Following the admission by embattled Nordic telecoms giant TeliaSonera this week that its operations in Kazakhstan and four other countries had breached the company’s own ethical requirements and may have broken the law, the firm is bracing itself for a new round of scrutiny.
TeliaSonera's dealings with the rich and powerful in Uzbekistan, where its payments of millions of dollars to an intermediary of Gulnara Karimova’s, the president’s daughter, have already put the company in the crosshairs of investigators in Sweden, The Netherlands and the United States. TeliaSonera is also linked to a money-laundering probe in Switzerland in which Karimova is a suspect.
Now questions are being asked about TeliaSonera’s dealings in neighboring Kazakhstan, where it owns the Kcell brand (with 14.1 million subscribers in a country with a population of 17 million). Kazakhstan’s media has previously noted some striking similarities between TeliaSonera’s modus operandi in the two countries—namely its dealings with business people well connected to the powers-that-be and with links to rival companies.
Nordic telecoms giant TeliaSonera is at the heart of several international corruption probes involving its activities in Uzbekistan. Now it says it may have broken the law in neighboring Kazakhstan and other countries, as well.
An external review of TeliaSonera's dealings in five countries has found that “several transactions, and actions during [2007-2013] have been conducted in a manner inconsistent with sound business practice and TeliaSonera’s ethical requirements,” board chair Marie Ehrling told an Annual General Meeting on April 2.
“It cannot even be ruled out that certain conduct has been in violation of the law,” she said.
The review, commissioned last April and conducted by international law firm Norton Rose Fulbright, covered Nepal, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, and Georgia but focused mainly on the first three countries.
Ehrling did not specify which transactions may have been unethical or illegal, but said the review mainly concerned the “establishing of operations and acquisitions of companies and licenses.”
Areas of concern included “substantial payments to advisors and intermediaries for, among other things, lobbying activities; lack of control of business partners; and inadequate handling of warning signs.”
“One area singled out is the inadequate governance of the Eurasian operations,” Ehrling said.
A reshuffle in Kazakhstan has brought a veteran insider back to lead the government amid fears of trouble on the domestic and international fronts.
President Nursultan Nazarbayev reappointed former Prime Minister Karim Masimov late on April 2. In a swift sequence of events, Prime Minister Serik Akhmetov resigned, Nazarbayev nominated Masimov, and Kazakhstan’s rubber-stamp parliament unanimously approved the move.
The affable and charismatic Masimov previously served as head of government for nearly six years, making him Kazakhstan's longest-serving prime minister since independence. Nazarbayev replaced Masimov in fall 2012 with the colorless technocrat Akhmetov.
The reshuffle comes as no surprise: Nazarbayev had hinted on several occasions that he was not happy with Akhmetov and in February, after a currency devaluation that caused an economic shock to many in the country, he threatened to sack the entire government.
Presenting Masimov as his candidate to parliament, Nazarbayev thanked the outgoing Akhmetov but also damned him with faint praise, noting that his government had not “permitted any particular failure” and had “worked in the measure of its experience and possibilities.”
Officials have raided the editorial office of one of Kazakhstan’s last independent newspapers, as it emerged that a court has ruled in secret to close it down.
Bailiffs “burst into the office” of the Assandi-Times in Almaty on April 2 and announced that they planned to seal the premises, the newspaper reported on its Facebook page. The bailiffs cited a court order that the newspaper’s staff said they knew nothing about.
A court had ruled to shut the newspaper down on April 1, the Adil Soz (Free Speech) media freedom NGO said in an April 2 statement, although “none of the newspaper’s staff had been informed about the trial or about the legal claim.”
The court ruled after deeming the Assandi-Times to be part of a banned group of media outlets under the “Respublika” brand. Prosecutors closed the investigative Respublika newspaper and associated outlets in 2012 after alleging that their coverage of fatal riots in the western town of Zhanaozen the previous year was “extremist” and contained calls to overthrow the state.
The ruling coalition in Kyrgyzstan’s five-party parliament that collapsed on March 18 has reunited, comprising the same three parties.
“Unity Before Happiness,” as the last coalition was known, fell apart when Ata-Meken party leader Omurbek Tekebayev led his party out of the alliance after fighting for months with Prime Minister Jantoro Satybaldiyev over the fate of a Canadian-owned gold mine. Satybaldiyev spent much of his time in office battling accusations of corruption. But such recriminations are so frequently leveled within Kyrgyzstan’s parliament that its members are widely seen as more concerned with personal enrichment than tackling Kyrgyzstan’s urgent economic problems. (A poll of 1,500 Kyrgyz conducted in February found 75 percent believed parliament was either “very corrupt” or “somewhat corrupt.”)
Nevertheless, on March 31 the Social Democrats, members of Ata-Meken and Ar-Namys came together to form the lofty-sounding “For Strengthening Statehood” coalition.
The voting table for the Ukraine resolution at the UN on March 27, tweeted by John W. Ashe of Antigua and Barbuda, president of the 68th Session of the General Assembly.
This week Russia told its former vassals in Central Asia to fall in line and support its position on Ukraine at the United Nations—or else. That’s the claim of a Reuters report looking at the behind-the-scenes maneuvers ahead of the March 27 UN General Assembly resolution declaring Crimea’s secession from Ukraine invalid.
