Hard-up Russia keeps selling off state firms

Despite financial meltdown, investors see potential in gas,telecommunications firms.

Financial collapse. Imploded banks. Debt defaults. Unstable politics. Russia doesn't present much to inspire investor confidence these days.

But buried somewhere in the morass is a positive glimmer that few expected: continuation of Russia's privatization program.

Denied additional foreign loans for its sorry performance, the Moscow government is seeking to raise money by other means, including sales of state assets.

And despite all odds, it looks as if there are takers.

"Russia is still an important market for strategic investors," says Pavel Teplukhin, president of the Moscow-based investment company Troika-Dialog. "They are not scared about the current political situation and they do not care much about the current budget," he says.

Financial analysts believe the Russian government will easily meet its target of 15 billion rubles ($650 million) from sell-offs this year. On the block are a 2.5 percent stake in the world's largest gas company, Gazprom, and shares in oil firm Lukoil, as well as telecommunications holding Svyazinvest and a few small regional companies.

The breakup of monolithic state holdings after the Soviet Union's demise in 1991 was a symbol of the government's commitment to free-market reforms. The fact that the government is continuing on this path defies the expectations of many market observers.

Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov assumed the post at the height of the financial crisis last September amid assumptions that he would display a Soviet reflex to renationalize.

Instead, his Cabinet has done just the reverse. And unlike his predecessors, who were constantly battling the Communist-led Duma, or lower house of parliament, Mr. Primakov has persuaded the opposition to accept a modest privatization plan for 1999 without a fight. This was no mean feat during a parliamentary election year when grandstanding on major issues would be expected.

When the privatization drive was at its height in the mid-1990s, the process won a bad name by enriching a handful of wealthy entrepreneurs who had tight connections with government officials.

Opposition politicians never lost an opportunity to say the nation's wealth was sold to political insiders for a song.

Now the oligarchs are limping financially and some are even trying to return companies to the state.

Primakov's tactic is to aim new privatizations at strategic investors who can add technological and managerial skills to Rus-sian companies.

Sergei Molozhavy, deputy minister of State Property, says such investors would provide the long-term investment needed to restore stability in Russia. "We have to revive the market again," he told the Monitor. "It can be done only with strategic investors."

Many analysts believe this is a wise calculation, especially in the energy sector. They note there will always be buyers hungry for stakes of Gazprom, as the country's largest company has huge export potential. Likewise, oil company Lukoil is likely to attract interest.

Mr. Teplukhin, the investment company chief, was heartened by the number of strategic investors, especially from Germany and Scandinavia, who have been undeterred by Russia's financial misfortunes. He said indicative of the high morale were two sales in December - of another 2.5 percent stake in Gazprom for $650 million and the $160 million purchase by Norway's Telenor of a 25 percent stake in Russian cellular telephone provider Vimpelcom.

Mr. Molozhavy, the deputy minister, expects most sales this year to occur at the year's end, as customarily happens. Price tags would be set in dollars for major sales, to offset the ongoing weakening of the ruble.

THIS is not to say that underlying problems don't persist, says Alexei Ulukayev, deputy director of the Gaidar Institute. The Moscow-based think tank is run by the past master of Russia's economic reforms, Yegor Gaidar.

Mr. Ulukayev believes that a lack of financial resources was less of a problem than legislation restricting foreign ownership of some companies to 25 percent. "We are creating barriers with our legislation, not just with our financial situation," he says.

The handful of buybacks that have occurred have been for business rather than political reasons. In most cases, the companies went bankrupt and offered themselves to the government to assume their tax and debt liabilities.

A recent example was the government's taking a controlling stake in AvtoVaz, Russia's largest car producer, as collateral for repayment of overdue taxes.

But generally the government, which is the biggest creditor to most large corporations in Russia, has not welcomed returns.

That was what oligarch Vladimir Potanin found when he offered to hand back the Angarsk refinery in Russia's Far East because it was no longer profitable. The government politely refused.

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