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Report: Vimpelcom Probed for Tax Evasion

Already locked in a legal battle over its license to operate in the lucrative Moscow market, national No. 2 cellular operator Vimpelcom is now being investigated for possible tax evasion, according to media reports.

Citing an unnamed Communications Ministry official, Vedomosti reported Friday that the Interior Ministry's economic crimes department is probing alleged illegal tax-minimization schemes used by the company and that the Communications Ministry is actively cooperating.

Of particular concern is Vimpelcom's routing of long-distance calls through operators other than long-distance monopolist Rostelecom, which the source said allows the company to artificially deflate its traffic figures and avoid value-added and other taxes.

The legal attack on the company, which operates under the Bee Line brand and boasts 11 million subscribers nationwide, began last year when it sued one of its private customers over an unpaid $800 bill. The customer counter-sued, alleging that Vimpelcom was not authorized to make him pay because it didn't have a license to operate -- a claim based on the fact that although Vimpelcom operates and signs agreements with subscribers in Moscow, it is KB Impuls, a fully owned subsidiary, that actually holds the GSM license and owns the network.

Vimpelcom won the case, but state telecoms regulator Gossvyaznadzor, which operates under the aegis of the Communications Ministry, ordered Vimpelcom to clean up its contract arrangements in the capital. And last week Moscow prosecutors, at the request of a little-known company called Mobilny i Sovremenny, announced that they had opened an criminal investigation into Vimpelcom for operating without a license.

Vimpelcom quickly appealed against the decision to launch the criminal probe, and a preliminary hearing is scheduled for Wednesday.

"Unfortunately, [the] unwarranted decision by the prosecutor's office is the latest example of an escalation of an attack on the company," Vimpelcom said in a statement Friday.

Prosecutors were not immediately available for comment.

Analysts have linked Vimpelcom's legal troubles to the purchase of a 25 percent stake in rival operator MegaFon by major Vimpelcom shareholder Alfa Group -- a deal that is also being disputed in court. MegaFon's major shareholders, including Telekominvest, have made it clear that they are not interesting in having Alfa as a partner.

Communications Minister Leonid Reiman, a former head of Telekominvest, caused an uproar three years ago when he awarded MegaFon the nation's third national GSM license.

"I haven't seen anything in the law that says you have to route long-distance phone calls through Rostelecom," said Troika Dialog analyst Yevgeny Golossnoy. "The people behind the attacks appear determined to stop at nothing to make life harder for the company."

Market watchers say the situation is getting more serious for Vimpelcom. "When one court case happens, people forget about it. But when it's one thing after the other, the negative information accumulates in consumers' heads, and it's bound to affects sales," said Alexander Shatikov of industry tracker AC&M Consulting.

(The Moscow Times 9.ii.04)

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