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A Sticky Situation For Poroshenko As Russians Seize Candy Assets

April 29, 2015
by Iryna Yakovenko, Oleksandra Poloskova, Yevhen Solonina and Daisy Sindelar

Candy is big business.

The past year alone saw one of the confection industry's largest acquisitions, with the Swiss-based chocolatier Lindt & Sprungli spending upward of $1.4 billion to purchase U.S. candymaker Russell Stover.

But nearly a year after it went on the market, there are no such sweet deals for Roshen, the confectionery owned by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.

Poroshenko, one of Ukraine's richest men with a personal fortune of $750 million, pledged before his June 2014 election to divest himself of his assets, including Roshen, the 20th-largest candymaker in the world.

But despite robust profits, Roshen has gotten nothing more than tentative nibbles -- a lack of interest that the company blames increasingly on Moscow, which this week seized nearly $40 million in assets at the confectioner's only Russian-based factory, in the southwestern city of Lipetsk.

The April 28 seizure is the latest in a series of raids against the factory in response to allegations by Russian investigators of massive tax fraud. But Roshen says the assault on the factory is a transparent attempt to hamstring Poroshenko at a time when he is desperate to hold on to a rapidly crumbling cease-fire in eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russian separatists have been at war with Ukrainian forces for more than a year.

'It's safe to say the Russian side is deliberately taking all possible steps to prevent the company selling its assets in Russia,' Roshen said in a statement.

'Very Bad' Time

Even before this week's seizure, however, Poroshenko has been at pains to explain why an otherwise attractive company that drew more than $1.3 billion in prewar earnings has so few suitors.

Investment Capital Ukraine (ICU), one of the financial management groups advising the president on the sale of his holdings, declined to disclose the asking price for Roshen, which includes facilities in Ukraine, Lithuania, and Hungary, as well as the Lipetsk branch.

ICU says the interest is there -- buyers in the United States, Switzerland, Italy, and Russia have all made inquiries in Roshen since it officially went on the market in August. But the ongoing conflict, it says, has dampened hopes from the start.

'Taking into account the current situation in the country -- which makes it generally difficult to sell any kind of assets -- yes, the process is taking a long time,' said ICU Managing Director Makar Pasenyuk. 'But even in peacetime, in our experience, there were no mergers or acquisitions that took less than a year.'

Presidential adviser Borys Lozhkin put it more bluntly: 'The president wants to sell everything, but the time now is not just bad, but very bad,' he said. 'Investors don't want to come here.'

Some, however, have doubts about Poroshenko's fundamental willingness to part ways with his businesses, which in addition to Roshen include dual naval-manufacturing firms, the International Investment Bank, the Ukrprominvest agrarian conglomerate, a starch factory, and a passel of media outlets. (Poroshenko has said he will not give up his most prized asset, the Channel 5 TV news network.)

'If he really wanted to sell Roshen, he could do it easily right now -- as long as it's under conditions that reflect the fact that there's a crisis in eastern Ukraine,' says Ihor Boyko, the head of rival confectioner ZhL, in western Zhytomyr region. 'It's also possible to specifically pick a price that you know no one will ever accept.'

'Poroshenko knew what he was getting into when he promised to sell his businesses -- just like now, there was a crisis and a war going on,' Boyko adds. 'A businessman should keep his promises.'

Bitter Realities

The Ukrainian Constitution bars the country's president from holding top positions in state and commercial enterprises, but it does not prohibit any official from holding shares.

So while Poroshenko is technically free to hold on to his businesses, he is keen to avoid the appearance of using his post to boost his financial holdings -- particularly at a time when he has risked imposing law-and-order standards on far richer, and still powerful, oligarchs like Ihor Kolomoyskiy and Rinat Ahmetov.

Many Ukrainians are also concerned that as long as Poroshenko owns businesses on Russian territory -- in addition to the Roshen factory in Lipetsk, he has several enterprises in Russian-annexed Crimea, including a shipbuilding and naval-repair plant in Sevastopol -- he remains vulnerable to Kremlin pressure.

Even the most concerned, however, say there's no obvious evidence that Poroshenko has caved in to Moscow to protect his businesses.

Ihor Lutsenko, a Euromaidan activist who now serves as a lawmaker with Yulia Tymoshenko's Batkivshyna party, says businesses like Roshen provide unwelcome leverage to the Kremlin, which temporarily banned Roshen imports in 2013, months before its attacks began on the Lipetsk factory. But holding Russian assets, Lutsenko adds, 'cannot force Poroshenko to make anti-Ukrainian decisions.'

In Lipetsk, meanwhile, factory workers say production continues 'with varying degrees of success.' The repeated interruptions have shaken consumer confidence in the plant's ability to deliver its usual volume of caramels, truffles, and hard and jelly candies.

Even before the April 28 asset seizure, the factory had been forced to let off 500 workers; production is expected to drop 30 percent this year.

Some candy lovers, meanwhile, appear unmoved by the bitter debate over ownership, politics, and leverage.

'I eat Roshen without giving any thought to who holds the controlling stake. What, is that supposed to affect the taste somehow?' said one Lipetsk resident. 'I seriously doubt that peace is going to come to Donbas if I stop eating their candy.'

Written in Prague by Daisy Sindelar based on reporting in Ukraine and Russia by Iryna Yakovenko, Oleksandra Poloskova, and Yevhen Solonina

Source: http://www.rferl.org/content/ukraine-poroshenko- roshen-russia-seizes-candy-lipetsk/26985196.html

Copyright (c) 2015. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

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