An international telecoms company has admitted engaging in corrupt practices in Uzbekistan, following bribery probes spanning several continents whose tentacles reach into the heart of the ruling Karimov family.
This marks the first official admission by an international telecommunications company of illegal practices in a case that centers on the affairs of the eldest daughter of Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov, Gulnara Karimova, who was last heard of under house arrest in Uzbekistan on corruption charges.
Russian-owned VimpelCom said it is prepared to “acknowledge certain violations of the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and relevant Dutch laws” and pay fines to corruption-busting bodies in the United States and Holland.
The admission was made in a report on final quarter results for 2015, released on February 17 by VimpelCom, which is majority owned by Russian billionaire Mikhail Fridman. Norway’s state-owned Telenor owns a minority stake that it is trying to sell.
VimpelCom said that discussions with the U.S. Department of Justice and Securities and Exchange Commission and the Dutch Public Prosecution Service had resulted in “prospective settlements” that, subject to approval, will see it admit breaking U.S. and Dutch anti-corruption laws and paying “fines and disgorgements.”
The size of the anticipated payments was not disclosed, but VimpelCom said that it was within the $900m it set aside last November to cover potential liabilities from the corruption probes.
Uzbekistan’s foreign minister has begun a round of annual consultations in Washington that happen to follow shortly after Tashkent launched an offensive to recover millions of dollars frozen in a U.S. corruption case involving the Uzbek president’s daughter.
Abdulaziz Komilov began the three-day talks on January 19 with a meeting with Nisha Desai Biswal, Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, the U.S. Embassy in Tashkent said in an e-mailed statement.
Topics for discussion include the usual suspects: security, political developments, human rights and trade. But one onlie Uzbek media outlet is speculating that Komilov may also be raising another thorny topic behind the scenes.
According to documents recently filed with a U.S. court, copies of which have been seen by EurasiaNet.org, Tashkent has begun pressing for the release of $300 million in assets frozen during a bribery investigation involving the president’s daughter, Gulnara Karimova. The last that was heard of Karimova, she was under house arrest in Tashkent.
The funds are allegedly illicit proceeds from “an international conspiracy to launder corrupt payments” made in Uzbekistan’s telecoms sector, according to a lawsuit filed by the U.S. Department of Justice last summer.
The $300 million – held in Bank of New York Mellon accounts in Belgium, Ireland, and Luxemburg – were frozen by a U.S. Federal Court order in July.
The lawsuit named two Karimova associates, Gayane Avakyan and Rustam Madumarov, as owners of shell companies “beneficially owned by GOVERNMENT OFFICIAL A.”
Ever since the president of Uzbekistan’s prodigal eldest daughter, Gulnara Karimova, fell from grace into house arrest on various corruption-related charges, the would-be power player has disappeared from social media.
Her place has been taken, albeit in less demonstrative fashion, but her more subdued sibling, who goes by the married double-barreled name Lola Karimova-Tillayeva.
Karimova-Tillayeva’s latest outing on Instagram, which is also the favored channel of communication of Chechen tough guy leader Ramzan Kadyrov, has set tongues wagging with denials that she could one day pursue a bid for power. Gulnara was often linked with possible succession to her father, Islam Karimov, so when she fell out of the running, some of that speculation was transferred to Lola.
But Lola poured scorn on that line of thinking in a caustically formulated Instagram posting.
“I formulated my attitude to power when I was still a child. I will try to explain this in a way that is short and clear. There are certain primitive people that are certain that power can make anybody happy or that power is the source of absolute pleasure,” Lola wrote on her Instagram account on October 30. “People with such a mindset cannot even cope with a small amount of power, and use it inappropriately, causing great harm to people and the work they are meant to be performing.”
Such inadequate people are commonplace, Lola wrote, omitting for some reason to give any specific examples.
The post continues for some while in a vein that may or may not be intended as a pop at Gulnara, with whom Lola is known to have frosty relations.
In one important passage, however, she reveals that she has no plans to “change her life and work in state management bodies or become a civil servant.”
Nordic telecoms giant TeliaSonera is pulling out of the Eurasian region in the wake of a three year-long scandal over its business dealings in Uzbekistan that saw it accused of funneling illicit payments to associates of Gulnara Karimova, the disgraced daughter of President Islam Karimov.
The company will gradually wind down its operations in its Eurasia section, which includes the six former Soviet states of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova and Tajikistan, as well as Nepal, and ultimately cease them altogether, it said in a statement on September 17.
