Corruption Probe into TeliaSonera Uzbek Deal

• Category: Uzbekistan
(Reuters) – Swedish prosecutors have opened a preliminary investigation into TeliaSonera AB’s acquisition of a 3G license in Uzbekistan, adding to pressure on the group over its activities in Central Asia. TeliaSonera has denied it did anything wrong in 2007 when it obtained the license from a Gibraltar-based company.
Photo of Gulnara Karimova during New York Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week of 2012

The name of Gulnara Karimova, the eldest daughter of the Uzbek President, is often cited by the media covering the TeliaSonera probe.
According to SVT, the funds paid by TeliaSonera for the purchase of its 3G licence were funnelled through Gayane Avakyan, an armenian woman believed to be the right arm of Gulnara Karimova, which is also the sole owner of the Gibraltar-based company Takilant. Takilant received around 2.2 billion kronor (US $337 million) but in the public records of Takilant’s accounting, there is no trace of TeliaSonera’s payments in neither money nor stock.

Last July, two Uzbek citizens working for Coca-Cola Uzbekistan, were arrested in Geneva. Coca-Cola Uzbekistan is also part of Ms Karimova’s financial empire.

The company has said it will appoint independent investigators to look into allegations of bribery and money laundering associated with the deal. But it declined to make any comment about the probe by the prosecutor’s office. “We can confirm that the Swedish police have collected information from TeliaSonera regarding Uzbekistan,” TeliaSonera said in a statement. “The anti-corruption unit of the Swedish Prosecuting Authorities have now initiated an investigation, which we welcome.” The prosecutor’s office confirmed the probe but declined to give details of what it was looking into.

The preliminary investigation is attributable to the allegations presented in the television programme Uppdrag granskning (“Commission to investigate”) broadcast by Sveriges Television (SVT) last week. According to the programme, TeliaSonera was guilty of bribery and money-laundering in connection with its acquisition of an Uzbek 3G licence from Takilant Limited, registered in Gibraltar. The persons interviewed in this programme claimed that at least a part of the millions TeliaSonera had paid for the licence ended up as bribes in the hands of the Uzbekistan President, Islam Karimov, and his family.

Under these investigations involving four Uzbek nationals, hundreds of millions of francs have been frozen in Swiss banks. The Swiss Attorney General’s Office has confirmed to EurasiaNet.org the arrest of two Uzbek citizens. These developments follow the Russian telecoms operator MTS troubles in Uzbekistan, having had its Uzbek licence withdrawn and the assets confiscated.

TeliaSonera created by the merger between the Swedish and Finnish telecommunications companies, Telia and Sonera, and in which Sweden owns a 37.3% stake, has come under scrutiny in recent months over its activities in Central Asia. Telia CEO Lars Nyberg has staked his job on the company being exonerated from wrongdoing in the 2.3 billion crown deal ($351.9 million) with Gibraltar-based Takilant Ltd. Telia has said it did a background check on Takilant and found Takilant was the rightful owner of the assets it bought. Nyberg has said that although the investigation could not discover whether anyone other than Takilant’s single shareholder stood to gain from the deal, Telia had gone ahead. He said he did now know where Takilant had got its 3G licence from or how long it had held it.

The TeliaSonera president noted that the value of Ucell, their Uzbek subsidiary, has doubled in five years by increasing the number of its subscribers from 400,000 to 9 million.