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ASKO not for whom bell tolls

Title: ASKO not for whom bell tolls
Date: Friday, 14 February 1997
Publisher: East European Markets (UK)
Main source:

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Russia's biggest non-government insurance company, ASKO, may be down for the auditor's count at the moment. But officials deny Russian press claims that the company is unable to meet obligations to policy- holders. ASKO is charging instead, that an ousted shareholder and ex- executive is trying to undermine ASKO's strategy to expand with fresh investment from foreign insurance partners.

Later this month, ASKO and its parent bank, Suprimex, say they will call a press conference to refute allegations that recently appeared in the business daily Commersant. Suprimex, according to Andrei Drobinin, chairman of the board of directors, will announce the identity of the company's new investors.

For the time being, said Irina Rasgonova, ASKO's spokesperson, the results of an ongoing audit of the company's activities have "revealed serious mistakes. Insurance policies issued to some clients sometimes differed from the terms of the policies that were registered on the company's books. Money was also paid that was greater than ASKO was obligated for."

Rasgonova said that while claim payments are being audited, there will be a delay in paying fresh claims. But she insisted there is no truth to a Commersant report suggesting ASKO policyholders were in danger of losing their insurance cover and investments altogether.

Other sources say Suprimex, which took control of ASKO at the end of 1995 and pumped more than $10m in the company last year, has been targeted by Gennady Duvanov, a former ASKO shareholder. He was bought out by the bank, and replaced as the company's chief executive. One of the complaints ASKO officials reportedly made about his management was that he attempted to introduce Scientology to employees.

Duvanov has since been embroiled in a dispute with Suprimex over the proceeds of the buyout, which he deposited in the bank as collateral for a loan Suprimex claims has not been repaid.

Duvanov's replacement at the head of ASKO, Victor Kolesnikov, previously ran Medaso, a medical insurer also connected to Suprimex. He initiated the current audit that, according to ASKO and Suprimex, has uncovered evidence of fraud.

Duvanov was contacted by EEM, but he refused to answer questions. He told a Commersant journalist he would grant no interview about his relations with Suprimex.

Dobrinin expressed confidence that ASKO will be able to expand its insurance business across the country, and in several former Soviet states, like the Ukraine. First established in 1988, ASKO currently operates a network of 170 affiliated ASKO insurance companies in Russia's regions, with more than 450 branches. The regional insurers offer their own home and property cover. Life insurance is written through the head office of ASKO in Moscow. The company claims more than 100,000 policyholders in Moscow alone.

In early 1996 the insurance market was hit by government measures to halt the sale of short-term life insurance, the real purpose of which was to pay worker salaries while evading tax.

"We want to do away with pseudo-insurance, like the salary schemes," Drobinin said. "We can either try to gain a bigger market share of current premium income. Or we can try to increase the total amount of insurance written by expanding the types of coverage available." It is the second option Drobinin has proposed to a group of foreign insurance investors he declines, at this stage, to name.

"Life insurance is the priority for Russians", Drobinin said. "In the regions, what they need is to insure the future in case of accident; to get a one-timne payment in case of the loss of the family's income- provider." Drobinin said that accumulating life policies, comparable to superannuation schemes and life savings policies sold in the west, are not a realistic option for Russians at present, because they lack the savings, and the risk of accidental death and illness is growing.

According to Drobinin, regional ASKO affiliates lack the reserves to write the life coverage that is being sought. But it is also difficult for regional clients to obtain policies and claims from Moscow. Integrating ASKO's national network is one of the objectives of Suprimex's investment strategy for the insurer.

Russia's domestic insurers have won continuing government approval to bar foreign insurance companies from operating directly, under government licence, on the market. Still, Drobinin says, "it is necessary to have foreign investors. What we mean by this is participation in our capital - the exchange of technology and know-how for our shares, for example."

Government insurance regulators say there is considerable foreign life- insurance selling to Russians, especially in Moscow, that is unlicensed, illegal, and in some cases, fraudulent. They estimate the volume of premiums paid in hard currency for unlicensed insurance to be several times the volume of the registered policies.