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Alrosa Chief Quits Amid Talk of Norilsk Deal

Alrosa's president said Friday that he would step down, fueling speculation that the state was preparing to take control of the metals industry and turn Alrosa into a state mining giant.

The metals sector is a key part of the economy that remains out of state hands. Speculation is rife that the Kremlin plans to fashion Alrosa into its state mining champion, starting with a takeover of Norilsk Nickel.

Alrosa said in a statement that Alexander Nichiporuk, who became president of the diamond monopoly in December 2004, would step down because he had fulfilled his main tasks, including "safeguarding government ownership of the diamond industry."

The statement did not give an exact date for his departure or indicate his next move.

Nichiporuk is likely to be replaced by Sergei Vybornov, the head of Alrosa's investment arm and a former senior manager at Norilsk Nickel, the country's leading producer of palladium, platinum, copper and nickel, Interfax reported, citing industry sources.

A shift in ownership structure at Norilsk is priming the company for a takeover. Vladimir Potanin, the country's ninth-richest man, will own 54.8 percent of the company after striking a deal to buy out his business partner Mikhail Prokhorov last week. Prokhorov also is stepping down as CEO of the company. The deal is part of a larger restructuring of Potanin's Interros holding company.

Al Breach, chief strategist at UBS, said a takeover of Norilsk was a sure thing. "It has to happen before the election," he said, referring to the 2008 presidential election marking the end of Putin's second term.

"We are moving forward with seeing Norilsk Nickel going back into state hands," said Roland Nash, head of research at Renaissance Capital.

"We have seen two significant changes in two parts of the strategic economy which are an anomaly in that they remain outside Kremlin control," Nash said.

The federal government has been seeking to increase its 37 percent stake in Alrosa, which produces around one-quarter of the world's diamonds, placing it second only to De Beers, to a controlling 50 percent plus one share.

The remaining shares in Alrosa, whose board is chaired by Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, are owned by the Sakha regional government, several Sakha districts and by company staff.

The federal government is struggling to buy up shares from the Sakha government, which owns a 32 percent stake and relies on the company for most of its revenue.

Alrosa officials could not be immediately reached for comment Sunday.

The state has taken large strides to re-exert its influence over key parts of the economy in recent years. The most visible national champions to emerge lie in the energy sector, with Gazprom dominating the gas industry and Rosneft leading in oil. Both companies have spearheaded attempts to impose a large state presence over major energy projects, from taking over private Yukos assets to muscling into the formerly Shell-led Sakhalin-2. Rosoboronexport has paved the way in arms and autos, taking over car giant AvtoVAZ last year.

Potanin and Prokhorov had been in talks on the Norilsk shakeup for most of last year and had agreed in December that Prokhorov would step down in April of this year, Kommersant reported Thursday, citing company sources.

Potanin said on state television Sunday that Prokhorov's high-profile detention in France last month as part of an investigation into a high-class prostitution ring prompted him to speed up the process.

"This scandalous situation ... sped up the announcement, which we made in order to close this chapter," Potanin said.

Asked what could be done to repair the damage, Potanin replied: "To behave better."

Potanin is expected to pay about $7.8 billion for Prokhorov's 27 percent stake in Interros, the holding company that includes Norilsk and Polyus Gold, the country's largest gold miner. Analysts have questioned how Potanin would raise the funds, and some have speculated that a state-backed buyout of Norilsk could be one way.

But any such move would, in theory, prove costly. The company carries a market capitalization of $30 billion, and the shares not owned by Potanin are mainly held by international investors through ADRs.

Domestic demand for nickel, used to produce stainless steel, jumped by 85 percent in 2006 as a result of soaring steel output, Bloomberg reported Friday, citing the State Statistics Service. The service did not provide precise figures.

(The Moscow Times 05.ii.07)

 
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