Once again a foreign telecoms firm in Uzbekistan is at the heart of an international scandal, and this time the trail leads back to a close associate of Gulnara Karimova's.
An investigation to be aired September 19 by Swedish public broadcaster Sveriges Television (SVT) charges that Swedish-Finnish mobile giant TeliaSonera has paid hundreds of millions of dollars to a shady offshore firm for the rights to operate in Uzbekistan. Karimova, the daughter of Uzbekistan’s dictator Islam Karimov, is close to the action, says SVT's Uppdrag Granskning (“Mission Scrutiny”) program.
TeliaSonera, which is 37 percent owned by the Swedish government, started operating in Uzbekistan in 2007. In order to work there, the company relied on a partner called Takilant Limited, which is based in Gibraltar and run by an Uzbekistan national named Gayane Avakyan.
Uppdrag Granskning reports that Avakyan has strong links to Karimova. Her name appears frequently in association with Gulnara’s pet fashion projects. And Radio Ozodlik has quoted sources calling Avakyan very close to Karimova, adding that she manages the first daughter’s finances.
Over the course of six years, SVT says, TeliaSonera has paid Takilant 2.2 billion Swedish krona ($336 million) in exchange for 3G licenses, mobile frequencies and phone numbers in Uzbekistan. But, the program notes, the money cannot be accounted for in public financial records.
In a September 19 statement, TeliaSonera said it gave Takilant $30 million plus a 26 percent share in Ucell (the mobile network TeliaSonera runs in Uzbekistan), in order to work in the country.
The statement says TeliaSonera carried out a background check on Takilant and determined “that the persons representing the company had the mandate to do so. TeliaSonera has no insights into how Takilant has used the proceeds, or whether there are any connections to other persons in Uzbekistan.”
In 2010, TeliaSonera bought out the majority of Takilant’s shares, increasing its ownership of Ucell from 74 to 94 percent, according to state-operated UzDaily.com. Over the past five years, Ucell has reportedly grown from 500,000 to 9 million subscribers.
The program, which alleges that investigators in Switzerland have frozen bank accounts that are suspected of belonging to Karimova or persons close to her, should shed light on her assets in the tax haven. The Karimov clan’s Swiss accounts have been under scrutiny since a small, unusual protest outside the Swiss Embassy in Tashkent in early August, which regional news site Centrasia.ru has tried to use to link Karimova to several Uzbek nationals arrested for money laundering in Switzerland.
The Swiss Attorney General’s Office has confirmed to EurasiaNet.org that two Uzbek nationals have been arrested as part of a money-laundering probe and two others are being investigated.
Wikileaked US Embassy cables have described Karimova as “the single most hated person” in Uzbekistan and a “robber baron,” though she styles herself a fashion designer and pop diva. Her many critics say Karimova, who sings under the stage name Googoosha, is a vapid jetsetter who uses her father’s dictatorial regime to thrust herself into the limelight. Last month she held a widely ridiculed press event where she thanked God for “my height, my face, my features."
The TeliaSonera scandal comes as the Karimov regime is under fire for seizing $700 million worth of assets from leading Russian telecom MTS. Tashkent has charged four employees of MTS’ subsidiary, Uzdunrobita, of fraud, though many believe the case is an attempt by someone well-connected in Tashkent to snatch a profitable business.
This is not the first time TeliaSonera has been accused of cozying up to an authoritarian regime. The controversial multinational was at the center of an earlier SVT investigation that found TeliaSonera had provided the security services in repressive countries such as Azerbaijan and Belarus access to phone records in exchange for operating licenses.
TeliaSonera has recently been under fire in Tajikistan, too, for helping the government cut off Internet and mobile phone connections with the restive east. Activists say there was no court order for the cut to be made and thus argue that TeliaSonera was breaking the law. TeliaSonera owns a majority stake in Tcell, one of Tajikistan’s top mobile providers.
In its September 19 statement, TeliaSonera said it would comment further after SVT’s Uppdrag Granskning program has aired. It seems there will be many questions to answer.