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Failed Bank Depositors Want Vekselberg's Eggs

© 2004 Moscow Times 27 may 2004.

By Alex Nicholson

Depositors of a bank that went bust two years ago are laying claim to billionaire Viktor Vekselberg's eggs.

Clients who lost money when Pervy Gorodskoi Bank (First Municipal Bank) closed its doors in 2002 said Wednesday that a bank belonging to the oil and steel tycoon ended up with $40 million of their assets. So they're asking a Moscow court to freeze the $100 million collection of Faberge eggs that Vekselberg recently bought and brought back to Russia.

Armen Rshtuni, who represents the depositors, said Vekselberg's Aljba Alyans bank had sucked cash out of First Municipal prior to its liquidation.

Aljba Alyans said the funds in question are its own and accused Rshtuni of being a con man, of attempting to exploit both the publicity generated by the eggs' return and the recent high-profile creditors' dispute at another collapsed bank, Sodbiznesbank. "We think his latest actions are aimed at misleading the public, confusing investigators and covering up his illegal activities," Aljba spokesman Alexander Sergeyev said.

Sergeyev said Rshtuni is currently under investigation by the Federal Security Service, or FSB, for his alleged role in scamming First Municipal out of millions of dollars through a complicated scheme involving promissory notes (known as veksels in Russian).

Rshtuni, an adviser to Yukos CEO Simon Kukes, is a former vice president of both Sibur, a Gazprom subsidiary, and TNK, an oil company partly owned by Vekselberg.

Rshtuni said he and other creditors are merely civilian plaintiffs looking to get their money back, and that he is personally seeking to retrieve $6 million of the $40 million requested. Aljbas said the $6 million is nothing more than an attempt to cash in the veksels he conned out of the bank.

The ownership of First Municipal is unclear. Rshtuni says Aljba is actually the beneficial owner of First Municipal and that it engineered its demise, accusations Aljba denies. "I spoke with Vekselberg quite often when working at TNK. I asked him about this problem with the depositors. 'You are the owner of the bank, where has this money gone?' I said. He promised that it would be sorted out, and told me not to make a fuss," Rshtuni said.

The meltdown at First Municipal began in the summer of 2002, at around the same time that the nominal owner and head of the bank, Maxim Listovsky, fled the country.

In March, a day after the Moscow Arbitration Court ordered the liquidation of First Municipal, the legal documents pertaining to the bankruptcy case were destroyed by a fire that gutted the floor of the court building where most bankruptcy documents were stored.

As for the future of the Faberge eggs, which went on public display last week at a Kremlin museum, Vekselberg's representatives say they are safe.

"They can't even theoretically be frozen," said Andrei Shtorkh, representative of Vekselberg's Svyaz Vremen fund, which acquired the eggs in the United States earlier this year.

He said a counter claim against Rshtuni would be filed next week. "These kind of allegations can't go unanswered," he said.