Speaking at his presidential inauguration after winning a galactic 97.7 percent of the vote in an election over the weekend, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov announced that Turkmenistan will embark on further exploration of space.
The state news agency cited the president as saying on February 17 that Turkmenistan will build a world-class observatory from which to study the skies. But there is also a more explicitly commercial intent behind this sudden interest in space.
“Huge attention will be devoted to developing the communications sector,” he said. “We will continue to exploit outer space by launching new satellites that will enable us to optimize telecommunications networks and the national economy and raise the Great Silk Road linking the continents to a whole new level.”
Turkmenistan has already secured a perch in the space. In 2015, a Turkmen satellite was blasted into orbit onboard a SpaceX craft. The 4.5 ton satellite was built on order by France’s Thales Alenia Space and is operated by the Communications Ministry to provide telecommunications services across Europe, Central Asia and Africa.
Berdymukhamedov said at a government meeting in mid-January that one priority for 2017 was to continue developing mobile, broadcasting and internet communications, and that satellites would be key to that goal.
A telecommunications gateway built to snoop on people’s phone calls and internet habits is, according to one estimate, making the government at least $2 million monthly.
Around early 2016, President Emomali Rahmon signed off a decree to create an entity called the Unified Electronic Communications Switching Center, abbreviated as EKTs in Russian. The system was — purportedly in the interests of security — to require all digital data to be filtered through a network gateway run by state-owned telecommunications company Tojiktelecom. The state telecommunications is in turn controlled by the state telecommunications agency, headed by Beg Zukhurov, who is related to President Rahmon by marriage.
Protests that this mechanism would lead to Tojiktelecom’s de facto monopoly control over the industry, in complete violation of obligations before the World Trade Organization, which Tajikistan joined in 2013, were ignored.
EKTs operations proper began in November. As news website Asia-Plus has reported, from January 1, all mobile service operators in Tajikistan have had to pay 15 dirhams ($0.02) into the system for every minute of incoming and and outgoing international calls. That was an increase of the 11 dirham fee previously levied — a hike that the anti-monopoly agency explained as being necessitated by the shrinking number of international calls.
“Until now, the duration of incoming and outgoing international calls in Tajikistan was around 158 million minutes monthly. In December, the duration of calls fell to 112 million minutes,” a source in the anti-monopoly agency told Asia-Plus. That drop prompted Tojiktelecom to plead with the anti-monopoly agency to act, according to the website’s source.
Under a newly approved law, authorities in Kazakhstan will from this summer have the power to remotely disable mobile telephones that are not registered in a state database, Tengri News has reported.
Officials say the measure has been adopted as part of the fight against terrorism.
Major mobile phone service operators Kcell and Beeline say that since the start of the year, the Information and Communications Ministry has been actively working on creating a register of International Mobile Equipment Identity (IMEI) numbers, which are unique to every mobile device.
Under the new law, mobile operators will be required to block all mobile phones that have not been registered. The rule on registration will come into force on July 1, 2017.
Nur.kz news website has reported that the Information Ministry formed a working group together with law enforcement and mobile phone service provider representatives to draw up the specific rules on registration within the coming months. Although the details have not been worked out to date, the law is already on the books.
Service providers have said that similar requirements — albeit intended to reduce phone theft — are in place in several countries, including Turkey, Azerbaijan and Ukraine.
IMEI numbers are distinct from SIM cards and can be used in some cases to trace the whereabouts of stolen phones and, if necessary, block them.
Authorities in Kazakhstan are stepping up efforts to tighten control on information by granting the security services power to sever internet and phone connections without having to apply for a court order.
Independent newspaper Ak-Zhaiyk reported on January 20 that the authority to disconnect telecommunications has been granted to the National Security Committee, or KNB, at all levels, down to local branches.
The stated aim of the measure is to combat terrorism.
As lawyer Jokhar Utebekov has noted on his Facebook account, the fact that the KNB will be able to act directly in blocking websites, disconnecting mobile phone links, disabling messenger apps or suspending internet connections without having to go through service providers would appear to indicate that it already possesses the technical means to do so.
The KNB will be able to carry out any of those actions at the request of the police, the anti-corruption agency, the economic crimes service and several other security bodies, in effect giving it authority previously wielded only by the General Prosecutor’s Office.
The changes to the law that have brought about these changes are, incidentally, part of the same contentious legislative package that required citizens to register with local authorities in the event that they settle in a location for more than one month.
Be it as it may, the adjustment to the law will change little in reality and will only formalize an already existing pattern of censorship.
As of January 20, mobile phone operators in Tajikistan will have to increase the cost of outgoing calls to Russia by 20 percent, up to 1.20 somoni ($0.15) per minute. Only four months ago, the cost of a call to Russia per minute was only 0.69 somoni.
The price increase comes by order of the antimonopoly service and at the suggestion of the state communications agency and stands to adversely affect both mobile phone companies and people wishing to keep in touch with their relatives working abroad.
Mobile phone companies have noted on their official websites that the additional cost has been incurred by the fact that calls are now rerouted through the Unified Electronic Communications Switching Center, a network gateway run by state-owned telecommunications company Tojiktelecom, which is in turn owned by the state communications agency.
