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Airlines

UPDATE 1-Russia's move to unseat Aeroflot CEO raises alarm

* Stakeholder says offer is part of state move into aviation

* CEO Okulov says dedicated to his job, gives no answer yet

* Analysts warn of paralysed management at crucial time

* TransMin says wants Okulov to help it cope with crisis (Rewrites with comments from Aeroflot, analyst, shareholder)

By Simon Shuster

MOSCOW, March 16 (Reuters) - Investors in Aeroflot AFLT.MM voiced alarm on Monday over an apparent government attempt to push out the airline's veteran chief executive and give him a post in the transport ministry.

Analysts warned that the departure of Valery Okulov, the son-in-law of Russia’s first president Boris Yeltsin, could paralyse Aeroflot’s management during one of the most trying periods in its 86-year history.

The move has been linked by analysts to a state plan to carve up the aviation sector and hand most of it to a new state corporation, Russian Technologies, which is headed by an ally of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

Asked if this was the case, Alexander Lebedev, Aeroflot’s biggest minority shareholder said through a spokesman: “It is linked to the restructuring of the sector. That much is clear ... state business interests have decided to get more involved in Aeroflot.”

CRITIC OF STATE PLAN

In November, Okulov criticised the creation of a new state carrier, Russian Airlines, that will absorb aviation firms crippled by the financial crisis -- calling it a “pyramid scheme.”

The new firm is being overseen by Putin ally Sergei Chemezov, who as head of Russian Technologies, has sweeping powers over Russia’s industrial complex, including weapons, heavy machinery and now aviation.

On Monday, Deputy Transport Minister Andrei Nedosekov told Reuters that the ministry was determined to hire Okulov away from Aeroflot soon.

Last week it offered him a job as one of the six deputies working under Transport Minister Igor Levitin, a relatively low-profile position for a decorated pilot who heads a blue chip company and has 34 years of experience in civil aviation.

“The ministry needs all hands on deck right now,” Nedosekov said. “We want a professional ... and that’s Okulov, so I think the minister’s determination on this is absolutely correct.”

Okulov, 57, said he was dedicated to his job.

“(Aeroflot) is not just a transitional phase in my life. It is my life,” the Vedomosti business daily quoted him as saying on Monday.

His spokeswoman Irina Dannenberg said he was happy at his job and it was too early to discuss his departure.

A spokeswoman for the Transport Ministry said they had not received a response from Okulov yet.

‘BAD TIME FOR CHANGE’

Okulov has spent more than a decade turning Aeroflot from an unprofitable Soviet-era behemoth into a modern airline. His personal and political contacts have accounted for much of the firm’s lobbying power in a heavily regulated industry.

The favourite candidate to replace him has been named by the Russian media as Vitaly Savelyev, a former deputy economy minister who now works at services conglomerate Sistema SSAq.L.

Savelyev’s total lack of experience in the aviation sector raised concerns among industry analysts.

“Insofar as Vitaly Savelyev has never had any experience in the sector, it will take some time to get oriented. And right now is a time when efforts need to be fully focused,” said Georgy Tarakanov of VTB.

Savelyev runs the telecoms division at Sistema, which controls Russia's largest mobile network, Mobile TeleSystems MBT.N.

“Any big management change first of all puts the brakes on all operating processes while people get adjusted,” Tarakanov said.

Lebedev owns roughly 30 percent of Aeroflot and tried without success to sell half of that stake after the creation of Russian Airlines was announced.

He said he was against removing Okulov. “Aeroflot is weathering the crisis better than any other airline. It doesn’t even need state help,” he said. (Reporting by Simon Shuster; Editing by Rupert Winchester)

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