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VimpelCom Back Tax Bill Slashed

January 11, 2005 | Reuters, AP

Tax officials cut back tax claims against Russia's No. 2 mobile phone operator VimpelCom to $17.6 million from $158 million, easing fears that the Kremlin is out to get a bigger slice of Russia's riches.

U.S.-listed VimpelCom said in a statement issued in Moscow and New York that it planned to pay the claims of 284.9 million rubles ($10.2 million) in back taxes for 2001 and 205 million rubles ($7.4 million) in fines and penalties.

VimpelCom CEO Alexander Izosimov said there had been a constructive dialogue between the tax authorities and the company. "We are grateful for the active role of several senior government officials," he said.

"Although VimpelCom does not agree with the claims of the tax authorities, the company plans to pay the claimed amount and is considering, under the current circumstances, whether to appeal some or all provisions of this final decision for 2001," the company said. The Moscow-based company -- which has 23.2 million customers across Russia -- has also been served with a 2002 back tax bill of $20.9 million, along with fines and penalties.

VimpelCom's shares and the wider Russian market slumped early in December on news of the $158 million back tax claim, which fueled fears that authorities were widening their pursuit of oil major Yukos to other sectors of the economy.

Analysts say the tax claims are the continuation of hostilities between tycoon Mikhail Fridman, whose Alfa Group is a VimpelCom shareholder, and Information Technology and Communications Minister Leonid Reiman.

Alfa Group last year came into conflict with two companies reportedly affiliated with Reiman when it bought a 25 percent stake in rival mobile phone company, Megafon. The companies in question -- Telecominvest and Bermuda-based IPOC International Growth Fund -- are main shareholders in Megafon.

IPOC and VimpelCom are now fighting an ongoing web of court actions in various jurisdictions over the sale of the Megafon stake. Hostilities between VimpelCom and Telecominvest, meanwhile, are said to be rising as both position themselves ahead of the highly anticipated auction of the government's 75 percent stake in national telecom holding company, Svyazinvest.

Reiman has repeatedly denied having connections to either company. VimpelCom's sharply reduced tax claim led the Moscow brokerage United Financial Group, or UFG, to declare that the risk of a second Yukos in a different sector was now "reduced."

"This highly positive news improves visibility and, in our view, signals a major de-escalation of the crisis, greatly increasing the chances of a resolution being reached that is more or less painless for VimpelCom," UFG said.

Shares of VimpelCom rose 6 percent on the news in trading on the New York Stock Exchange.



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