A mobile phone operator in Tajikistan has said it is appealing what it considers an illegal tax claim for around $19.5 million.
Tcell, which is controlled by a company that is in turn 60 percent owned by Scandinavian telecommunications giant Telia Company AB, said on January 19 that the claim is based on inexistent revenues. (Telia Company is currently going through the process of divesting itself of its interests in Tcell).
Failure to successfully appeal the claim will place a “very severe financial strain on Tcell,” the company said.
“We are very concerned with the situation which we believe is totally unacceptable,” Emil Nilsson, head of the Eurasia business region at Telia Company, said in a statement.
Telia Company said the claim for 155 million somoni follows a tax audit for the period May 2015 through June 2016 and is equivalent to Tcell earnings for the entirety of 2015.
That the Tajik government is trying to sting a foreign investor for a suspiciously implausible windfall should come as no surprise to anybody familiar with the state of the country's beleaguered telecommunications sector.
Indeed, according to EuriasaNet.org sources, Tcell is not the only one to getting this treatment. Telia Company should consider themselves lucky.
Informed sources have said that Megafon-Tajikistan, another top mobile phone service provider and daughter company of Russia’s Megafon, is being hit up for 300 million somoni. And Beeline, the brand of the local affiliate of Russia’s Vimpelcom, is said to be facing a fine of around 350 million somoni.
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.
While it is often noted that the citizens of Kazakhstan are averse to protesting, only the brave would try to meddle with their mobile phones.
Consider the case of mobile telephone provider ALTEL, which has been assailed by disgruntled subscribers in recent days over complaints that they reneged on agreements.
ALTEL, a daughter company of state-owned Kazakhtelecom, was the first mobile communications company to enter the market in Kazakhstan in 1994. In 2010, it was first to introduce 3G, and two years later it brought in the LTE standard, which is usually marketed under the 4G brand.
In November, the company announced it was set to merge with Swedish mobile services provider Tele2, which also has a presence on Kazakhstan’s market. According to a report by news website Informburo.kz, the merger would have created a single company with a 7 million-strong client base — ALTEL previously had 2 million subscribers. That would account for 20 percent of the mobile communications market in Kazakhstan. The new entity will also control more than 80 percent of Kazakhstan’s mobile Internet market.
But big is not always beautiful, as ALTEL customers have learned.
ALTEL’s main selling point was that it provided unlimited Internet packages, which proved hugely popular.
In a move that has angered many clients, however, ALTEL on April 4 announced that it was scrapping its unlimited 4G offers and that it would now provide a limited 30 gigabytes monthly. ALTEL has defended decision by stating that it was forced to take the decision because of the numerous complaints about low speeds.
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.