise to 43 percent by October as a result of an options deal.
Telenor said on Monday it had no plans to sell any of its Vimpelcom shares.
Russia’s anti-monopoly regulator FAS filed a lawsuit in April seeking to overturn a February deal that increased Telenor’s stake to above Altimo‘s.
The withdrawal of the legal case would allow Vimpelcom to resume dividend payments, which it had deferred after a Russian court issued an injunction in April banning payouts by Vimpelcom’s Russian unit to its Netherlands-registered parent company.
Editing by Megan Davies and David Holmes