Coca-Cola has almost disappeared from sale in Uzbekistan, say reports from Tashkent that – if confirmed – suggest trouble may be brewing at a company linked to Gulnara Karimova, daughter of President Islam Karimov.
The soft drink is no longer on the shelves of any of the 12 Tashkent branches of the popular local Korzinka supermarket, CA-News reported on February 26, quoting a Korzinka official. The report said one branch of another Tashkent supermarket, Mega PLANET, had also run out; another had a limited supply left.
The development has sparked rumors in Tashkent that the factory bottling the drink for the local franchise, Coca-Cola Ichimligi Uzbekiston, has either closed or slowed production.
A Coca-Cola official stamped on speculation, telling Central Asia Newswire on February 26 that it was very much business as usual.
“It's an incorrect rumor," Dana Bolden, corporate communications chief of Coca-Cola’s Eurasia and Africa Group, said. “Coca-Cola has not closed or suspended anything – [the plant] is still in operation.”
Conflicting reports are still emerging from Tashkent, however: A retail trade source told EurasiaNet.org the factory was still bottling Coca-Cola in glass bottles, but not in plastic bottles.
Bolden acknowledged some supply problems, “but it's not to the extent that is being described.”
Foreign companies in Uzbekistan’s opaque economy often face difficulties in the challenging operating environment – but Coca-Cola, present in the country since 1993, is widely held to have powerful connections.
The firm is linked to Gulnara Karimova through her former husband, Coca-Cola Uzbekistan executive Mansur Maqsudi. According to the independent Uznews.net website, after their acrimonious divorce, “Karimova assumed control of Coca-Cola's Uzbek venture.”
The company’s name has been linked to a corruption investigation that began last summer, when two nationals from Uzbekistan, named in regional media sources as Coca-Cola executives Alisher Ergashev and Shohruh Sobirov, were arrested in Switzerland under a money-laundering probe, sparking an unusual protest in Tashkent.
The money-laundering investigation has since come uncomfortably close to Karimova, as has another ongoing graft probe in Sweden into allegations of improper payments on Uzbekistan’s telecoms market by Nordic telecoms giant TeliaSonera.
The two Uzbek nationals detained in Geneva were released on bail on October 16, the Swiss Office of the Attorney General confirmed to EurasiaNet.org last month, though it declined to confirm their identities. It said four nationals from Uzbekistan were “implicated in a money-laundering affair.”
Media reports have named the four as Coca-Cola executives Ergashev and Sobirov, and two other Karimova associates, Bekhzod Akhmedov and Gayane Avakyan, who are also implicated in the TeliaSonera corruption probe.
On February 26 the Swiss Office of the Attorney General declined to comment on media reports that Ergashev and Sobirov have skipped bail and are back in Uzbekistan.
“We are generally bound by professional secrecy and we are currently not in a position to comment on any other issues in connection with the pending criminal investigation,” a spokeswoman said by e-mail.
A Coca-Cola official in Uzbekistan confirmed to Radio Free Europe on February 18 that the two men are still employed at the company.