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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Workers Troubled by KrAZ's Fate

KRASNOYARSK, Western Siberia -- On his way home from work, Victor Shchekoldin, a 51-year-old, well-dressed worker at the Krasnoyarsk Aluminum Plant, or KrAZ, stops to read the plant newspaper, Metallurg, posted near the checkpoint gate. News from management has been in high demand here since shareholders of the Sibneft oil company - which is reportedly controlled by oligarchs Roman Abramovich and Boris Berezovsky - purchased 56 percent of KrAZ, Russia's second-largest aluminum producer, and formed a holding with the plant's long-time rival, Oleg Deripaska's Siberian Aluminum.

Adding to the turmoil and uncertainty, the Regional Energy Commission, largely controlled by General Alexander Lebed's Kranoyarsk regional administration, decreed a 50 percent rise in electricity tariffs for KrAZ. If implemented, the tariff hike would make the smelter unprofitable.

"The oligarchs fight, and we get a headache," Shchekoldin said.

In late March, the plant's popular general director, Alexei Barantsev, who is credited with turning the enterprise into one of the most efficient in the industry, and several of his deputies were sent on a one-month "vacation" by the new owners and replaced with a team of 14 managers from Siberian Aluminum.

The management reshuffle sparked wide-scale anxiety among KrAZ employees, most of whom treasure their jobs, especially as the average KrAZ salary of 9,000 rubles per month is twice as high as the regional average and is always paid on time. On top of that, the plant is one of the few enterprises that has retained its Soviet-era wealth of social benefits, ranging from medical services to kindergartens.

Shchekoldin said the general mood among employees improved after Viktor Geintse, the new acting director, assured workers their packages would not be touched.

But he mildly hinted that should anything happen, workers could rebel, as their colleagues did earlier this year at the Achinsk Alumina Plant, which was temporarily taken over by Alfa Group.

"This is our plant and, if necessary, we will stand up to defend ourselves," Shchekoldin said.

The fate of the plant, or at least the question as to its ownership, is likely to be decided next week during a general shareholders meeting slated for May 3.

The meeting is expected to discuss a new share emission that would dilute the roughly 30 percent stake once held by former KrAZ board chairman Anatoly Bykov, who is now being held in a Krasnoyarsk jail on money-laundering and murder charges.

Governor Lebed has pledged to try Bykov in court and remove his "mask of Robin Hood."

Bykov, a native of Krasnoyarsk, is credited by locals with preserving the KrAZ welfare system and investing millions in charitable projects in the region.

So while the Moscow oligarchs may have won control of the company's shares, they have yet to win the battle for the minds of the Krasnoyarsk people, who for the most part sympathize with Bykov and harbor a traditional skepticism of outsiders.

A poll conducted this month by the Krasnoyarsk branch of the Public Opinion Fund showed that nearly 60 percent of the 600 respondents feel KrAZ has benefited from Bykov's tenure as director. Roughly the same number of people believe that Berezovsky and Abramovich will harm the plant.

Moreover, 13 percent of respondents believe the new owners will sell the plant to foreigners and 54 percent believe they will divert cash flow away from the region, poll data showed.

According to the company's press service, taxes collected from KrAZ make up 40 percent of the city's budget and 25 percent of the regional budget. Only 8.5 percent said the new owners would develop production.

So for now, one of the key questions on everyone's mind is whether the "vacationing" Barantsev will return, as promised, on May 1.

In a videotaped interview provided by the company's press service, Geintse said his team's goal is to study proposals for unifying the management system and supply contracts throughout the new holding, whose various parts are less than a perfect fit. Now the old and new managerial team are to agree on the proposed schemes.

"Most likely they will agree," said Dmitry Chechkin, the company's spokesman. "One cannot spit into the wind."

As for new electricity tariffs, which Moscow analysts described as Anatoly Chubais' way of getting back at Deripaska for his alliance with Berezovsky and A bramovich, Chechkin said the company hopes to win the case in the regional arbitration court. The tariffs were suspended for the duration of the case.