Allegations that Moscow bullies its neighbors will be unsurprising in Central Asia, where Russia’s economic and military clout still reign supreme, and stories abound of Russian special services manipulating the levers of power, especially in poorer places like Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
One hundred countries voted in favor of the resolution, 11 – mostly Russian allies – against. Fifty-eight abstained and 24 didn’t show up for the vote. None of the Central Asian countries voted for the resolution. Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan were among the no-shows.
Russia condemned the vote, and criticized the "deep interference of a number of Western countries in Ukraine's affairs."
For certain, major powers often use carrots and sticks to buy votes at the UN. But Russia, according to the Reuters report, resorted to “political blackmail and economic threats.”
According to interviews with U.N. diplomats, most of whom preferred to speak on condition of anonymity for fear of angering Moscow, the targets of Russian threats included Moldova, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan as well as a number of African countries.
The collapse of the Soviet Union left industry scattered across the Fergana Valley regardless of modern borders. This oil field stands near Jany Jer, Kyrgyzstan, on the Uzbek border.
Last October, according to Kyrgyz accounts, Tajik soldiers crossed into disputed territory to repair an oil and gas well that a Tajik company had used since independence—pumping, by some estimates, 5 tons of oil a day. Kyrgyz border guards took notice, shut down the operation, and told the Tajiks to get lost.
Could that episode have led to a shootout between Tajik and Kyrgyz border guards near Ak-Sai on January 11? Both countries are starved for energy resources, so the idea they could fight over an oilfield seems plausible.
When Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan were all Soviet republics, their winding, undefined borders mattered little. But when Moscow’s rule evaporated, the Soviets left an industrial legacy overlying the Fergana Valley’s new borders: crisscrossing pipelines and derelict derricks in no man’s land.
Since the 1970s, Soviet Tajikistan and then the Republic of Tajikistan had been pumping oil from the field, Katta-Tuz, which the Kyrgyz say is on disputed territory. “In August 2013 I told them to stop,” recalls Kyrgyz Deputy Prime Minister Tokun Mamytov. “It’s a big problem. […] The first problem is not the road, but oil and gas.” (Mamytov’s counterparts in Tajikistan refused to comment.)
The post-Soviet states of Central Asia have been generally cautious in their response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea, likely concerned that an aggressive Russia could have unpredictable designs on its “near abroad.” Just as we saw before Crimea held a vote to secede from Ukraine and join Russia on March 16, statements from Central Asian governments continue to mix support for their powerful neighbor with wariness about developments.
After Bishkek blasted “all acts aimed at destabilization of the situation in Ukraine” on March 11, the Kyrgyz – who are dependent on Russian economic aid and migrant remittances – came around to see Moscow’s point of view. In a March 20 statement, Kyrgyzstan’s Foreign Ministry recognized Crimean secession as “the will of an absolute majority.”
Uzbekistan, which is a tad less dependent on Russia and generally takes as independent a point of view as it can muster, issued a statement March 25 respecting Ukraine’s territorial integrity, calling for negotiations and the respect for international law. This is Uzbekistan’s
"firm and invariable" stance, the Foreign Ministry said, without mentioning Russian authorities.
Tajikistan – which would appear to have plenty in common with the corrupt dictatorship of ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych – has been silent. So has gas-rich, totalitarian Turkmenistan.
Spring, Kyrgyzstan’s traditional season for political jockeying, seems to have begun on schedule as the governing coalition headed by embattled Prime Minister Jantoro Satybaldiyev met a long-expected end March 18. Following the routine in which his predecessor lost power in August 2012, Satybaldiyev’s ouster was triggered when the Ata-Meken party and its capricious leader Omurbek Tekebayev walked out of the three-party governing agreement.
The fall is not surprising. Satybaldiyev had few allies beyond President Almazbek Atambayev and his Social Democratic Party. And, some argue, Kyrgyzstan’s constitution promotes executive turnover by placing the fate of the cabinet firmly in the hands of temperamental (many would say generally self-serving) lawmakers. But with parliament's parties splintered and mutually hostile, it should be difficult for President Almazbek Atambayev to come up with a candidate who can please enough of the 120-seat body to form a new coalition.
Satybaldiyev’s coalition was the third since elections in late 2010; like his forerunner, Omurbek Babanov, Satybaldiyev spent much of his time in office battling accusations of corruption. He and his ministers will remain in their positions until a new coalition is formed.
Tajik authorities are apparently not satisfied jailing only their opponents, but wish to silence their opponents’ counsel, too.
Fakhriddin Zokirov, who represented former Industry Minister Zaid Saidov in a controversial corruption trial last year, was arrested March 8 on charges of forging documents to receive a million-dollar bank loan, an unnamed source at Tajikistan’s anti-corruption agency told Asia-Plus today.
Saidov, the former minister, was arrested last summer shortly after announcing he was forming a new political party with several leading technocrats. After a closed trial that Human Rights Watch called “politically motivated,” he was sentenced to 26 years for fraud, corruption, statutory rape and polygamy. The charges appeared to be as much about disgracing the charming reformist as locking him away. Saidov denied the charges.
After his arrest, several of Saidov’s supporters said they received death threats. The case epitomized a chilling in Tajikistan’s political atmosphere ahead of last year’s presidential elections, which incumbent President Imomali Rakhmon went on to win in a landslide and which independent monitors said lacked meaningful competition.