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Bendukidze Ditches 42% Stake in OMZ

Georgian minister Kakha Bendukidze and his business partners sold their 42 percent stake in heavy machinery manufacturer OMZ to a group of Russian investors last week, sparking speculation Gazprom may be behind the purchase.

The deal was completed in a matter of days last week, said brokerage United Financial Group, which organized the deal. It refused to name the buyers or say how much was paid. Gazprom denied it bought the OMZ stake, which analysts say is worth around $77 million.

Bendukidze, who founded OMZ and is now Georgia's minister for reforms coordination, declined to comment on the deal, his spokeswoman said by telephone from Tbilisi. Bendukidze's only remaining asset in Russia is a 67 percent stake in Moskva Re insurance company, said Marina Nacheva, head of investor relations at OMZ. She also declined to identify OMZ's new shareholders.

UFG's confirmation of the sale comes after Vedomosti reported in September that Gazprom unit Gazprombank was interested in buying OMZ as part of a government attempt to bring key strategic assets under its control. OMZ is one of the country's biggest heavy industrial companies, producing parts for nuclear power plants and equipment used in mining.

"We believe the likely buyers of the stake to be Gazprom or its affiliates," MDM Bank said about the OMZ deal.

If Gazprom is behind the purchase of the Bendukidze stake, the purchase could give the gas giant control of OMZ, as it already owns some 15 percent of OMZ through its pension fund Gazfund, MDM said.

OMZ may become part of the nuclear business developed by Gazprom after it acquired Atomstroiexport, Russia's main contractor for nuclear power plant construction abroad, said Yelena Sakhnova, an analyst at UFG.

Gazprom spokesman Sergei Kupriyanov said that neither the company nor its affiliates took part in the OMZ purchase, as did a spokesman for its lending arm, Gazprombank.

Billionaire Oleg Deripaska's holding company Basic Element is another possible candidate, analysts said.

Basic Element, which recently set up the new division Russkiye Mashiny, or Russian Machines, was the first to vent the idea of merging Russia's major power engineering assets into a single holding. Russkiye Mashiny spokesman Pavel Yerasov said that his company was not involved in the OMZ purchase.

Earlier this year, Basic Element received approval from the Federal AntiMonopoly Service to purchase a controlling stake in turbine maker Power Machines from Interros. No talks took place, however, between Basic Element and Interros. Instead, Interros agreed to sell 22.4 percent in the company to utility Unified Energy Systems.

"If Gazprom is the OMZ buyer, it could later negotiate with UES to merge the assets, which would not be a bad option," said Andrei Zubkov, vice president of investment bank Trust.

(The Moscow Times 07.xi.05)

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