Rusal hires ex-Stasi agent Warnig as new chairman

Aluminium giant names Putin ally Matthias Warnig to replace chairman Cheung, whose tenure at the top lasted just six months

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 03 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 03 October, 2012, 1:23am

Rusal, the world's largest aluminium producer, has appointed Matthias Warnig, a former East German secret agent and an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, as chairman, replacing Barry Cheung Chun-yuen, who held the job for just over six months.

The development is not unexpected since speculation has been rife that Cheung would be replaced by Warnig, since Warnig's nomination late May to sit on the board of Hong Kong-listed Rusal as an independent non-executive director. Cheung said at the time he did not know about such a succession plan.

Cheung stepped down as chairman on Monday but will remain as an independent non-executive director, said Rusal, which accounted for 9 per cent of the world's aluminium output last year.

Cheung was appointed chairman in March after former chairman and substantial shareholder Viktor Vekselberg resigned, alleging Rusal was in "deep crisis" due to poor management and a heavy debt load, which Rusal's management rejected.

Vekselberg wanted Rusal to sell its 25 per cent stake in Norilsk Nickel, the world's largest palladium and nickel miner, which it bought at the top of the market in 2008 and incurred huge debts. But Rusal's largest shareholder, Oleg Deripaska, was reluctant.

Cheung's appointment was widely seen to be driven by Deripaska's trust in him, and his potential value in helping Rusal make greater sales inroads into the mainland market, which is over-supplied with low-end aluminium products. This was despite the Kremlin's preference for a Russian to head Rusal.

Cheung is chairman of Hong Kong Mercantile Exchange, in which Rusal's parent EN+ has a 10 per cent stake.

Warnig spied on Dresdner Bank in West Germany for East Germany's Stasi secret police, according to a Wall Street Journal report, citing intelligence documents. He later worked for the bank and helped open its subsidiary in Russia after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. He met Putin at least two decades ago and the two remained close allies.

Since 2006, Warnig has been the managing director of Switzerland-based Nord Stream, which operates two major under-sea natural gas pipelines linking gas fields in Russia and the European gas market.

Before that, he held various positions over 16 years, including president and chairman of Dresdner Bank.

Besides his position in Nord Stream, Warnig is also chairman of the board of Russia's state-owned oil pipelines major Transneft, and chairman of the administrative board of the Switzerland trading unit of Russian gas production giant Gazprom.

He is also a member of the supervisory board of German gas distributor Verbundnetz Gas and VTB Bank, one of Russia's largest banks, as well as a board member of Russia's Bank Rossiya.