Gulnara Karimova, daughter of Uzbek President Islam Karimov, has finally broken her long silence about allegations that she is connected to two corruption cases being investigated in Europe, complaining to Swiss magazine Bilan that her “enemies” are taking advantage of the situation to undermine her reputation and griping that the “attacks” are distracting her from her charitable work.
In the interview published March 7, Karimova launched a fierce attack on Russian telecommunications company MTS (which left Uzbekistan last year amid a furious dispute with Tashkent) and its former director, Bekhzod Akhmedov, once believed to be Karimova’s right-hand man.
Akhmedov is a central figure in two European corruption investigations: a money-laundering probe in Switzerland and a Swedish investigation into allegations that Nordic telecoms giant TeliaSonera made dubious payments to enter Uzbekistan’s telecoms market in 2007 – a probe which forced the resignation of CEO Lars Nyberg last month.
According to company correspondence filed with a Swedish court, TeliaSonera officials negotiating with Akhmedov (who was head of their rival MTS at the time) to enter the market believed he was “the telecom representative of Gulnara Karimova.”
Karimova has no official role in Uzbekistan’s telecoms sector; officially, she is Uzbekistan’s ambassador to the United Nations, and she is also a fashion designer and a pop diva under the stage name Googoosha.
Nevertheless, Karimova is widely believed to have amassed vast business assets and was once described in a leaked US diplomatic cable as a “greedy, power-hungry individual who uses her father to crush business people or anyone else who stands in her way.”
In the Bilan interview, Karimova denied meeting or talking to any TeliaSonera officials and said she preferred not to act through intermediaries because “my experience proves that this type of situation produces problems, above all taking account of my status.”
On March 11 Karimova published a full version of the Bilan interview on her blog, in which she said that the allegation that Akhmedov was her intermediary “sounds more like nonsense, fabricated with a particular goal.”
Karimova said she met Akhmedov at university and he had “profited” from their acquaintance to “carve out for himself the image of an untouchable person in Tashkent.” He also “played a political role and occupied an important place in the country’s economy.”
Karimova accused Akhmedov – who fled Uzbekistan last year and has disappeared – of involvement in “obscure transactions,” including setting up “a special billing system to divert money from [MTS] subscribers’ accounts.”
This charge is not among the accusations made by the Uzbek government against MTS, which include tax evasion and breaching antimonopoly, consumer protection, and advertising legislation. MTS has denied the charges, condemning the affair as the kind of assets grab not uncommon in Uzbekistan’s murky business climate.
MTS – which Karimova accused of pursuing a “strategy of commercial war in Uzbekistan” – filed for bankruptcy in the country in January and says the loss of its business has cost it $1.1 billion.
Karimova also complained about “attacks” on her and “insinuations” about her business dealings, mentioning her ejection from New York Fashion Week in 2011 amid concerns about child labor in Uzbekistan and griping that her name has been linked to companies such as the Swiss-registered Zeromax (now bankrupt), the UK’s Oxus Gold, the Danish brewer Carlsberg, and Russian dairy producer Wimm-Bill-Dann – all firms that have experienced grief in Uzbekistan.
Karimova complained that the “targeted attacks” are a distraction from her charitable work. In the full version of the interview carried on her blog, she dramatically bemoaned her victim status: “waves of negativity” were constantly arriving “out of nowhere, as if obeying an invisible wand, and obviously well-paid from significant sources,” she said.