Latvia's airBaltic to Fly Another Day?

By bne IntelliNews September 23, 2011

Mike Collier in Riga -

The scriptwriters for the new Bond film need look no further for a plotline than the recent antics at Latvia's airBaltic. All the ingredients of a ripping yarn are there: more than 60 exotic locations across the globe, a mysterious Russian billionaire, a president held against his will and, most important of all, a first-class baddie in the form of a blond-haired, blue-eyed German mastermind controlling an international network from a secret location somewhere near Berlin.

That Teutonic terror is none other than Bertolt Flick (he even has a Bond baddy's name in addition to a 47% share of the company), a classic example of a good guy gone rogue. The former poster boy of Baltic business, who has been airBaltic's CEO since 1995, has been issuing a series of blistering attacks on the Latvian government (which controls a 52% stake... or does it?) which in turn has been demanding his head as part of an increasingly bitter battle for control of the airline.

Flick has refused to even visit Latvia since June over fears that he will be arrested as part of a corruption investigation as soon as he lands, leading to a bizarre situation in which he runs the Latvian state airline from another country and occasionally offers to fly local journalists to Berlin for press conferences.

In one broadside, he claimed the government of Valdis Dombrovskis had turned the airline into a "hostage" to elections, creating "a crisis of confidence in customers and partners alike" and warned - presumably while stroking a white kitten - that unless a planned increase in airBaltic's share capital takes place pronto, the situation "may become fatal to the airline." He followed that up with another blast accusing the government of "meddling" and "hysteria."

Missing shares

Flick also took the opportunity to refute revelations on an investigative TV show that there was anything dodgy about an attempt by a mystery investor to acquire nearly 60,000 shares (11.5% of the company) in airBaltic for €9.6m.

According to Flick, the attempted purchase was an attempt to tidy up a discrepancy between airBaltic's registered and paid-up share capital dating back as far as 2002, and that the Latvian Transport Ministry had actually asked for the situation to be sorted out before any fresh investment in the company could be made. Attracting an investor willing to pay over the odds for shares was a practical measure to maintain liquidity while the government dithers over making good on a promise to increase the airline's share capital by up to €100m, Flick claimed. "Thus arises the strange situation in which on the one hand the government of Valdis Dombrovskis undertakes to invest LVL50m-70m, but the finance minister [Andris Vilks] claims that there is no money, and he obviously does not support the decision," Flick said in a statement.

But the appearance of the mystery investor looks suspiciously like a gambit by Flick's Bahamas-registered company Baltic Aviation System (BAS) to increase its holding by acquiring what a spokesman for PM Dombrovskis described as "non-existent" shares (legal battles continue over whether the shares actually exist or not).

In fact, the identity of the investor isn't that much of a mystery. BAS is widely believed to be backed by Russian billionaire Vladimir Antonov via offshore companies Taurus Asset Management, West Investment and BAS's major creditor Latvijas Krajbanka - a subsidiary of Lithuania's Snoras bank, owned by Antonov.

The sale of the "missing" shares wouldn't be the first time BAS had done deals of questionable propriety while forgetting to mention them to anyone else; for example, it sold itself exclusive rights to the "airBaltic" brand in December 2010 for a cool €13m then charged the airline a monthly fee to use its own name.

Opposition MP Nikita Nikiforov, whose Harmony Centre party emerged as the largest single party after the September 17 election, summed up the pubic mood well: "The situation with airBaltic is absolutely absurd."


While Dombrovskis did show some initial willingness to get to the bottom of what is actually happening, the government's approach is becoming increasingly like that EU specialty - kicking the can down the road.

Following a cabinet meeting on September 6 that seemed to back a joint share capital increase plan, Dombrovskis' office back-pedalled rapidly once newswires reported that a deal had been agreed, talking instead of a "possible government investment." The scenario has been replayed at every cabinet meeting since then, with ministers saying they do not have enough information from BAS, which in turn promises to provide it as soon as possible while complaining the airline's liquidity is becoming more critical by the minute.

The stakes were upped again on September 13 when Latvian President Andris Berzins was left stranded in Brussels after an EU meeting when his airBaltic flight was mysteriously cancelled. Pensioner Berzins eventually made it back to Riga in the early hours of the next day, but not before his planned flight from Hamburg also developed "technical problems" and Berzins' press officer had spoken of the president being Flick's "hostage". Far from apologising, Flick upped the ante by promising 700 more flight cancellations per month. "This decrease is directly related to the delayed decision on capital increase," he cackled, referring to government reluctance to hand over the €100m ransom.

What seems certain is that the endgame at airBaltic is well underway - it just remains to be seen whether anyone can find a Latvian James Bond to deactivate the doomsday device before Flick disappears into space in his green-liveried escape pod.

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