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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Mysterious Firm Wins 35% of Astoria

ST. PETERSBURG -- A mysterious new company has outbid favored Rocco Forte for a 35 percent stake in the prestigious Astoria Hotel, offering just 0.25 percent more than the British hotelier.

Shocked St. Petersburg Governor Vladimir Yakovlev immediately ordered for a report into the winning company, which was set up just 13 days before bids closed for the tender.

The company, Aroma Investments, put up 34,083,490 rubles ($5.48 million) for the shares, while Rocco Forte -- which bought a 25.5 percent stake in the hotel last September -- bid exactly 34 million rubles.

The bidders also had to commit a further $3.9 million to the city to buy the Angleterre section of the hotel, the northern half of the Astoria, and the land underneath it -- raising the total cost of the winning bid to $9.3 million.

"I have just ordered a report and want to know who is representing the company," Yakovlev said Thursday. He said he wanted everything to be clear before the city signs a contract with the firm. The contract must be signed within a month under the terms of the tender.

Aroma Investments' victory stunned Astoria Hotel management, city property fund officials and representatives from Rocco Forte -- all of whom were almost totally unaware of the firm. Aroma representatives did not show up at the tender, nor had they contacted the hotel until Thursday.

An Aroma representative, however, said the Astoria tender involved "deal linked to big money and we must be cautious."

"You will not be able to speak to anyone [in Aroma] until the contract [with the city] is signed," the representative, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Thursday in a telephone interview.

The tender commission spent about 40 minutes debating whether they should allow Aroma Investments to participate in the tender given that one person alone had signed the company's financial balance for the general director and for the chief accountant.

It was only clear that the company was set up July 9 in the Primorsky district by Aroma. The company stated that it had a zero balance sheet -- no assets, no liabilities.

If Aroma wins the contract, it will end up paying almost $7 million less for a 35 percent stake in the Astoria than the $16 million Rocco Forte paid last year for its 25.5 percent share in the hotel.

The deputy head of the city property fund, Andrei Antonov, said the small margin of victory gave an impression that the winner might have had prior knowledge of the sum Rocco Forte was going to offer.

However, he denied that any such information could have leaked from his office. All four participants brought their bids "just half an hour before the deadline for applications and they were put in a sealed box in the presence of Federal Security Service officers," he said.

Alexander Krasnenkov, general director of the Astoria, was equally bewildered by Wednesday's events.

"I have never met our new shareholders and have no idea who they are," he said.

The victory leaves the hotel in limbo, he said, with no one in control over it.