Another Russian mobile giant came under attack in Uzbekistan this week.
Uzmetronom, a website that frequently features leaks and opinions from well-placed sources, reports that Beeline subscribers in Uzbekistan have been experiencing "serious difficulties" with the company’s connection over the past couple of days.
That wouldn’t normally be strange, except that last summer another Russian telecoms firm was forcibly shutdown in what looked like a state-orchestrated corporate raid. At the time, authorities accused MTS’s local subsidiary, O’zdunrobita, of violating equipment-usage terms and of tax evasion. When the plug was pulled on July 17, some 9.5 million customers were forced to flee to other carriers.
Now this, from a website believed to have close ties to the Uzbek security services: "[Beeline] telephones are either showing the complete absence of a signal, even in areas where it has always been stable, or the connection is such that it is impossible to comprehend the words of the interlocutor," Uzmetronom reported on April 18.
Uzmetronom says Beeline’s "vaunted" 3G services have stopped working outside Tashkent altogether, while the company is keeping "total silence" about the problems and whatever actions it has taken to solve them. "Beeline seems to understand perfectly that after the liquidation of MTS the people of Uzbekistan practically have no choice.”
The private newspaper Novyy Vekattributes Beeline's problems to the jump in subscribers following MTS’s demise. "The company's equipment is failing because of the flood of customers," the paper said on April 19. Beeline, the paper added, "does not care at all about the quality of its services," though its rival Ucell appears to be managing.
Ucell, which hasn’t faced such criticism, or service complaints, has its own shady past: Swedish prosecutors are investigating allegations that Nordic parent company TeliaSonera paid bribes to enter the Uzbek market, possibly to Gulnara Karimova, eldest daughter of strongman President Islam Karimov.
In this context, it was hard to take President Karimov at his word when he promised state television viewers on April 17 that foreign investors’ trust in Uzbekistan is “growing” thanks to “stability, reliability and a [favorable] investment climate.”
Though it is unclear if Beeline is just having trouble coping with all its new customers, or is suffering some sort of top-down attack, Uzbekistan’s recent history gives plenty of reasons to expect more drama.
Just in time, too. Uzbekistan's national television broadcaster, O'zbekistan, plans to start airing a 100-episode soap opera about the inner workings of an Uzbek telecom company next month.
But who needs a soap when there's so much juicy action in real life?