As a probe into allegations of shady payments in Uzbekistan by a Swedish-Finnish telecoms firm continues, fresh accusations have surfaced linking the deal directly to Gulnara Karimova, daughter of President Islam Karimov, whose name has repeatedly emerged in connection with the controversy.
Swedish broadcaster SVT -- which this fall broadcast the exposé that sparked the opening of a corruption investigation in Sweden involving TeliaSonera’s acquisition of the rights to operate in Uzbekistan -- says it has interviewed two senior TeliaSonera executives who linked Gulnara Karimova to the agreement allowing the company to enter Uzbekistan’s lucrative cellphone market.
“To reach a deal with Gulnara was a prerequisite to the whole deal,” one executive (both requested anonymity) told SVT’s “Uppdrag granskning” program. The executives said TeliaSonera officials traveled to Uzbekistan in 2007 to negotiate with the president’s daughter, who has extensive economic interests in Uzbekistan. (One WikiLeaked US Embassy cable describes her as a “robber baron.”) Karimova, who casts herself a sultry pop diva and fashion designer, and is her country's permanent representative to the UN in Geneva, has not commented on any of the corruption allegations.
One of the sources linked Karimova to Bekhzod Akhmedov, formerly a major player on the Uzbekistan’s telecoms market and currently the prime suspect in a separate money-laundering probe under way in Switzerland.
“Bekhzod Akhmedov was Gulnara’s agent,” the source told SVT. “He was her friend, her link into the telecom sector. He was handpicked by her.”
As the executive pointed out, Akhmedov was head of another telecoms company, O’zdunrobita, the Uzbekistan arm of Russian telecoms giant MTS: “It was a crazy situation. He was the CEO of the competing [telecom company] MTS, and there was TeliaSonera -- at the opposition’s headquarters negotiating payments to the Karimov family.”
Akhmedov fled Uzbekistan this summer after MTS became embroiled in a major row with Tashkent, which accused the company of legal violations, suspended its license and ordered its assets seized. The asset seizure has been overturned, but the license remains suspended and the dispute is unresolved.
Akhmedov is on the Interpol wanted list and is a suspect in the Swiss money-laundering investigation involving three other Uzbek citizens who are associates of Karimova, including businesswoman Gayane Avakyan. Avakyan was the focus of SVT’s expose, which said TeliaSonera (owner of the Ucell mobile phone company in Uzbekistan) paid hundreds of millions of dollars to her "small, one-woman company in a tax haven” in exchange for the rights to operate in Uzbekistan.
According to SVT’s latest report, Karimova was key to the whole deal. “I was then informed that Gulnara would receive shares in the new company that TeliaSonera would form,” one source said. “And that she through a local company would receive around 20 percent. And that TeliaSonera would buy back the shares 2-3 years later -- at a preset price.” In exchange TeliaSonera would get a license, frequencies and everything it needed to set up in Uzbekistan, the source said.
The report added that two executives at TeliaSonera were formally suspected of bribery. The firm, which declined to comment to SVT, denies any wrongdoing. “[T]here is zero tolerance on corruption and bribery at TeliaSonera,” CEO Lars Nyberg said in September. “TeliaSonera did not bribe anyone; TeliaSonera did not participate in money laundering.”