Sun, Nov 02, 2008 - Page 6 News List

Russia’s richest turn to government for help with crisis

FEELING THE HEATOne of the first oligarchs of the 1990s, Mikhail Fridman is among those who came forward seeking help to stave off foreign creditors

AP , MOSCOW

They amassed some of the world’s biggest fortunes in the wild privatizations of Russia’s post-Soviet chaos and the oil boom that followed. Now some of Russia’s richest men are facing the choice of losing some of their empires or pleading at the Kremlin’s doors for a bailout.

Mikhail Fridman, one of the original oligarchs of the 1990s, was the first to come forward. His Alfa Bank said Friday it was seeking US$400 million in government loans to stave off foreign creditors.

The cash would allow the bank to avoid handing over its 44 percent stake in the major Russian mobile phone company VimpelCom, which it pledged to a group of foreign banks led by Deutsche Bank as collateral for a US$2 billion loan.

But to get the money, Fridman and the other oligarchs lining up for government loans are expected to have to hand over to the state as collateral the stakes in their companies that they used to secure the foreign loans.

And they may find the Kremlin attaching other strings as well.

Such moves could clear the way for the Kremlin to reclaim some of the prize assets it lost in the 1990s and further tighten its hold on Russia’s economy — or simply tighten its embrace of the business moguls.

It would be a reverse of the controversial privatization deals that gave the oligarchs their start. In the deals, known as “loans for shares,” the oligarchs took major stakes in state-owned oil and metals companies as collateral for loans to the government. The loans were never paid back.

In recent years, many of the wealthy businessmen borrowed heavily abroad, often using their firms’ stock as collateral. When Russian stocks plunged over the past few weeks, their creditors began demanding that they put up more collateral.

To prevent the shares from falling into foreign hands, the government offered a total of US$50 billion through state-owned bank VEB to help refinance the foreign debts. VEB, which said it has received applications for double that amount, announced on Wednesday that it had approved the first loans, totaling nearly US$10 billion.

Fridman is considered among the best positioned of Russia’s oligarchs.

However, James Fenkner, director of Red Star Asset Management, said that if the problems continue and Alfa is unable to pay back the loan, “the collateral has nowhere to go but back to the state.”

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