Telenor to Fight Freeze On Shares

OSLO -- Norwegian telecoms group Telenor said Tuesday that it would fight a Siberian court's decision to freeze the company's stake in VimpelCom, possibly orchestrated by its estranged Russian partner Altimo.

An Omsk appeals court on Monday froze both Telenor's 29.9 percent holding and Altimo's 44 percent stake in the mobile operator, following a damages lawsuit brought by a VimpelCom investor, British Virgin Islands-registered Farimex.

According to Russian media, Altimo faced a margin call on VimpelCom shares used as collateral in financing from Deutsche Bank, though fears that VimpelCom could be seized eased after its share price rose 19 percent in New York overnight.

"If this [freeze] is true, it is an outrageous decision, which we intend to overturn using all available means," said Jan Edvard Thygesen, head of Telenor's operations in Central and Eastern Europe.

Telenor said the timing of the share freeze and the inclusion of Altimo's shares "strongly suggests that there were other motives for this, and we believe this is yet another of Alfa's collusive actions."

Altimo is the telecoms arm of Mikhail Fridman's Alfa Group, which Telenor has said it believes controls Farimex.

Alfa, which has denied any links with Farimex, declined to comment when asked whether it would profit from the court decision, as analysts have suggested.

"The timing of the [seizure] ... was fortuitous for Altimo," analysts at bank UniCredit Aton said. "We believe the news reinforces our belief that there is little chance that Altimo will quit VimpelCom."

"There are already media reports that this is meant to prevent Alfa's creditors from getting access to Alfa's shares," Telenor's Thygesen said.

"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."