Russian telecoms giant MTS has filed for bankruptcy in Tashkent amid its long-running dispute with the Uzbek government, which is currently embroiled in telecoms scandals on several fronts.
MTS’s Uzbekistan subsidiary O’zdunrobita has petitioned for bankruptcy due to its “inability” to carry out a November court ruling ordering it to pay fines and penalties of $600 million, MTS said in a January 16 statement.
The company’s troubles began last July, when Tashkent accused it of using equipment illegally, then brought tax evasion charges, and finally shut it down.
In September, a court ordered MTS’s assets in Uzbekistan seized. To the surprise of many, that ruling was overturned on appeal in November. But with the good news came a catch: The court that overturned the assets seizure ordered MTS to pay penalties of $600 million – the approximate value of the assets the court had just returned. Some $150 million has already been seized from its bank accounts in Uzbekistan, MTS says.
MTS has protested its innocence, condemning the affair as the kind of assets grab not uncommon in Uzbekistan’s murky business climate – a charge Tashkent denies.
Officials in northern Kazakhstan have taken President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s zero-tolerance policy toward anti-social behavior to heart, jailing a man for making a rude gesture at an official motorcade.
The unidentified 22-year-old resident of Pavlodar was thrown behind bars for giving the middle finger to the cortege of Kayrat Mami, speaker of the Senate (the upper house of parliament), Tengri News reported on January 14.
The man pleaded guilty on hooliganism charges and was given a five-day jail sentence for “insulting the human dignity of a public figure, thus allowing disrespect for those around and violating public order and the peace of individuals,” court spokeswoman Umut Zhumatayeva said.
The jailing is in line with a policy Nazarbayev announced last fall, when he used a parliamentary address to rail against graffiti, garbage and public drunkenness, surprising observers who thought Kazakhstan had more pressing problems to tackle. Nazarbayev also has a Singapore-style fixation with chewing gum and dirty cars in his model capital city, Astana.
The news of the harsh treatment meted out to the Pavlodar man sparked vituperative reactions on the Tengri News site, suggesting that many of Nazarbayev’s fellow citizens do not share his concerns. “Where the hell is democracy?” asked user West. “He was only expressing his opinion.”
The capital of Kazakhstan is well known for its outlandish and whimsical buildings, which include a pyramid and a shopping mall shaped like a khan’s tent. Now architects are planning a new surprise: an ice hotel of yurts, the traditional circular dwelling of Kazakh nomads (more often made of felt, which is much warmer than ice).
One unnamed Astana hotel is planning to erect the frozen yurt village as a novel take on the ice hotels that have become popular in Scandinavia, reports the Ekspress K tabloid, citing Vitaliy Enke, spokesman for an architectural firm (also unidentified) working on the project.
An ice hotel of yurts is certainly weird, but – with Kazakhstan keen to attract more tourists – it looks like a sure bet for those in search of that once-in-a-lifetime experience. Astana, often described as the world’s second-coldest capital, definitely has the climate for it: last month temperatures plunged to -40C (-40F).
Land for the ice yurts has already been allocated on the city’s prestigious Left Bank, the seat of government and home to most of the city’s landmark buildings. As well as the Norman Foster-designed Pyramid of Peace and the tent-shaped Khan Shatyr mall, which boasts a beach inside, they include a velodrome in the shape of a cyclist’s hat, an egg-shaped national archive, and a building nicknamed the Cigarette Lighter for its shape, which once made headlines by catching fire.
Newly released documents appear to make a connection between executives from a Swedish company accused of bribing its way into Uzbekistan’s telecoms market and Gulnara Karimova, the daughter of the country’s strongman, Islam Karimov.
A court in Kazakhstan has banned the outspoken independent newspaper Respublika, amid what critics see as a year-long political crackdown following fatal unrest in the town of Zhanaozen last December that has seen an opposition leader jailed, his party shut down, and media outlets critical of the administration of President Nursultan Nazarbayev closed.
On December 25 the court ordered Respublika to shut down its print version and all associated print outlets and websites containing the word “Respublika,” Almaty-based media freedom watchdog Adil Soz reported. The ruling was issued four days after a key opposition party, Alga!, was closed.
Respublika – which has long operated under pressure in Kazakhstan, and once had the corpse of a decapitated dog pinned to its wall as an apparent threat – was among around 40 media outlets targeted for closure by prosecutors who allege their coverage of the Zhanaozen unrest was “extremist” and contained calls to overthrow the state. Prosecutors say the outlets are funded by fugitive oligarch and Nazarbayev opponent Mukhtar Ablyazov (who is on the run from British justice in a separate fraud case).
The unregistered Alga! party, one of Kazakhstan’s only genuine opposition forces, has lost its legal battle against closure, it announced by Twitter today.
On December 21 a court in Almaty declared Alga! “extremist” and ordered its closure, the party said. It had been battling the closure bid since last month, when prosecutors announced they were seeking to shut it over allegations that it was involved in inciting fatal unrest in Zhanaozen last December.
Alga! leader Vladimir Kozlov is serving a jail term on charges he fomented that violence and sought to overthrow the administration of long-time President Nursultan Nazarbayev. Kozlov denies the charges and argues that he and his party -- which the authorities have for years refused to register to operate legally -- engaged only in legitimate opposition activity. Independent watchdog groups called the trial a sham.
As Kazakhstan marked the one-year anniversary of fatal violence in Zhanaozen on December 16, opposition activists gathered in Almaty to lay wreaths to commemorate those who died at the hands of police last December.
Officials from the administration of President Nursultan Nazarbayev made no mention of the deaths that occurred when security forces opened fire on unarmed protestors during last year’s Independence Day festivities, which were intended as a triumphant celebration of 20 years of sovereignty under Nazarbayev’s leadership.
The mood in Zhanaozen, a run-down town in western Kazakhstan that was the focal point of a protracted strike in the oil sector that was the catalyst for the violence, was “quiet but angry” ahead of the anniversary, Radio Free Europe reported.
Nazarbayev’s administration has spent 2012 trying to put the violence in which at least 15 civilians were killed (most were shot; one died following torture in police custody) behind it. A series of trials this year have brought jail terms for protestors, police, former officials and a prominent opposition leader.
Dosym Satpayev is an independent political analyst and the director of the Kazakhstan Risks Assessment Group, an Almaty-based think tank that researches political reform, democracy, government opposition movements, corruption, and transparency in Kazakhstan.
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.