A bit bruised and on vastly inferior financial terms, Russian cell operator MTS is returning to Turkmenistan.
In a July 26 statement, MTS said authorities in Ashgabat had granted the company a five-year contract for mobile operations, with the possibility of another five-year extension if all goes well. Both sides, the statement said, have agreed to drop legal action against one another.
The hitch? The new agreement with state-run Altyn Asyr requires MTS to pay the company 30 percent of its net profits every month.
MTS was kicked out of Turkmenistan in late 2010 after Ashgabat abruptly suspended the company’s operating license. Since then, MTS has tried to get the government to pay the $137.8 million it claims to have lost when it was booted out of the country, and rumors have circled regularly that MTS would return. As EurasiaNet.org has reported, the dithering and overloaded Altyn Asyr is not loved by most Turkmen, and some have even saved their MTS SIM cards hoping that one day the operator would return.
According to Reuters, MTS claims its cell towers and equipment in Turkmenistan are still in good shape, so its 2.4 million former customers should be able to reconnect soon.
Visitors to a popular local news site posted comments celebrating MTS’ return. But after years of speculation, some were skeptical. “It’s really not sure whether this will happen or not,” said a user identified as Kerki.
Customers line up outside a Ucell office in Tashkent on July 18. MTS clients mobbed rival mobile providers after the company was forced to suspend operations in Uzbekistan.
Uzbekistan has suspended the operations of Russia’s largest cellphone company amid accusations of legal violations in the use of equipment, prompting an exodus to other operators and sending rumors swirling that vested economic interests are behind the move.
The suspension of all operations of O’zdunrobita, MTS’s Uzbekistan arm, took effect in Uzbekistan from 6pm on July 17 for 10 working days, under a decree from Tashkent’s Communications and IT Agency.
The shutdown left 9.5 million clients -- a third of Uzbekistan’s 29.5-million population -- without MTS mobile communications at least until July 31.
MTS insists it has complied with all government requirements and is operating within the law. A July 17 press release spoke of “ungrounded attacks” on its business, including the shutdown and “the use of the tactic of intimidation and arrest of O’zdunrobita staff.” Five managers are in detention facing criminal charges, while general director Bekzod Akhmedov has fled Uzbekistan.
The arrests came after what MTS described as “synchronized inspections” over recent months, leading to accusations of tax evasion, theft and breaches of Uzbekistan’s complicated currency regulations.
MTS customers reportedly mobbed other providers to buy new SIM cards. “People are going crazy trying to get numbers from other companies,” said a Tashkent resident who subscribes to rival operator Perfectum Mobile on condition of anonymity on July 18.