Customers line up outside a Ucell office in Tashkent on July 18. MTS clients mobbed rival mobile providers after the company was forced to suspend operations in Uzbekistan.
Uzbekistan has suspended the operations of Russia’s largest cellphone company amid accusations of legal violations in the use of equipment, prompting an exodus to other operators and sending rumors swirling that vested economic interests are behind the move.
The suspension of all operations of O’zdunrobita, MTS’s Uzbekistan arm, took effect in Uzbekistan from 6pm on July 17 for 10 working days, under a decree from Tashkent’s Communications and IT Agency.
The shutdown left 9.5 million clients -- a third of Uzbekistan’s 29.5-million population -- without MTS mobile communications at least until July 31.
MTS insists it has complied with all government requirements and is operating within the law. A July 17 press release spoke of “ungrounded attacks” on its business, including the shutdown and “the use of the tactic of intimidation and arrest of O’zdunrobita staff.” Five managers are in detention facing criminal charges, while general director Bekzod Akhmedov has fled Uzbekistan.
The arrests came after what MTS described as “synchronized inspections” over recent months, leading to accusations of tax evasion, theft and breaches of Uzbekistan’s complicated currency regulations.
MTS customers reportedly mobbed other providers to buy new SIM cards. “People are going crazy trying to get numbers from other companies,” said a Tashkent resident who subscribes to rival operator Perfectum Mobile on condition of anonymity on July 18.
The source saw queues of 100-200 people at rival outlets, and said cellphone connections via other operators had been affected: “All day today, I had to dial several times before I reached people on the phone. Obviously the line is overloaded after the mass shift of ex-MTS subscribers to other mobile companies.”
SIM card prices reportedly more than tripled from the normal price of around 3,000 som ($1.5 at the official conversion rate) to 10,000 som.
The main question on everyone’s lips is “cui bono?” Uzbekistan’s murky business climate offers ripe fodder for the Tashkent rumor mill, which is rife with suggestions that MTS’s legal problems stem from a rival’s desire to move in for the kill.