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.
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.