January 12, 2018 / 2:41 PM / 7 days ago

Exclusive - Russia's RDIF in talks over control of Sistema's retail, power assets: sources

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian conglomerate Sistema, which has to make a big payment to energy giant Rosneft (ROSN.MM) to settle a business dispute, is in talks with one of the country’s sovereign wealth funds about transferring two of its companies, sources said on Friday.

The negotiations concern the possibility of the state-owned Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF) taking over control of two retail and power businesses from Sistema, a banking source and a source close to the conglomerate told Reuters.

Asked by Reuters for comment, RDIF said it had no plans to take over the assets, and Sistema said it was not planning to transfer the assets to the fund.

The dispute centred on mid-sized oil company Bashneft (BANE.MM), pitting Rosneft’s chief executive Igor Sechin, a close ally of President Vladimir Putin, against Sistema owner Vladimir Yevtushenkov, a billionaire who some Russian media reports suggest is close to Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.

Under the settlement announced last month, Sistema has to pay Rosneft 100 billion roubles (1.29 billion pounds) by March 30 and RDIF has agreed to lend Sistema 40 billion roubles. Russia’s largest lender Sberbank (SBER.MM) will also help Sistema to raise funds before the deadline.

Sistema put up two of its assets, toy retailer Detsky Mir (DSKY.MM) and the Bashkirian Power Grid Company, as collateral against the RDIF loan. The talks centre on the possible transfer of these firms to the fund.

“The parties have been in discussion over the terms and the deal structure,” a banking source said.

Another source, close to Sistema, confirmed that such talks have been under way and that the terms of the deal have not yet been agreed. It was not clear whether they would include any cash payments to Sistema or it would be non-cash transaction.

RDIF said in the emailed comments that the fund did not plan to acquire or in any way “gain control” over the assets. “RDIF acts as the arranger of the 40 billion-rouble-financing secured by these assets, as it was set in the amicable agreement,” the fund said.

Sistema’s spokesman said that the company was not considering transferring control over Detsky Mir and Bashkirian Power Grid Company to RDIF.

The RDIF’s possible acquisition of the assets would mark a boost for the fund, which is headed by ex-banker Kirill Dmitriev. RDIF, which manages capital of $10 billion, was launched in 2011 with the aim of attracting foreign investments to Russia.

The dispute over Sistema is part of a larger tussle for influence within Russia’s ruling elite, according to three sources close to the Kremlin and the Russian government, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

    One on side is a camp, including Sechin, which wants the state to have a powerful role in the economy and which has ties to the security forces, according to one of the sources.

    On the other side is a loose coalition of Sechin opponents made up of self-made tycoons, economic liberals and others who bear grievances against Sechin for a variety of reasons, the source said.

    Putin, who is running for re-election in March, has in the past tried to maintain a balance of power between the two camps. But under the constitution he can serve only one more six year term, and the prospect of his leaving the scene has intensified jockeying over who will succeed him, according to two Western diplomats.

    It was not clear what, if any, side the state investment fund is taking in the dispute between Sistema and Rosneft.

    RDIF boss Dmitriev is close to Putin’s inner circle but is not seen in Russian business circles as a political player loyal to any particular Kremlin camp.

    Rosneft representatives have in the past repeatedly denied that Sechin’s actions are part of any political intrigue, saying he is only pursuing the interests of Rosneft and its main shareholder, the Russian state.

    Reporting by Tatiana Voronova and Vladimir Soldatkin; editing by Katya Golubkova and David Stamp

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