Gov’t divided on issue of another call to sell ELPE

On the day following the collapse of talks for the sale of a 23.17 percent stake in state-controlled Hellenic Petroleum (ELPE), the two partners in the bidding consortium expressed their continued interest in case a new tender is called for. On the government side, Economy and Finance Minister Nikos Christodoulakis firmly supported a new tender this year, but his colleague, Development Minister Akis Tsochadzopoulos, who directly oversees ELPE, did not pronounce himself on the issue. According to sources, Tsochadzopoulos, once the leader of those within the ruling Socialists who disagreed with Prime Minister Costas Simitis’s pro-market policies, is still undecided whether to accept Christodoulakis’s argument. Talks between the government and the consortium, made up of Lukoil, Russia’s largest oil company, and Greek oil refinery company Petrola, part of the Latsis Group, had dragged on since May 2002 as the government sought a better bid than the initial 454 million euros and Lukoil seemed to develop cold feet. «Lukoil and the Latsis Group remain open to possible strategic cooperation in the future and would consider participating in a future privatization of Hellenic Petroleum,» said a statement released yesterday by the Latsis Group. The group did not assign blame to any party for the failure of the negotiations, but said that no final agreement was reached «despite systematic effort made by all side.» This is seen as an indication of its continued interest in ELPE. Speaking in Parliament yesterday, Christodoulakis said that business interest in the privatization of ELPE could well «be provided with a chance to express itself» in 2003. He only mentioned a new tender in a later, unofficial discussion with journalists. Tsochadzopoulos, according to sources, would prefer one or more strategic partnerships with foreign groups. Tsochadzopoulos’s approval is necessary for a new tender to be called. Other than that, the timing of such a tender is important; if it coincided with a war in Iraq, there might be few, if any, takers. But delaying it for too long would place it uncomfortably close to new elections, due to take place in May 2004 at the latest. Union opposition to privatization might limit the government’s option and prevent it from ceding the company’s management to the private sector.

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