The Swedish-Finnish company said it would focus instead on its telecoms business in Europe “within the strategy of creating the new TeliaSonera.”
“It is our belief that it is possible to do business in Eurasia which are [sic] both profitable and sustainable — but it is important to enter markets in a correct way,” it said.
When TeliaSonera entered Uzbekistan’s lucrative telecoms market, it allegedly used Karimova — at the time a major business player with telecommunications interests, but now under house arrest in Tashkent on corruption charges — as an intermediary.
TeliaSonera’s problems began three years ago, when a Swedish television station aired a report claiming the telecoms giant had made dubious payments to a shell company run by Karimova associate Gayane Avakyan in order to gain access to Uzbekistan’s market. That report sparked a major corruption investigation in Sweden that is ongoing to this day. The resignation of former chief executive Lars Nyberg and the dismissal of several senior company executives ensued the following year.
Uzbekistan is planning to introduce a new form of criminal penalty that appears tailor-made to wield against Gulnara Karimova, the disgraced daughter of strongman leader Islam Karimov, in due course.
Parliament is considering amendments to the criminal code that would allow the courts to sentence convicted offenders to house arrest instead of prison or other forms of punishment, MP Aliya Yunusova, told the legal news website Norma.uz on July 29.
House arrest is currently only applied as a form of pre-trial detention, but if the change is passed by Uzbekistan’s rubber stamp parliament — a foregone conclusion — it will be on the statute books as a penalty.
That could theoretically provide Karimov’s administration with a face-saving legal resolution to the saga of the disgraced Karimova, who has been held under house arrest since February 2014 but never charged with a crime (at least to public knowledge).
At first no explanation was given for her detention, but last September prosecutors said Karimova was under investigation on suspicion of involvement in organized crime and corruption.
Her associates Gayane Avakyan and Rustam Madumarov had been convicted in a related case, the prosecutors said. They are believed to be serving jail terms in Uzbekistan.
The two also feature in a Swiss money-laundering investigation in which Karimova is a suspect, which is linked to a Swedish probe into allegations of illicit payments in Uzbekistan’s telecoms sector.
The sudden move to introduce house arrest as a penalty may be a prelude to developments in Karimova’s case, such as filing formal charges against her with a view to bringing her to trial.
The US government wants to recover hundreds of millions of dollars in allegedly illicit funds that American prosecutors contend enriched a “close relative” of Uzbekistan’s strongman president, Islam Karimov.
A forfeiture complaint filed in US federal court in New York seeks the recovery of $300 million in assets “involved in an international conspiracy to launder corrupt payments” made in Uzbekistan’s telecoms sector, according to a copy of the complaint sent to EurasiaNet.org by the Department of Justice, which filed the case on June 29.
It alleges that illicit payments were made by two telecoms companies, Russia’s MTS and Amsterdam-based VimpelCom, to curry influence and secure favorable decisions from Uzbekistan’s government to operate in the lucrative telecommunications sector.
The alleged beneficiary is not named, but is identified as “GOVERNMENT OFFICIAL A,” and is further characterized as “a close relative of the President of Uzbekistan.” The unnamed beneficiary “held several positions in the Uzbek government” during the period in question (2004-2011), according to the complaint.
Gulnara Karimova, the president’s eldest daughter who is under house arrest in Uzbekistan on corruption charges, has previously been named as a suspect in a money-laundering probe in Switzerland involving payments in Uzbekistan’s telecoms sector. During the period in question, she held government positions, including as deputy foreign minister and ambassador to Spain and the United Nations in Geneva.
The lawsuit names two Karimova associates, and two shell companies they allegedly operated to funnel illicit funds: Gayane Avakyan, owner of Takilant, and Rustam Madumarov, owner of Expoline.
Gulnara Karimova, the daughter of Uzbekistan’s strongman leader Islam Karimov, has been making international headlines for years amid charges of massive bribery and corruption. But fresh evidence unearthed by an anti-corruption watchdog suggests her avarice reached mind-boggling scales as she vacuumed up cash from telecoms companies wanting a slice of Uzbekistan’s lucrative cellphone pie.
Karimova received over $1 billion in payments and shares from Scandinavian and Russian telecoms companies such as TeliaSonera, Telenor, MTS, and Alfa Telecom, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) alleged in a report published March 21.
“Her audacious schemes may have cost the people of Uzbekistan money that could have paid for pensions or healthcare but instead went into banks, an offshore hedge fund and luxurious real estate around the world, including a castle in France and a penthouse in Hong Kong,” the OCCRP stated.
