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Stocks Drop $10Bln in a Day

Nearly $10 billion was wiped off Russian stocks Thursday as investors continued to bail out over fears that a surprise $158 million tax claim against No. 2 mobile phone operator VimpelCom signaled a new arbitrary onslaught against private business.

The RTS plummeted another 5 percent, sending the benchmark index down 10 percentage points in just two days to close at 546.1. The steep decline sent it below its Jan. 1, 2004, level, reversing the rapid growth trends of recent years that have seen Russia outperform most other emerging markets.

Investors have already been spooked over the Kremlin's protracted legal onslaught against oil major Yukos, which faces breakup in a Dec. 19 auction of Yuganskneftegaz, its key production unit, over $20 billion in outstanding tax bills. But Wednesday's tax claim against VimpelCom appeared to dash previous hopes that the attack on Yukos was an isolated case of payback for its jailed former CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky's political ambitions.

VimpelCom's biggest shareholder, billionaire Mikhail Fridman's Alfa Group, appears not to have pursued the same political agenda Khodorkovsky did. But Alfa has waged a public relations campaign against IT and Communications Minister Leonid Reiman over its rights to a 25.1 percent stake in No. 3 mobile operator MegaFon.

Reiman once ran Telekominvest, another major MegaFon shareholder. During court proceedings over Alfa's right to the stake, a witness has testified that Reiman was a beneficiary of a fund that held shares in Telekominvest. Reiman has denied any beneficiary interest.

VimpelCom is seen as one of the country's best-run companies. Its other major shareholder is Norway's Telenor.

The IT and Communications Ministry has denied it had any involvement in VimpelCom's tax claim. But many analysts have pointed to Alfa's conflict with Reiman as a possible source of VimpelCom's troubles, and investors appear to agree.

VimpelCom began to have problems with its licenses soon after it bought the stake in MegaFon. Those problems were later resolved. Analysts said the tax claim looked like a dangerous new precedent for arbitrary action against business groups out of favor with top state officials.

Rival MegaFon, meanwhile, was hit on Thursday with a $3 million back tax claim for 2001, but investors and analysts said the claim was so tiny it looked like an attempt to make the VimpelCom bill not appear selective.

Stephen O'Sullivan, co-head of research at United Financial Group, said the attack was going to put President Vladimir Putin's bid to double GDP in further jeopardy. "If Putin fails to rein in his subordinates that are squabbling, he is never going to achieve his aim," he said.

The tax claim against VimpelCom for 2001 is almost as much as its recorded pre-tax profits that year. But the company is unlikely to suffer Yukos' fate, even if other tax claims are filed for later years.

O'Sullivan said Western investors were also growing wary because of Russia's attempts to pull Ukraine into its fold during the recent election crisis. "Ukraine has changed people's minds about what Russia's approach to the West is. Now it's seen as confrontational," he said.

Others said, however, that the market's fall could end after the sale of Yuganskneftegaz, which state-controlled Gazprom is expected to win.

Investors are likely selling now in order to protect profits gained earlier this year, Barden said. The most liquid stocks -- LUKoil, Surgutneftegaz and Norilsk Nickel -- led the slide because they are the easiest to sell, he said.

Audit Chamber chief Sergei Stepashin, meanwhile, sought to assuage fears that the attack on Yukos in particular could herald a review of privatizations. "There can be no de-privatization in Russia," he told Interfax on Thursday, a week after releasing a report critical of the privatization deals between 1993 and 2003.

But in a sign of more troubles ahead for Yukos, another of its production units, Tomskneft, was hit with a back tax claim for $114 million Thursday, Interfax reported.

(The Moscow Times 10.xii.04)

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