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Slovenian beer turns sour as state fire sale of monopoly Lasko looms

LJUBLJANA, Slovenia-A decade ago, with Slovenia cruising towards membership in the European Union, a local brewery called Union caught the eye of Belgian beer giant Interbrew.

Union and its larger rival, Lasko, are national treasures in Slovenia, a question of allegiance that divides beer drinkers the same way soccer splits Manchester between City and United.

Determined to keep Union in Slovenian hands, the country used every trick it knew to thwart Interbrew's advances.

Finally it gifted Union to Lasko, brushing aside complaints from Interbrew and creating a monopoly that to this day controls 80 percent of the Slovenian beer market.

Then came the hangover.

Ten years and millions of euros in accumulated debt later, Lasko is one of dozens of companies controlled directly or indirectly by the Slovenian state that face being sold in a fire sale of national assets to steady the country's finances.

If all goes well, Slovenia will avoid becoming the latest eurozone country to need a bailout. Its battle is a reminder that the eurozone debt crisis is still casting shadows.

“We reckoned we all stood to profit,” Dusan Siljan, a former head of sales at Lasko who retired this week, said of the merger with Union.

“There would be no competition and, together, we had a better chance of staving off a possible new takeover attempt by Interbrew,” said Siljan, who represents 1,000 small shareholders controlling around 5 percent of the brewery.

Now, he says, Lasko risks being sold “far below the real price,” as Slovenia races to raise money, cut its deficit and reform the public sector.

'Protecting national interests'

The former Yugoslav republic of 2 million people, tucked below the Alps, revealed a 4.8 billion euro hole in its mainly state-run banking system two weeks ago, the result of loans turned sour when exports hit a wall with the onset of the global economic downturn.

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