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Did Soros Finally Exit Svyazinvest?

George Soros Alessandro della Valle
Legendary financier George Soros has finally unloaded what he calls the worst investment he's ever made, his stake in state-controlled telephone giant Svyazinvest.

Or has he?

The Financial Times on Wednesday, citing an unnamed investment banker in Moscow, reported that Soros had agreed to sell his stake in the fixed-line monopoly to New York-based billionaire Len Blavatnik for $700 million.

Reuters, however, also quoting an unnamed banking source, said that Blavatnik had only offered to buy Soros' stake for between $600 million and $650 million.

"It is definitely a well-supported rumor," another Moscow-based investment banker who claims to have knowledge of the deal told The Moscow Times on Wednesday. "Something has either already happened or is happening now," he said on condition of anonymity. "Besides, none of the entities that deny the deal has to be related to the deal. Blavatnik has enough resources to pull it off by himself."

Blavatnik's holding company, Access Industries, owns, among other things, a sizable stake in TNK-BP, Russia's third-largest oil producer.

Mustcom, a consortium led by Soros and Interros head Vladimir Potanin, paid $1.875 billion of 25 percent plus one share in Svyazinvest in 1997, which is still Russia's largest single privatization auction.

At the time the consortium believed that the rest of Svyazinvest, which through its subsidiaries provides telecommunications services to 93 percent of the population and owns 90 percent of all available capacity, would soon be offered for sale.

But the government has repeatedly put off privatizing the rest of Svyazinvest, with the latest deadline slated for 2005.

Soros, who bid fiercely for the stake, later called the purchase the worst investment decision he had ever made. He has since made no secret of his desire to get rid of the stake.

Representatives for both Soros and Blavatnik, however, declined to comment.

"We are a private company and we do not comment on our investments, rumors or reports," Access spokesman Peter Thoren said by telephone from New York.

David Geovanis, who represents Soros on the board of Mustcom, also declined to comment, as did the press service of Soros Global Fund Management.

It is not even clear what was rumored to have been sold -- all of Mustcom, or just the 63 percent that is controlled by Soros.

All the uncertainty, however, did little to undermine belief in the market that something big had gone -- or is going -- down.

The combined market capitalization of the regional telephone providers controlled by Svyazinvest jumped $24 million on Wednesday to close at $824 million.

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