The watchdog was skeptical of the defense put forward by telecoms firms that they did not knowingly commit any wrongdoing: “While the international companies involved claim to have been innocent or unwilling dupes of her maneuvers, the blatant means by which Karimova allegedly operated made it virtually impossible for those involved not to realize they were giving in to extortion and bribery.”
Fresh allegations have emerged of bribery in Uzbekistan’s telecoms market involving another Nordic company and Gulnara Karimova, the daughter of President Islam Karimov.
A cellphone company partly owned by Norway’s Telenor is alleged to have paid some $25 million in kickbacks to acquire telecoms licenses in Uzbekistan, AFP reports, citing the Klassekampen daily.
The funds were reportedly transferred from Amsterdam-headquartered Vimpelcom, the operator of the Beeline brand in Uzbekistan, to the infamous Takilant Limited company, which is at the heart of two separate graft probes in Europe. Takilant is involved in a money-laundering probe in Switzerland (in which Karimova is a suspect), and also a bribery probe in Sweden involving another Nordic telecoms giant, TeliaSonera.
“Bank statements document how the money was transferred from a previously unknown company in the British Virgin Islands as Vimpelcom purchased licenses to the mobile market in the former Soviet state,” AFP quoted Klassekampen as saying.
Telenor responded that it has “zero tolerance for corruption, both when it comes to our own operations and also to the companies that we are part owners in.”
“We are a minority shareholder in Vimpelcom, so it’s up to Vimpelcom to take responsibility for answering any questions that relate to their operations,” Telenor communications head Glenn Mandelid told AFP.
Vimpelcom, which is 33 percent owned by Telenor, told EurasiaNet.org by email that there is nothing new in the information that has emerged.
Photographs released by Karimova’s London-based spokesman, Locksley Ryan, on September 16 show what appears to be a tense standoff between the president’s daughter and her captors.
President Islam Karimov’s 16-year-old granddaughter is not being held against her will in Uzbekistan, prosecutors have announced, and she is free to leave the residence where her mother, Gulnara Karimova, is under house arrest.
Iman Karimova, an American citizen, “has no relation to the criminal cases under investigation” and there is no “restriction of her rights or legitimate interests, including freedom of movement,” the General Prosecutor’s Office said on September 22.
She is free to go anywhere at any time, including abroad, the prosecutor’s office said in a posting on its website which it described as a response to unspecified media queries. It also confirmed that Iman, who was born in the United States, has the right to her U.S. citizenship.
Iman has been in the Tashkent residence for six months with her mother, who was unofficially placed under house arrest in February and named a suspect in a multi-million-dollar mafia-style corruption case earlier this month.
Forty-two-year-old Gulnara Karimova, who was once seen as a potential successor to her aging father, has stated in letters and recordings leaked to the media that she is being held against her will.
“The territory of the house is basically surrounded now by hundreds of cameras and special equipment which is blocking any means of communication,” she said in recordings leaked to media, including EurasiaNet.org, earlier this month.
Karimova spoke of “tremendous pressure and stress” on herself and her “struggling sick daughter.” Both “need medical help urgently,” she added, for a heart condition in Iman’s case.
A cement company owned by Russian oligarch Filaret Galchev appears to have become the latest target of an assets grab by Uzbekistan’s government, sparking speculation that this is part of a re-division of economic spoils following the fall from grace of Gulnara Karimova, the daughter of President Islam Karimov.
A Tashkent court has ruled that the post-Soviet privatization of the Akhangarantsement company – owned by Galchev’s Russia-based Eurocement – way back in 1994 was illegal, and froze assets worth 414 billion sums (nearly $180 million), the company said in a July 29 statement.
The claims of illegal privatization “are of an unfounded and illegal nature, as was convincingly demonstrated in the court hearing,” it quoted Mikhail Skorokhod, Eurocement’s president, as saying.
The assault on the firm was quite sudden, he said: The company found out about the lawsuit brought by the government’s antimonopoly committee on July 16. Hearings started two days later, and on July 21 the court deemed the privatization illegal.
The ruling effectively places the firm – Uzbekistan’s second largest cement producer – back in the hands of the state, a full two decades after it was put into private hands in the post-Soviet privatization rush.
Eurocement – whose owner, Galchev, is Russia’s 24th richest man with a fortune of $6.1 billion, according to Forbes – acquired a 75-percent stake in Akhangarantsement in 2006 and now owns an 84-percent share, with the rest in the hands of minority shareholders.