Sistema and its owner had for years assiduously steered clear of politics in Russia, hoping to avoid the kind of legal issues that often dog high-profile businesses here. But as it has grown into the country's largest privately owned conglomerate, it has found itself mired in a multi-billion-dollar legal battle.
The dispute between Sistema and Rosneft, Russia's state oil company, dates back to a 2014 nationalization, pitting two of the country's most important companies against each other. The latest twist in their back-and-forth came on Monday, as Sistema warned banks about problems it is having repaying $66 million worth of loans.
The conflict between the two companies is another worrying sign for the investment climate in Russia. As the overall economy stagnates amid sanctions and low oil prices, the environment has raised the specter of the country's elite fighting over a smaller pie, with businesses using courts and law enforcement that are widely seen as vulnerable to corruption to gain an advantage.
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Sistema and its principal owner, Vladimir P. Yevtushenkov, have stayed away from politics — in one case, the company smoothly navigated the ouster of a former mayor, even though many of its assets are in the city of Moscow, staying aloof from the political struggle. It now employs about 150,000 people, and it says its revenues are equivalent to about 1 percent of Russia's gross domestic product.
The conglomerate, which has assets ranging from farms to a cellphone operator, had hoped that by staying out of the political spotlight it could avoid legal entanglements. Executives seen as disloyal to the Kremlin have long been seen as targets, facing harassment and legal action. The onetime owner of the Yukos oil company, Mikhail B. Khodorkovsky, for example, was arrested after financing opposition politicians. While Mr. Yevtushenkov was placed under house arrest during Bashneft's nationalization in 2014, because he had never dabbled in opposition politics, it was widely seen as a consequence of this business dispute.
"This conflict is causing a lot of harm to the investment attractiveness of Russia," Aleksander Y. Abramov, a professor at the Russian Academy of National Economy and Public Administration, said in a telephone interview. "This case can create a precedent when any activity in the past can be contested, and property rights put in question, for any company."
The dispute traces its origins to Sistema's loss of its Bashneft oil subsidiary in the 2014 nationalization. Sistema had accumulated shares in Bashneft from regional elites, who had in turn acquired it years before from a regional government.
At the time of the nationalization, officials asserted that Russia's federal government had erred in the original transfer of Bashneft to the regional government in 1993, and voided all subsequent transactions. The state property agency then sold a controlling stake in Bashneft to Rosneft.