A Eurasianet partner post from RFE/RL
Documents leaked to Swedish investigative journalists and reviewed by RFE/RL appear to offer fresh evidence of a link between Swedish telecom giant TeliaSonera and Gulnara Karimova, the daughter of the president of Uzbekistan.
The documents, part of a program set to be aired on May 22 on Sweden's SVT public broadcaster, show TeliaSonera being asked to pay hefty bribes in exchange for protection from government agencies and an infusion of new clients.
They also appear to show Karimova personally dictating the terms of the negotiations through a series of scribbles, complaints, and queries handwritten on the documents, which were obtained by SVT's "Uppdrag Granskning" ("Mission: Investigation") program and shared with RFE/RL.
"Mission: Investigation" has already produced a series of damning reports on TeliaSonera, which is under investigation for allegedly paying upward of $300 million in bribes to a Karimova associate to gain access to the Uzbek telecom market in 2007.
A group of alleged Karimova associates is currently being targeted in dual Swiss and Swedish probes for bribery and money-laundering, while Swedish prosecutors have opened an "aggravated bribery" case against a number of TeliaSonera employees.
TeliaSonera CEO Lars Nyberg stepped down February 1 as the company, whose two largest stakeholders are the Swedish and Finnish governments, came under increasing scrutiny for its activities in Uzbekistan.
The new documents, however, suggest that TeliaSonera continued to agree to pay bribes as recently as the summer of 2012.
Parcel Of Documents
The documents, a series of Russian-language memoranda, and executive summaries dotted with handwritten comments and attached notes, appear to have been written in part by a Karimova associate familiar with TeliaSonera's business dealings in Uzbekistan, and reviewed in pen by Karimova herself.
The parcel of original documents was passed to "Mission: Investigation" by an unnamed courier acting on the behalf of a source, "Alexander," who had contacted the Swedish journalists by e-mail and appeared to be well-acquainted with specific aspects of TeliaSonera's dealings in Uzbekistan.
The authenticity of the documents cannot be independently verified. But much of their content, including previously unpublished employee lists, and the holdings of some Swiss bank accounts, have been cross-checked by "Mission: Investigation" and RFE/RL's Uzbek Service and found to be accurate.
A Cyrillic forensic graphologist provided with verified samples of Karimova's handwriting told RFE/RL the script on the documents is 75-percent likely to be Karimova's. (A Swedish graphologist contacted by "Mission: Investigation" was unable to draw a definite conclusion, but had no expertise in Cyrillic.)
One of the documents, a point-by-point summary of business negotiations with TeliaSonera during the summer of 2012, appears to have been drafted by a Karimova aide for her review.
Among other things, the document notes TeliaSonera's "confirmation" that it will pay a one-off fee of $5 million in exchange for 2 million new mobile-phone subscribers.
The confirmation of the agreement, dated July 31, 2012, is potentially significant, coming just weeks after Uzbek authorities revoked the operating license of a rival company, Russia's MTS, leaving 9 million Uzbek subscribers without wireless service.
'Escort' Through Regulatory Bodies
"Mission: Investigation" has already reported that a former MTS executive, Bekzod Akhmedov, served as Karimova's middleman in some negotiations with TeliaSonera while still employed by the Russian telecom company. Akhmedov is now a suspect in the Swiss and Swedish investigations.
The same document also outlines a demand for a massive, $15 million payment by TeliaSonera for an "escort" through five state regulatory bodies: the state tax inspectorate, customs officials, the antimonopoly committee, the state communications inspectorate, and the Interior Ministry.
The document notes that it is possible to arrange payment on a per-agency basis, as well, warning that such an alternative "will be more expensive."
TeliaSonera's Uzbek interlocutors specifically offer the option of lowering the fee in exchange for protection from just two of the five bodies.
An apparent attempt by TeliaSonera to talk down the price, summarized in the Uzbek document, is summarily dismissed with an emphatic handwritten "X" by the writer, believed to be Karimova. Farther down the document, the writer warns associates to bide their time on a contract stipulation on converting funds, saying, "Don't press this for a while!"
TeliaSonera has repeatedly denied any connection to Karimova, who has no official ties to Uzbekistan's telecom industry but has been characterized by U.S. diplomats as a "robber baron" who strong-arms funds from Uzbek businesses to feed a family fortune estimated in the billions.
