UPDATE 2-Norilsk's feuding owners resume peace talks

Wed Oct 31, 2012 10:05am EDT

Related Topics

* Norilsk owners to intensify talks in November - CEO

* Interros to seek permission for 75 pct stake - source

* The main issue in talks is over who would be CEO - source (Adds analyst comment, background, context)

By Darya Korsunskaya and Polina Devitt

MOSCOW, Oct 31 (Reuters) - The billionaire owners of Norilsk Nickel have resumed talks to settle their dispute over the world's largest nickel and palladium miner, which could hand control to tycoon Vladimir Potanin.

The four-year dispute between two of Russia's richest men - Potanin and Oleg Deripaska - is one of the country's longest-running corporate sagas, helping to cement its image as a place where it is difficult to do business.

A refusal by Deripaska's RUSAL to sell its 25 percent stake in the Arctic miner has escalated into a row about board control and payments to shareholders that have drained cash from Norilsk, valued at almost $30 billion.

Some of Deripaska's criticism has centred around Norilsk's buyback programmes and the management of treasury shares.

A sale of aluminium producer RUSAL's stake in Norilsk to Potanin, or increased management control by Potanin could be among the outcomes of the talks, which would lead to a greater focus on the company's performance, analysts said.

Potanin owns 28 percent of Norilsk through his Interros company, which is preparing to apply to Russia's regulatory watchdog FAS for permission to control 75 percent, one source close to the shareholders said.

"These developments could ... be beneficial for Norilsk," wrote VTB analyst Nikolay Sosnovskiy in a research note to clients. "Management's focus might shift from the ongoing conflict towards operating and strategic issues."

Selling its Norilsk stake would benefit RUSAL, which is has debt of more than $10 billion and is battling a fall in aluminium prices.

Norilsk chief executive Vladimir Strzhalkovsky told reporters on Wednesday that talks between the owners were underway, confirming previous comments by sources that informal talks to break the impasse had resumed.

"Yes, I know that meetings are ongoing... I think they (meetings) will be very intensive during the (coming) month," Strzhalkovsky said, adding he was not involved in the talks.

A separate source, close to one of the shareholders, said the main issue was over who would be Norilsk's chief executive.

ON-OFF TALKS

There have been many attempts to resolve the dispute, with on-off talks during recent years.

However, there is now a political impetus following the return to the Russian presidency of Vladimir Putin, who said in August he hoped the conflict would soon be resolved.

Deripaska and Potanin met Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev on Oct. 8 and 9, Russia's Kommersant newspaper reported, which prompted their return to talks.

"Many people believe that these negotiations will lead to nowhere, but I think there is a light at the end of the tunnel," Dmitry Ryzhkov, head of international equity sales at Alfa-bank said.

The row between Potanin and Deripaska, the largest shareholder in RUSAL, dates back to 2008, when RUSAL bought businessman Mikhail Prokhorov's 25 percent Norilsk stake in a cash-and-stock deal estimated at $14 billion.

The acquisition was meant to herald a merger into an all-Russian major able to compete with global miners such as BHP , but that plan was crushed by the financial crisis.

Shares of Norilsk Nickel were 1.7 percent higher in Moscow at 1352 GMT. RUSAL and Interros declined to comment. (Additional reporting by Zlata Garasyuta; Writing by Megan Davies; Editing by Erica Billingham)

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