PrivatBank wins London appeal in lawsuit against ex-owners

LONDON/KIEV (Reuters) - PrivatBank won an appeal in a London court on Tuesday that allows Ukraine’s largest lender to pursue claims worth billions of dollars against its former owners.

FILE PHOTO: People walk past a branch of PrivatBank, the country's biggest lender, in Kiev, Ukraine April 18, 2019. REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko/File Photo

The case is part of a protracted legal battle between the Ukrainian government and former owners Ihor Kolomoisky and Gennadiy Bogolyubov after PrivatBank was forcibly nationalised in 2016 as part of a clean-up of the country’s banking system.

Ukraine’s dealings with PrivatBank and Kolomoisky, who has longstanding business ties to the new Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, are being watched by investors as a barometer of the country’s business climate.

PrivatBank’s lawsuit against the former owners alleges fraud that it says cost the bank hundreds of millions of dollars.

The former owners deny any wrongdoing and say the Ukrainian authorities deliberately misrepresented the state of PrivatBank’s finances when it was taken into state hands under an IMF-backed intervention in December 2016.

In a statement after the judgement, Kolomoisky said there was no fraud or loss caused to the bank and that the bank’s claims were misconceived and would ultimately fail.

“Mr Kolomoisky is seeking permission from the UK Supreme Court to appeal these decisions and if permission is granted the question of whether the English court has jurisdiction together with the question as to whether the English proceeding should have been stayed in favour of proceedings in Ukraine will remain to be determined,” the statement said.

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The London court concluded PrivatBank had a “good arguable case” to recover $1.9 billion (1.5 billion pounds), or $3 billion including interest, PrivatBank said in a statement.

“This is an important step towards achieving justice for the Bank and the people of Ukraine,” said PrivatBank’s chief executive, Petr Krumphanzl.

A worldwide asset freeze on the former owners’ assets will remain in place while the case is heard, PrivatBank said.

If Kolomoisky’s jurisdictional appeal to the UK Supreme Court is successful, the asset freeze will be discharged, the Kolomoisky’s statement said.

The London court refused to give the defendants permission to appeal Tuesday’s judgement, and required them to file their defence by the end of November, PrivatBank said.

Ukraine's dollar-denominated sovereign bonds moved higher in thin trade, with the 2032 issue US903724BM37=TE up 0.5 cents to reach a 2-1/2 week high at 102.79 cents.

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The country’s central bank said in a statement the verdict was good news for Ukraine’s economy and taxpayers.

Ukrainian authorities say a $5.6 billion hole had been left in PrivatBank’s finances due to lending practices under Kolomoisky’s ownership. Kolomoisky disputes that and has taken legal action in Ukrainian courts seeking to overturn the nationalisation.

“It is very positive for Ukraine that we will see the court case proceed in London, where the judiciary is of a high standard and transparent,” said one fund manager, declining to be named. “However, we still need to wait and see what the decision in the end will be.”

Zelenskiy’s new government has been negotiating a new IMF loan programme to replace a $3.9 billion standby agreement that expires at the start of January.

But the 41-year-old president has faced scrutiny for his ties to Kolomoisky and repeatedly batted away suggestions he would help Kolomoisky regain control of the bank or win compensation.

Ukraine’s deputy central bank governor told Reuters last week that the issue had stalled talks with the IMF, and warned of the “huge danger” to Ukraine if a Ukrainian court overturned the nationalisation.

In a statement in September, the IMF did not mention PrivatBank or Kolomoisky but said Ukraine needed to tackle corruption, reduce the influence of oligarchs over the economy and minimise “the cost to taxpayers from bank resolutions.”

Reporting by Tom Arnold and Karin Strohecker in London and Natalia Zinets in Kiev; writing by Matthias Williams; editing by Louise Heavens/Jason Neely/Jane Merriman