Uzbekistan's customs declaration: All kinds of pitfalls for the unwary traveler.
Uzbekistan’s new currency restrictions have generated some bafflement inside the country, as EurasiaNet.org has already reported – but confusion over the Byzantine regulations regulating the sale and movement of dollars and other currencies, including the Uzbek som, is nothing new.
That bewilderment helps fuel a booming business at Uzbekistan’s main land border with Kazakhstan, where intermediaries are on hand to help the perplexed traveler navigate the obligatory customs forms – for a small consideration, naturally.
The intermediaries, all from Uzbekistan, accost travellers on both sides of the Chernyayevka border post near Tashkent and are also present in the Uzbek customs section, where officials presumably turn a blind eye in exchange for a share in the profits.
The form fillers offer assistance in navigating the Byzantine bureaucracy for a fee of 100 tenge (about 65 cents) or 2,000 sums ($1 at the official rate or around 80 cents at the black market rate).
On a recent Saturday afternoon they were doing a roaring trade. But why would anyone pay someone to fill in a form he could just complete himself, I asked one matronly Uzbek woman who approached me offering her services.
“Different reasons,” she said. “Some don’t have a pen, others have forgotten their glasses, a few can’t write.” She and her giggling colleagues were performing a “public service,” she joked with a flash of gold teeth.
European authorities say they have uncovered a vast conspiracy to fix football matches in Europe, Asia and South America. How much do you want to bet that clubs from Central Asia, a region that features some of the most corrupt nations in the world, were involved?
Officials at Europol – a pan-European law enforcement agency based in The Hague – say they have identified 380 football matches that were rigged. A Europol statement said the conspiracy originated in Asia and involved at least 425 individuals – including match referees, club officials, players and members of organized criminal gangs . The statement doesn’t provide specific names, places or dates, but it does indicate that high-profile international matches were fixed. In all, the rigged games are believed to have generated 8 million euros in gambling profits, the Europol statement indicates.
“Among the 380 or more suspicious matches identified by this case are World Cup and European Championship qualification matches, two UEFA Champions League matches and several top-flight matches in European national leagues. In addition, another 300 suspicious matches were identified outside Europe, mainly in Africa, Asia, South and Central America,” the Europol statement said.
Other information contained in the Europol release suggested that there’s a good possibility that clubs in former Soviet states are involved. “The organized criminal group behind most of these activities has been betting primarily on the Asian market,” the statement said. “The ringleaders are of Asian origin, working closely together with European facilitators. During the investigation, links were also found to Russian-speaking and other criminal syndicates.”
The head of Swedish-Finnish telecoms giant TeliaSonera, Lars Nyberg, has resigned after an auditor found the company was negligent when purchasing mobile licenses in graft-saturated Uzbekistan.
The 2007 deal was thrust into the spotlight in September, when Swedish journalists accused TeliaSonera of paying some 2.2 billion Kroner ($337 million) to a small, offshore company linked to President Islam Karimov’s daughter, Gulnara Karimova.
Mannheimer Swartling, which carried out the review for TeliaSonera, found no evidence of bribery or money laundering, but said “the suspicions of crime expressed in the media and by the Swedish Prosecution Authority cannot be dismissed by this investigation.”
Biörn Riese, a lawyer for Mannheimer Swartling, “notes that the transactions have been surrounded by so many remarkable circumstances that at least someone should have reacted to the lack of clarity regarding the local partner,” the firm said in a February 1 statement.
“If one carries out business in a corrupt country, one should quite simply be more thorough than TeliaSonera has been,” Riese said.
Last month documents surfaced showing TeliaSonera knew it was dealing with Karimova, who has been described in US diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks as a “robber baron,” for the way she uses her father’s leverage to take over profitable businesses in Uzbekistan.
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.
Fugitive Kazakh oligarch Mukhtar Ablyazov has been dealt a serious blow in a massive fraud case brought against him in London’s High Court by Kazakhstan’s BTA Bank: Ablyazov has been debarred from fighting BTA’s accusations that he pilfered $6 billion, reports The Lawyer.
Barring a successful appeal, the November 6 ruling sounds the death knell for Ablyazov’s hopes of clearing his name. His reputation also took a hit from the judge’s condemnation of Ablyazov’s attitude to the court: “It is difficult to imagine a party to commercial litigation who has acted with more cynicism, opportunism and deviousness towards court orders than Mr. Ablyazov.”
Ablyazov left Kazakhstan for London in 2009 after Kazakh authorities forcibly nationalized BTA Bank, which he headed and owned through an undeclared stake.
BTA sued Ablyazov for embezzlement in London. The oligarch went on the run after the High Court in February handed him a 22-month prison sentence for contempt of court for concealing assets. His whereabouts are unknown.
If Ablyazov loses his planned appeal, BTA can move to seize his assets, which – according to the British press – include a $29-million nine-bedroom mansion on The Bishop’s Avenue, a London street so exclusive it is dubbed Billionaires’ Row.
UPDATE / 0245 Saturday, Bishkek time: A Kyrgyz government source says the reports of Maxim Bakiyev's arrest are true, and denies that Maxim was released. (An earlier version of this post was headlined "Kyrgyzstan: Bakiyev Jr Reportedly Caught and Released in London.")
