Business / Banking

Friday, Jan. 11, 2002. Page 5

Putin Tells PM: Sell VTB Stake to EBRD

By Victoria Lavrentieva
Staff Writer

Bitter divisions between top government and Central Bank officials over the fate of Vneshtorgbank, a prime asset in the banking sector with some $4 billion in assets, are growing more pronounced.

President Vladimir Putin, at the urging of Central Bank chairman Viktor Gerashchenko, recently issued an internal memo to Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov asking the government to accelerate the sale of a 20 percent stake in Vneshtorgbank, or VTB, to the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development, Kommersant reported Thursday.

Gerashchenko has said he hopes to get some $300 million for the stake in VTB, which is 100 percent owned by the Central Bank, and is eagerly pursuing the sale.

But Kasyanov wants the government to have final say over the fate of the former Soviet trade bank. Under the banking reform plan signed by Kasyanov last year, the Central Bank must divest its stake in VTB by the end of this year, and Kasyanov wants to wait until then to make a final decision on the sale.

Interfax quoted a source in the government as saying Thursday that the government is heeding Putin's request and the topic will be discussed at a Cabinet meeting later this month.

Analysts called the development a clear political victory for Gerashchenko.

"The deal with VTB is at the center of a fight between several political figures," said Mikhail Matovnikov, deputy general director with the Interfax Ratings Agency.

Gerashchenko wants the EBRD to buy the stake because it rarely interferes in management decisions, meaning the Central Bank would likely maintain control of VTB. The Central Bank would also like to get back some of the $1.5 billion it has granted VTB since the 1998 financial crisis, he said.

Kasyanov, for his part, by delaying the sale, is defending the interests of another state-owned bank, Vneshekonombank, which soon will be split into a commercial bank and an agency to service Soviet-era debts, a move in line with Cabinet decisions on banking reform.

Following the revamp, Vneshekonombank's commercial operations could rival Vneshtorgbank as a new means of servicing foreign trade.

The EBRD also has an interest in the deal: It is a major supporter of financial-sector reform and hopes to see the Central Bank get rid of its stakes in commercial banks.

The EBRD contends the deal would be a benchmark event for the Russian banking sector as a whole, helping to attract foreign investors.

Yet, some analysts say much will depend on who will be VTB's major shareholder.

"The EBRD is too neutral as an investor, so this decision alone won't change anything," Matovnikov said. "But if it will help bring a real strategic investor interested in building its own business in Russia, then it means a lot.

"You don't need to think twice to understand that Gerashchenko won't be interested in any changes since he may well be looking for a quiet place to work after his retirement from the Central Bank [by the end of the year]."


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