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.
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.
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.
After a spectacular, months-long campaign to discredit her mother, her sister, and Uzbekistan’s secret police boss, the elder daughter of Uzbek strongman Islam Karimov went silent in mid-February. Reports that Gulnara Karimova has been held against her will could not be independently confirmed, but she’s been unavailable for comment as prosecutors in two European countries have named her as a suspect in corruption investigations.
Now the BBC says it has received a letterthat appears to be from Karimova. In it, the author claims she is under house arrest in Tashkent and has been beaten by men working for her notoriously brutal father.
"I am under severe psychological pressure, I have been beaten, you can count bruises on my arms," reads the letter, apparently smuggled out, which the BBC reproduced in part on March 24. "How naive I was to think that the rule of law exists in the country.”
A graphologist specializing in Cyrillic handwriting told the BBC that there is a 75 percent chance the unsigned letter was written by the scandal-plagued Karimova, Uzbekistan’s former ambassador to the United Nations, who describes herself on her website as a “poet, mezzo soprano, designer and exotic Uzbekistan beauty.”
"I never thought this could happen in a civilized, developing nation that Uzbekistan portrays itself as," the letter says, complaining of "Pinochet-style persecution."
Hot on the news that Gulnara Karimova, daughter of Uzbekistan’s strongman president Islam Karimov, is a formal suspect in a Swiss money-laundering investigation, embattled Nordic telecommunications giant TeliaSonera has become the target of a related corruption probe in the United States.
“TeliaSonera has been informed that the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has an ongoing investigation regarding TeliaSonera’s transactions in Uzbekistan,” the company said in a March 17 statement. “The DOJ has sent a request for documents to TeliaSonera. In addition, TeliaSonera has received a request from the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to submit documents and information related to Uzbekistan.”
The company made the announcement five days after revealing that two of its daughter companies, TeliaSonera UTA Holding B.V. and TeliaSonera Uzbek Telecom Holding B.V (the holders of TeliaSonera’s operations in Uzbekistan, where it operates the Ucell brand), are under investigation in The Netherlands in a bribery and money-laundering case.
“Dutch authorities have requested collateral for any financial claims which may be decided against TeliaSonera UTA Holding BV,” TeliaSonera said on March 17, adding that the request for collateral stands at 10-20 million euros.
Switzerland's Office of the Attorney General (OAG) is investigating Gulnara Karimova, the scandal-embroiled eldest daughter of Uzbekistan's strongman president Islam Karimov, on suspicion of money laundering, it said on March 12. The news comes as another blow to Karimova, who has been embroiled in a public feud with powerful rivals in Uzbekistan since last fall.
The OAG statement said that Karimova had come under suspicion following the arrest in July 2012 of two Uzbek nationals in Geneva and the subsequent opening of a money-laundering probe in Switzerland targeting four Karimova associates.
Karimova could not at the time be made a suspect because of the “diplomatic immunity she benefited from until last summer,” the OAG said. She was made a formal suspect on September 16, after losing her immunity last July along with her post as Uzbekistan’s ambassador to the UN in Geneva.
The money-laundering probe is focused on “acts presumed illicit having taken place in the telecommunications market in Uzbekistan,” which are considered the “initial breaches” of the law in the Swiss money-laundering case, the statement added.
Four executives have been dismissed from Nordic telecoms giant TeliaSonera amid an ongoing corruption investigation in Sweden that has come uncomfortably close to Gulnara Karimova, the scandal-hit daughter of Uzbek President Islam Karimov.
“The Board’s conclusion is that some senior employees no longer have the trust of the Board,” Marie Ehrling, its chairwoman, said in a statement posted on TeliaSonera’s website on November 29. “Therefore they have been notified that their employment with TeliaSonera will be terminated and they will leave their position effective immediately.”
The dismissals come amid repercussions from an ongoing corruption probe that Swedish police opened in September 2012 into claims that the Swedish-Finnish telecoms giant paid hundreds of millions of dollars in bribes to enter Uzbekistan’s telecoms market.
The probe forced the resignation of CEO Lars Nyberg in February, and now four more heads have rolled. The company did not name them all but said in a second statement on November 29 that Chief Financial Officer Per-Arne Blomquist would “leave his position effective immediately.” The Financial Times reported that Tero Kivisaari, the company’s former head of the Eurasia division, was another of the fired employees.
Scandal-plagued Nordic telecom giant TeliaSonera has distanced itself from its local subsidiary in Uzbekistan, Ucell, after Ucell sponsored an event hosted by Gulnara Karimova, the controversial daughter of the country’s strongman.
Ucell sponsored a concert this week marking the opening of Karimova’s annual weeklong arts, music, and fashion extravaganza, Style.uz.
That’s likely a little embarrassing for TeliaSonera, which is embroiled in a corruption investigation in Sweden, accused of paying over $300 million in bribes to a Karimova associate for access to Uzbekistan’s telecoms market.
A spokesperson for TeliaSonera confirmed that Ucell had sponsored the event but stressed the decision was taken locally without its involvement, Sweden’s The Local website said on October 24. "Ucell contributes to projects meant to contribute to Uzbek society," The Local quoted the TeliaSonera representative as telling the TT news agency. TeliaSonera did not disclose the amount of money Ucell had paid for Karimova's bash, which is billed as a charity fundraiser, The Local said.
In February, an audit unearthed no evidence of corruption, but found TeliaSonera had not employed adequate safeguards when entering as opaque an environment as Uzbekistan, which Transparency International ranks as 170 out of 174 on its Corruption Perceptions Index.
Pressure is mounting in Europe over graft probes linked to associates of Gulnara Karimova, daughter of Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov, as reports emerge that French and Latvian investigators are closing in on corruption enquiries previously confined to Sweden and Switzerland.
French investigators have opened a probe “targeting Gulnara Karimova” and linked to a money-laundering case connected to her associates, the Rue89 news website reported on July 31, citing an unidentified judicial source.
Swiss prosecutors confirmed earlier this month that French police had raided properties in France at the behest of the Swiss inquiry, which is investigating four Uzbek associates of Karimova’s for money laundering. One of the properties was a Paris flat belonging to Karimova, BBC Russian reported at the time, citing an “informed source.”
Rue89 said properties “which could belong to Gulnara Karimova” had been searched on June 18, adding that she owns “several bolt-holes in France” including a villa outside Saint-Tropez and a property in Paris’s chic 16th arrondissement. Rue89 said Karimova owned the real estate through Paris-based companies managed by Alisher Ergashev, a suspect in the Swiss dirty money probe.