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Lifecell acquisition contract prohibits payment to sanctioned oligarch Fridman

by Elsa Court and The Kyiv Independent news desk April 16, 2024 6:09 PM 3 min read
Lifecell signboard visible on the facade of the building on Dec. 15, 2023 in Lviv, Ukraine. (Mykola Tys/Global Images Ukraine via Getty Images)
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The contract on the sale and merger of the telecom businesses Lifecell and Datagroup-Volia prohibits any payment to sanctioned oligarch Mikhail Fridman, Datagroup-Volia CEO Mykhailo Shelemba told Interfax Ukraine on April 16.

French billionaire Xavier Niel's investment company NJJ Capital is set to acquire and merge Datagroup-Volia and Lifecell, Ukraine's third-largest mobile operator.

Lifecell is 100%-owned by Turkcell, a publicly traded company dual-listed on the Istanbul and New York Stock exchanges.

Fridman's company LetterOne indirectly owns 19.8% of Turkcell shares, but according to Lifecell's press service, LetterOne has no board seats or control rights on Turkcell’s board.

Fridman's shares were frozen by Ukraine in October 2023. Lifecell has appealed the decision, with a court hearing scheduled for April 16.

If the court denies the appeal, the entire deal could fall through, as NJJ will not be able to purchase 100% of Turkcell's Ukrainian businesses.

If the court unfreezes the shares and Ukraine's antitrust regulator approves the acquisition, Fridman will see no profits from the sale, according to Shelemba.

"Not one cent from the sale of Turkcell's assets in Ukraine will be transferred to sanctioned persons or companies controlled by them," Shelemba said.

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"All parties to this agreement, both buyers and sellers, are legally bound to strictly comply with international and Ukrainian law, in particular the current sanctions of the National Security and Defense Council," Shelemba said.

The EU sanctioned Fridman, along with his associate Petr Aven, after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Fridman and Aven are major shareholders in Alfa Group, a holding company that includes Alfa Bank, Russia's largest private bank.

The EU Court of Justice ruled on April 10 that sanctions against Fridman and Aven should be lifted, as the EU had failed to demonstrate that the two oligarchs "supported actions or policies that undermine or threaten the territorial integrity, sovereignty, and independence of Ukraine."

The two oligarchs have not yet been officially removed from EU sanctions lists and remain under U.S. and Ukrainian sanctions.

Ukraine nationalized Sense Bank, a Ukrainian branch of Fridman's Alfa-Bank, in the summer of 2023, citing the fact that its owner had been placed under sanctions. The state bought 100% of Sense Bank's shares for a symbolic 1 Hr (then $0.03).

Once the acquisitions are complete, Lifecell will be merged with Datagroup-Volia to form a combined Datagroup-Volia-Lifecell entity, NJJ said in a press release on April 8.

The total value of the acquisition, including the purchase price and investment over the course of five years, will amount to $1.5 billion, Shelemba told Forbes in an interview published on April 11.

The purchase is also one of the largest acquisitions in independent Ukraine’s 33-year history since Indian Mittal Steel purchased the Kryvorizhstal complex for $4.8 billion in 2005 before merging with Arcelor a year later, and becoming ArcelorMittal.

US expands sanctions against Belarus
The latest sanctions package targets entities that profit from Russia’s war in Ukraine, including a state-owned machine tool building company, a radio communications firm, and a software development company.
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