MOSCOW - Russia is throwing open its planned purchase of a helicopter carrier to a tender involving foreign and Russian firms, ending France's status as the exclusive bidder, a shipbuilding official said Aug. 19.
Russia has been negotiating with France for months to buy the Mistral-class ships, in its first ever purchase of military hardware from a NATO member state. But talks have been mired by disputes over technology transfer.
The ministry of defense had decided to hold the tender, a spokesman for the Russian umbrella holding of state shipbuilders, the United Shipbuilding Corporation (OSK), told AFP.
"The ministry of defense will launch a tender offer. A commission is being created to organize the tender," said OSK spokesman Igor Ryabov. The defense ministry declined to comment.
The Kommersant newspaper said Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin - the right-hand-man of strongman Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and head of OSK's board - had been instrumental in the decision.
"This means that the ministry has renounced the exclusive purchase of the French helicopter carrier the Mistral," Kommersant said.
Ryabov said three Russian companies could take part in the tender, including the Zvezda shipbuilder in the Far East which has a joint venture with South Korea's Daewoo Marine Shipbuilding and Engineering.
It would offer the South Korean Dokdo amphibious warship, he said, adding the French side would be invited to team up with the other two Russian shipbuilders.
Kommersant said the OSK had been infuriated that the French deal implied it was unable to build a helicopter carrier and this had even began to affect its business.
"Statements by the ministry of defense that the OSK was not even able to build a Mistral - which is basically a rebuilt passenger ship - hit the corporation's work with export customers who started to look at it with skepticism," a corporation source said.
In July, French President Nicolas Sarkozy has said it was "certain" that France would build the ships for Russia. In Paris, an Elysee official said there was "no reason to worry" over the latest developments.
Russia's top naval commander Admiral Vladimir Vysotsky said last month that there was "no point" in the purchase of the French ship unless there was a transfer of technology.