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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Alfa Caught Off Guard By Minsk

The Belarussian Communications Ministry denied reports Friday that Russian company Alfa Eco had been thrown out of the tender for Belarus' second GSM mobile license.

A winner is expected to be named this week, and Interfax reported Thursday that the candidate pool had shrunk from five to three ? catching Alfa Eco, part of the powerful Alfa Group holding, completely off guard.

"It's illogical. You can't be excluded before the tender is over," said Stanislav Shekshnya, general director of Alfa Eco Telecom, which later got reassurances from Belarus that it was still in the running.

Belarus' first deputy communications minister, Anatoly Budai, said in a Vedomosti report published Friday the company "failed to meet the tender terms," while the remaining candidates presented "approximately equal proposals."

On Friday, however, he denied saying this. "Five companies are still participating in the tender, and the [tender] commission is doing everything correctly," Budai said in a telephone interview.

The exclusion of Alfa Eco ? a major shareholder in Russia's No. 2 cellular provider Vimpelcom ? and an Austrian operator would have left Russia's Mobile TeleSystems and Northwest GSM and a Saudi Arabian company still in the bidding. Media have speculated that MTS is the front-runner.

The license will cost $5 million plus a $2.5 million bonus for the Belarussian budget. Under the tender terms, the winner is expected to enter a joint venture called International Communications that is 51-percent state-owned. Commercial operations could start up by mid-April and initial investment in network construction by the winner could reach $200 million.

Despite reassurances Alfa has received from Belarussian officials, Shekshnya said they could not be 100 percent sure of anything: "In Belarus it's even worse" than in Russia, he said.

Apart from Belarus, which would be Alfa's first telecoms foray outside Russia, the company is interested in extending its reach to countries where Alfa Group is active in other industries.