Late Friday night the website of Kyrgyzstan’s president announced that Maxim Bakiyev, son of the former president, had been arrested in London that morning. Maxim, wanted at home for fraud and embezzling tens of millions of dollars in state funds, has apparently been living in the United Kingdom since his father, Kurmanbek, was chased out of Bishkek on April 7, 2010.
But Vechernii Bishkek, a popular local newspaper, has cast doubt on the claims. The paper says it spoke with someone who had contacted Maxim; the source reportedly said that the former first son had in fact been detained but was released quickly with an apology “for the misunderstanding.”
A member of the president’s press office did not immediately return requests for more information.
Maxim, the demonized scion of the Bakiyev clan, who turns 35 this month, was also detained on June 13, 2010, when he arrived in the UK on a private jet. Six days later he was reportedly granted temporary asylum. Little has been heard from him since.
With the aroma of money-laundering lingering around Gulnara Karimova, what better time for the designer-cum-pop diva to introduce her latest venture – fragrances for men and women?
On October 8, Googoosha, as she likes to be known, unveiled to the world Mysterieuse and Victorious. French perfumer Bertrand Duchaufour created the scents for Karimova's GULI brand.
But upstaging her latest triumph, fresh allegations have surfaced linking Karimova, eldest daughter of Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov, to Uzbek businessman Alisher Ergashev, who is currently being held in Switzerland in a money-laundering probe. On October 11, Radio Free Europe produced documents signed by the pair for property purchases in France.
Last week, we reported on alleged links between the Karimov family and Bekhzod Akhmedov, former director of the recently seized Uzbekistan subsidiary of Russian cellphone company MTS. Akhmedov fled the country following a row between MTS and the government. His disappearance sparked the Swiss investigation after Tashkent put him on Interpol's wanted list. Oops.
As investigators close in on the Karimov clan, perhaps Mysterieuse will throw them off the trail. It’s a fragrance for the “sensuous Eastern woman,” evoking, as Duchaufour puts it, "the smells of all the flowers you can find in the East." Victorious, "is meant for strong men."
How did an oil-rich region in western Kazakhstan end up with a $100-million hole in its budget?
According to investigators from Astana, this giant hole in public funds in Atyrau Region was caused by massive fraud perpetrated by a man who was a member of Kazakhstan’s national parliament and who just happened to be the brother of the regional governor, acting in cahoots with corrupt officials and construction firm bosses. Speculation is rife in Kazakhstan about whether this corruption scandal is the product of political infighting, but the bare facts are as follows.
On October 1 charges were brought against Amanzhan Ryskali, brother of recently fired regional governor Bergey Ryskaliyev, on one count of fraud, but police are investigating a total of 13 corruption cases involving theft to the tune of 16 billion tenge (a little over $100 million).
Although the scandal had been brewing for weeks, investigators did not manage to charge Amanzhan Ryskali (who uses the Kazakh form of his surname, while his brother uses the Russian form) in person -- He has long since disappeared, along with his brother. (After initial reports that ex-Governor Ryskaliyev was under house arrest, police have confirmed that he is not wanted and has not been questioned over the case.)
As Swiss and Swedish investigators probe allegations of corruption and money-laundering involving Uzbekistan, one name is increasingly appearing linked to the cases: Gulnara Karimova, the eldest daughter of strongman President Islam Karimov.
Leaked documents (whose authenticity is not confirmed) relating to the Swiss money-laundering inquiry suggest that investigators have identified the suspect at the heart of the probe as an associate of Karimova’s and designated the case politically sensitive.
A French-language letter (carried by regional news site Centrasia.ru) purportedly sent by anti-laundering investigators to the Swiss Office of the Attorney General suggests the Uzbek government -- perhaps inadvertently -- sparked the money-laundering probe that is now coming uncomfortably close to Karimova.
The letter states that the probe was launched after investigators received notification from Geneva-based bank Lombard Odier (acting under its legal obligations) that one of its clients was on the Interpol wanted list for alleged fraud.
That client was Bekhzod Akhmedov, former director of the Uzbekistan subsidiary of Russian cellphone company MTS. Tashkent declared him wanted after he fled the country amid a row between the firm and the government that culminated with Tashkent seizing MTS’s assets this summer.
Uzbekistan is facing a second corruption investigation in Europe, as Swedish police open a graft probe into claims that Swedish-Finnish telecoms giant TeliaSonera paid hundreds of millions of dollars in bribes for the rights to operate in Uzbekistan. The case is allegedly linked to a money-laundering investigation in Switzerland.
TeliaSonera (whose largest shareholders are the Swedish and Finnish states) said that Swedish police are investigating allegations of “bribes and money laundering” involving Uzbekistan. The allegations surfaced in a September 19 documentary on Swedish broadcaster SVT.
“We can confirm that the Swedish police has collected information from TeliaSonera regarding Uzbekistan,” TeliaSonera – which owns the Ucell mobile phone company in Uzbekistan – said in a statement on September 26. It said that the company had already announced an external review “regarding the allegations of bribes and money laundering” and that now the Swedish Prosecuting Authorities’ anti-corruption unit had launched its own probe, “which we welcome.”
TeliaSonera has denied any wrongdoing but pledged to “cooperate fully” with the Swedish investigation, which follows SVT’s allegations that the firm paid hundreds of millions of dollars to “a small, one-woman company in a tax haven” for the rights to operate in Uzbekistan. The company, Takilant Limited, is run out of Gibraltar by Uzbekistan national Gayane Avakyan.