The aim behind creating the gateway, which is known by its Russian abbreviation EKTs, was said last year to be that of “ensuring national and information security.” In cruder terms, the system theoretically gives authorities complete monitoring powers over internet and mobile phone traffic.
The state communications agency is run by the notorious Beg Zukhurov, a relative of President Emomali Rahmon by marriage.
Mobile phone operators in Tajikistan have begun the process of re-registering all SIM cards in the country as part of a strategy to combat terrorist threats.
Khovar state news agency this week cited a representative for the government communications agency, Alibek Beknazarov, as saying the policy is intended to uphold security and help investigators solve crimes.
“There are subscribers who have several SIM cards and give them to their relatives, friends, acquaintances, who are sometimes living abroad, to use. So when it becomes necessary to do so, it is difficult to find the real user, since the actual person using it is not the registered party. Moreover, re-registering SIM cards is indispensable because of the dangers of terrorism. This measure will enable us to create a database of genuine users,” Beknazarov said.
Re-registering will require phone users to bring passports and the SIM card to official service centers of the mobile companies. SIM cards will be deactivated within a year in the event of failure to re-register.
Officials say there are already 11 million registered SIM cards in the country — 6 million of those accounts are used regularly. That figure illustrates how many people own several SIM cards that they use strategically to keep the size of their phone bills down.
One point of apparent concern for Tajik officials is the popularity of local SIM cards with users across the border in northern Afghanistan. That point came up during discussions in parliament late last year, when the chamber was considering the rules about requiring mobile phone users to re-register SIM cards.
Demand for old-fashioned mobile phones has surged in Kazakhstan following a recent ban on government employees bringing smartphones into the workplace.
As of April 1, civil servants have been forbidden from taking any phones able to capture photos, record audio or send and receive Bluetooth messages to work. The ban was primarily motivated over concerns about the growing amount of classified information allegedly being leaked out and posted on social media websites.
“This rule is being applied completely in the Interior Ministry,” said Saltanat Azirbek, a spokesperson for the ministry in Almaty. “Official documents should in no instance be publicly circulated since they could fall into the hands of criminals, and people of ill-intent could use them to their own ends.”
Some Kazakhstani government workers have long been setting the example. While roaming the halls of parliament, Interior Minister Kalmukhanbet Kasymov recently showed off his own phone, a vintage Nokia model that he said he has been using for the past 10 years.
Others are less impressed and have taken to social media to debate the merits of the new prohibition. The consensus is that the rules are unfair since most use their smartphones mainly to communicate with colleagues, relatives and friends, not to pass on secret state information.
The general public is even more caustic in its assessment. Shavkat Sabirov, head of Internet Association of Kazakhstan, noted that refraining from the use of modern telephones in an age of rapid technological development is decidedly regressive.
Russian-owned telecommunications giant VimpelCom is to shell out $835 million in fines after admitting to securing its foothold on the market in Uzbekistan through bribery.
The U.S. Department of Justice said in a statement on February 18 that it is also seeking the forfeiture of $850 million of bribes payments allegedly made by VimpelCom another Russian-owned company, MTS, and now being held in bank accounts in Switzerland, Belgium, Luxembourg and Ireland.
U.S. government officials have described these as historic turning points.
“These cases combine a landmark [Foreign Corrupt Practices Act] resolution for corporate bribery with one of the largest forfeiture actions we have ever brought to recover bribe proceeds from a corrupt government official,” said Assistant Attorney General Caldwell.
The lion’s share of the fines — $795 million — will be paid to the U.S. and Dutch corruption-busting bodies that have been investigating the activities in Uzbekistan of VimpelCom and other telecoms companies.
VimpelCom officially admitted earlier this week to engaging in corrupt practices in Uzbekistan.
VimpelCom admitted it had “through various executives and employees, paid bribes to an Uzbek government official, who was a close relative of a high-ranking government official and had influence over the Uzbek governmental body that regulated the telecom industry,” the Justice Department said.
That individual is widely held to be Gulnara Karimova, the eldest daughter of Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov.
Tashkent is also seeking the return of those frozen funds, arguing that it is a victim of bribery.
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.
A top Norwegian business executive has been arrested in Oslo on corruption charges relating to a multimillion-dollar bribery case involving the ruling Karimov family of Uzbekistan.
The detention ramps up the pressure from international investigations into alleged bribery by multinationals of Gulnara Karimova, the disgraced daughter of Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov, to gain a foothold in the country’s lucrative telecoms market.
Jo Lunder, former chief executive of embattled Russian-owned telecoms company VimpelCom, was arrested as he flew into Oslo airport late November 4, a public prosecutor told Norwegian media the following day.
“He has been charged in connection to the VimpelCom case. It is a corruption charge,” Marianne Djupesland said in remarks quoted by Stockholm-based newspaper The Local, declining to reveal further details.
Lunder’s lawyer Cato Schiotz says the accused believes he is innocent, the newspaper reported.
The arrest comes three months after the U.S. Department of Justice won a ruling in a New York court to have $300 million dollars frozen as part of an investigation into what it described as an “international conspiracy to launder corrupt payments.”
The lawsuit alleges that illicit payments were made by two telecoms companies, Russia’s MTS and Amsterdam-based VimpelCom, which is majority owned by Russian billionaire Mikhail Fridman, to curry influence and secure favorable decisions to operate in Uzbekistan’s telecommunications sector.