* Telenor now has "pragmatic" view on its 43 percent stake
* Telenor says stake worth $6.1 bln to $7 bln
* Cash-rich Altimo seen a potential buyer
* Altimo says happy with current ownership balance
By Victoria Klesty and Joachim Dagenborg
OSLO, Nov 1 Norwegian telecoms operator Telenor
has changed stance on its stake in Russia's Vimpelcom
, declining to rule out a sale in what could signal an
end to a decade-long ownership battle.
Telenor said on Thursday it was taking a "pragmatic" stance
on the stake, worth up to $7 billion, two days after its Russian
partner in Vimpelcom bought another shareholder's stake to raise
its voting rights to near 50 percent.
"What we are saying now is that if there is a bid, we will
have a pragmatic stance," Telenor spokesman Dag Melgaard said.
"It depends on whether somebody is interested in buying. It
is a large stake worth somewhere between 35 and 40 billion
crowns ($6.13 to $7.01 billion)," Melgaard said.
Telenor's comments could potentially point to the settlement
of a drawn-out feud which some analysts say has highlighted the
risks of doing business in Russia.
Russian billionaire Mikhail Fridman's Altimo earlier this
week overtook Telenor as the dominant shareholder in Vimpelcom
after buying a 6 percent stake from Bertofan, a vehicle of
Ukrainian tycoon Viktor Pinchuk, increasing its voting rights to
Russia's anti-monopoly regulator had in April stepped in
with a lawsuit contesting Telenor's dominant position and
suspending dividends payouts.
In response, Telenor had suggested Altimo, the telecoms arm
of Fridman's Alfa Group, and Telenor should both buy shares from
Bertofan to restore ownership parity after taking delivery of
Egyptian tycoon Naguib Sawiris' 71 million shares in Vimpelcom.
"We proposed a solution to get parity in the company, and
Altimo has now obviously made clear that they are not interested
in that. They want control," Melgaard said, adding that there
had been no talks with Altimo over a potential deal.
"We haven't asked for a bid," he said.
Altimo said it was satisfied with the current ownership
balance and declined to elaborate.
Alfa earlier this year raised $5.2 billion from the sale of
its 25.1 percent stake in Russia's second-biggest mobile phone
operator MegaFon and is set to receive some $14
billion from the sale of its stake in oil firm TNK-BP.
Alfa has a 50 percent stake in the AAR consortium of Russian
billionaires which agreed to sell its 50 percent stake in TNK-BP
to Rosneft for $28 billion.
Alexander Vengranovich, a telecoms analyst at brokerage
Otkritie, said one of the options for Alfa following its exit
from MegaFon and TNK-BP could be to acquire Telenor's Vimpelcom
stake, adding the cost of the purchase was "within Alfa's
"We do not think Telenor is a seller at a the current price
and would require a significant premium. The company likely
hopes that cash-rich Alfa will make a generous offer; however,
we doubt this is in Alfa's interests," said Ivan Kim at VTB
Analyst Tore Toenseth at Sparebank 1 Markets said he
interpreted Telenor's comments as a change in attitude towards
its Vimpelcom holding.
"This indicates a greater openness towards a sale than we've
seen until now. So this is a change in Telenor's rhetoric,"
Toenseth said. "I don't think it's realistic to think that they
will get more than today's market value, which is around 36
billion Norwegian crowns."
He added that a sale would likely lead to a big payout for
Espen Torgersen, analyst at brokerage Carnegie, said:
"Telenor has realised that their chances of getting operational
control over this company are gone," but added there was still
uncertainty over whether Telenor could receive an offer that
would persuade it to sell.
"But if Altimo now has changed its strategy after receiving
a lot of cash from its Russian oil adventure, and that they
actually wish to buy out Telenor, nothing could be better than
that," Torgersen said.
Shares in Telenor rose 0.8 percent at 0913 GMT on a largely
unchanged Oslo main index.