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Reports: Russians Set Sights on Rover

Powerful Russian businessmen Oleg Deripaska and Nikolai Smolensky are eyeing Britain's ailing carmaker MG Rover, British media reported over the holiday weekend.

Deripaska, an owner of automaker RusPromAvto, approached PricewaterhouseCoopers, which is the administrator of the struggling automaker, The Mail on Sunday reported. Smolensky, the "baby oligarch" who purchased Britain's TVR sports carmaker last summer, has also approached PwC, The Observer reported. Neither paper said where the information came from.

MG Rover, the last large British-owned carmaker, went into administration in April after China's Shanghai Automotive Industry Corp. pulled out of talks on a joint venture.

Ever since, speculation has surfaced that companies from countries as far away as India and Iran are interested in scooping up the carmaker.

Despite the fresh reports of Russian interest, analysts said no domestic carmaker would be powerful enough to turn around Rover, which has been teetering on the verge of bankruptcy for the past 20 years.

RusPromAvto has sought to dispel rumors of a deal. Deputy board chairman Alexander Yushkevich said Rover was of interest in theory because it was more popular in Russia than such brands as Fiat and had a strong engineering center, Gazeta reported Friday.

Yet the extent of Rover's financial problems may scuttle any deal, Yushkevich told the newspaper.

A source in Deripaska's holding company Basic Element denied on Monday that the billionaire had an interest in MG Rover. "When we asked him on Friday, he said he himself had learned about it from the papers," the source said, adding that it was "unlikely" Basic Element would show further interest in Rover. "We'd rather sort out our own assets first," the source said.

Meanwhile, The Observer reported that Smolensky was believed to have toured Rover's plant in Birmingham. Smolensky, the son of tycoon Alexander Smolensky, made headlines last summer when he bought British carmaker TVR for $27 million in July.

A source at PwC told The Observer that there were two serious contenders. One is Iranian carmaker Dastaan, the paper reported, adding that PwC declined to confirm whether the other was Smolensky.

TVR was not available for comment Monday.

Analysts have said no Russian automaker was in a position to save Rover.

Russians may like to access Rover's know-how, brand name and distribution channels, but the carmaker's financial problems are a major turnoff, said Gairat Salimov, an automotive analyst with Troika Dialog. Furthermore, domestic carmakers' shares are not liquid enough to pay for the purchase, he said.

(The Moscow Times 03.v.05)

 
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