* Oil-to-telecoms tycoon says current selling price is too high
* Evtushenkov sees current market price as fair
* Says “any alliance is possible”
* Uralkali shares down 2 percent, underperforming index
By Olesya Astakhova
VARANDEI, Russia, Oct 22 (Reuters) - Vladimir Evtushenkov, owner of the Russian oil-to-telecoms conglomerate Sistema , on Tuesday became the first to publicly throw his hat into the ring for a stake in the potash producer Uralkali.
The world’s largest potash miner infuriated Belarus when it abandoned an export cartel with the state-run Belaruskali in July that had accounted for 40 percent of world supplies. Speculation quickly mounted that Uralkali’s main owner, Suleiman Kerimov, may have to sell his 21.75 percent stake so the cartel can re-form.
Evtushenkov, asked on a visit to the Arctic whether he was interested in buying Kerimov’s stake, told reporters: “I am interested in Uralkali; it’s quite clear that it’s a question of price. Now, the selling price is too high.”
He said Uralkali’s current market price, without a premium, was a fair one.
Evtushenkov had previously denied any interest in Uralkali amid contradictory reports about various possible buyers, and the market appeared sceptical that any bid would come to fruition, pushing Uralkali shares down 1.9 percent to 176.11 roubles by 1300 GMT while the overall Moscow exchange index slipped just 0.2 percent.
Uralkali’s shares have recouped most of their losses since plunging nearly 19 percent when the firm quit the joint venture on July 30, and the firm has a current market capitalisation of around $16.5 billion.
But it is still trading more than 25 percent down from a year ago, and sources say Kerimov himself values the company at $20 billion.
The Vedomosti newspaper has quoted unidentified sources as naming three possible bidders for Kerimov’s stake: Evtushenkov and his partner Mikhail Gutseriev; investor Vladimir Kogan with an Arab state fund; and tycoon-turned-politician Mikhail Prokhorov.
Asked whether he could form an alliance with Gutseriev or with Russia’s largest lender Sberbank for an Uralkali deal, Evtushenkov said that “any alliance is possible”.
Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko said on Monday that he would welcome Gutseriev as a new co-owner of Uralkali.
Potash accounts for 12 percent of Belarus’s state revenues, making its price a matter of acute concern in Minsk.
Uralkali chief executive Vladislav Baumgertner was detained in Minsk in August and charged with abuse of office, although Russia is preparing to request his extradition.
Kerimov’s investment vehicle Nafta Moskva and Prokhorov’s investment company Onexim declined to comment on any possible bids for a stake in Uralkali. Gutseriev’s oil firm Russneft and Kogan were not available for comment.
Evtushenkov was attending a ceremony near the Arctic port of Varandei to launch the northern Russian Trebs and Titov oil fields, developed by Sistema-owned Bashneft and by Lukoil.