A Swedish telecom executive with intimate knowledge of TeliaSonera's eastern expansion told "Mission: Investigation" that the new documents could be damaging for the company, which has recently sought to address concerns about its conduct by publishing new operating guidelines and serving as the sponsor of last week's Eurovision Song Contest.
"If the information in these documents is true, it indicates that there has been direct dialogue with Gulnara," said the source, who asked not to be named, citing "executive-level" firings and threats at TeliaSonera in connection with the case. He added that fresh evidence linking the company to Karimova could be "extremely painful" for TeliaSonera.
The documents also show TeliaSonera being asked by its Uzbek partners to sponsor a number of local cultural initiatives, including Style.uz, a weeklong art and fashion festival held annually in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent. The handwritten comments include an order to arrange such payments separately and "under no circumstances attach FF's name to anything" -- an apparent reference to Karimova's massive Fund Forum charity, which she has used to bolster her legitimacy and potential presidential prospects among Uzbeks.
TeliaSonera's Uzbek subsidiary, Ucell, was listed as an official sponsor of Style.uz in 2011 and 2012, and the company has confirmed it participates in cultural and charity sponsorships.
The document includes a caveat that the sponsorship payments should include travel and appearance fees for a regional celebrity. (Halit Ergenc, a soap opera star from the Turkish mega-hit “Magnificent Century,” eventually appeared alongside Karimova at Style.uz in the autumn of 2012.)
Insiders say such deals are routinely used as a way to tap foreign investors for additional funds. John Davy, who served as Ucell's chief financial officer in 2008, says Uzbek authorities sometimes interrupted phone services as a way of pressing TeliaSonera for sponsorships and other impromptu payments.
"Once in a while...down goes the switch and all of a sudden we lose a hundred base stations," Davy told "Mission: Investigate." "We would have thousands of subscribers screaming about why they don't have their service. So after two or three days we have to make a $100,000 payment to a charitable organization, at the choice of whomever."
Such payments, Davy said, went into the books as donations to cultural entities. But "everybody knew what they were for," he added. (Davy was briefly imprisoned for fraud in the early 2000s but was confirmed by a TeliaSonera insider to have worked for Ucell in 2008.)
Other documents make direct reference to Karimova's close associate and the woman at the heart of the TeliaSonera investigation, Gayane Avakyan. Avakyan, still in her 20s, made headlines last year as the head of Takilant, the Gibraltar-based shell company that orchestrated TeliaSonera's entry into the Uzbek market in return for the $230 million payment now under investigation.
Avakyan is one of the four Uzbek suspects named in the European money-laundering cases. Hundreds of millions of dollars in Takilant assets and other holdings have been frozen in bank accounts in both Sweden and Switzerland.
One of the documents procured by "Mission: Investigation" -- dated August 8, 2012 -- notes that Avakyan is in the process of reregistering several Swiss bank accounts and queries whether any funds should be moved to other "structures" in the meantime. The handwritten notes that RFE/RL believes come from Karimova say "not to touch" the bank where the accounts are but complain that the three-week registration period is "unrealistically long," adding, "At such a speed we'll lose everything!"
'Zero Tolerance For Corruption
Karimova, who rarely speaks to the press, has not responded to multiple interview requests from either SVT or RFE/RL.
But in a May 20 interview with "Mission: Investigation," TeliaSonera again denied that it had held any business negotiations with Karimova.
Acting CEO Per-Arne Blomquist, who served as the company's chief financial officer for five years before assuming Nyberg's vacated post, acknowledged that TeliaSonera was involved in sponsoring Fund Forum initiatives. But he dismissed any suggestion of an unseemly link to Karimova, saying that in countries such as Uzbekistan "there is often a link between leading decision-makers and these kinds of organizations."
Blomquist went on to say that TeliaSonera's business dealings in Uzbekistan were limited to its partners at Takilant. He acknowledged that Takilant had approached his company in the summer of 2012 regarding a variety of "consulting services" but says TeliaSonera ultimately rejected most of the proposals, including the $15 million protection package.
"TeliaSonera as a company is not involved with anything that I would call bribery culture, and that includes Uzbekistan," Blomquist said. "We have zero tolerance for corruption, and if we discover anything to do with this issue, we deal with it."