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Gazprom sells media stake in $700m deal

A former Central Bank subsidiary with a murky history has become the newest player in national broadcasting.

On Thursday, Evrofinance, a former finance company that evolved into one of Russia's largest banks, struck a $700 million deal with Gazprom to acquire 49 percent of a new holding company to be based on the assets of Gazprom-Media, the gas giant's media arm.

In exchange, Evrofinance agreed to pay Gazprom-Media $100 million in cash and assume its $600 million debt to Gazprom.

The deal ends months of speculation over the fate of the company and its most valuable asset -- NTV, the nation's No. 3 broadcaster. The restructuring of its media assets is part of Gazprom's drive to shed itself of noncore assets.

Most of Gazprom-Media's debt came on its books earlier this year when its parent company acquired the remaining stakes of NTV founder Vladimir Gusinsky, who is now living in exile. The debt has been the main obstacle to Gazprom finding a buyer for its subsidiary.

Gazprom contends that it pumped some $1 billion into Gusinsky's companies and that selling is the only way to get its money back. Thursday's deal was billed by its signatories as a step toward that goal. They said the holding will continue to look for other investors and are planning an initial public offering, but no date has been set.

Gazprom CEO Alexei Miller said on NTV that his company hopes to get its money back "once the capitalization of the new company grows."

Evrofinance chairman Vladimir Stolyarenko said he expected quick returns on the investment.

Evrofinance, whose predecessor was founded in 1990 by offshore subsidiaries of the Central Bank, now has several shareholders, including Alrosa, Slavneft, Vneshtorgbank and Troika-Dialog as a nominal holder. For several months last year, Gazprominvestholding held a controlling stake in Evrofinance, according to Vedomosti, but it sold the stake in October to Vneshekonombank and Troika.

Evrofinance was reportedly once owned by FIMACO, the offshore piggy bank through which Central Bank officials allegedly laundered billions of rubles in profits made on the government bond market before the 1998 crisis.

It is not clear how the media holding and its debt will be restructured. A source familiar with the deal stressed that while Evrofinance has taken the $600 million debt off Gazprom-Media's books and put it on its own, it is expecting to repay the debt at a discount of several years. Evrofinance could not be reached for comment Thursday.

Perhaps the biggest winner in the deal is Boris Jordan, the CEO of both Gazprom-Media and NTV.

In recognition of his team's efforts in reviving the company after it nearly collapsed in the protracted legal struggle between Gazprom and Gusinsky two years ago, NTV management will get 10 percent of the company. In addition, Jordan will get an option to buy 5 percent of the non-voting stock in the new holding. Jordan will also get a three-year contract to run both NTV and the new holding.

Apart from NTV, Gazprom-Media controls second-tier channel THT, satellite network NTV Plus, 66 percent of Ekho Moskvy radio and a controlling stake in the Sem Dnei publishing house.

(The Moscow Times 27.ix.02)

 
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