Teliasonera negotiated directly with the Karimov-regime
Two persons with unique insight into the process of establishing Teliasonera on the Uzbek telecom market now gives witness in SVT: s “Uppdrag granskning” on how the deal was struck. Their account contradicts that of the management of Teliasonera and confirms that a deal on licenses and payments of over US $ 250 million was struck already in the spring of 2007 in direct negotiations between the management of Teliasonera and representatives of the Karimov regime.
This spring Swedish Public Television´s current affairs program ”Uppdrag granskning” could reveal that Teliasonera was cooperating closely with regimes in the so called ”dictators-belt”, Teliasoneras new markets in Eurasia. Documents confirmed how Teliasonera gave the security services in the respective countries direct access and remote control of the company’s networks. Calls, text-messages, data and the positions of the subscribers were under the control of the security services. The same structure was revealed in country after country and according to persecuted human rights activists, journalists and opposition politicians interviewed the cooperation helped the dictators to stay in power.
Another story unfolded in September 2012 when ”Uppdrag granskning” could reveal that Teliasonera paid over US $ 250 million to a one-person company in Gibraltar - at the time of the deal controlled by 24-year old Armenian woman named Gayane Avakyan.
Avakyan turned up to be a close associate of Gulnara Karimova, the daughter of the president of Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov. Karimov have ruled Uzbekistan with an iron fist since the fall of the Soviet empire and the country has lived through harsh repression, massacres of striking miners and prisons filled with political opponents. Karimovs Uzbekistan is a country where torture of prisoners is routine and prisoners are known to have been boiled to death.
Gulnara Karimova is described as the person in the Karimov family who controls the lucrative telecom market but Teliasoner has repeatedly denied any connection to her or the regime in Uzbekistan.
On Swedish radio 20: Th of September, Lars Nyberg, the CEO of Teliasonera offered his resignation if proof could be made that the company had bribed its way to business in the country. ”Has Teliasonera with 2, 2 billion (SEK eqv: US $ 250 million) bribed anyone and have we with those funds participated in money laundering? My answer is no” said Nyberg.
At the company’s third quarter analysts meeting on the 17: th of September he went even further: ”The allegations directed at Teliasoneras operations in Uzbekistan are very serious. So let me state clearly, there is zero tolerance on corruption and bribery at Teliasonera. This is extremely important for me personally and something we pay attention to every single day. I have said it before and I will repeat it: Teliasonera did not bribe anyone; Teliasonera did not participate in money laundering.”
Neither the company’s largest shareholder, the Swedish state with 37 percent of the shares, has received any information on suspected corruption. When the minister for state holdings, Mr. Peter Norman was interviewed by “Uppdrag granskning” this spring he denied all knowledge of corruption suspicions in connection to the Uzbek deal. - I’m not aware of any such problem today. I can only say that we have zero tolerance against corruption in state owned companies, he said.
But Gayane Avakyan, who turned out not to be a business woman in the telecom sector, but a personal assistant to Mrs. Karimova, and three other Uzbeks found themselves in the spotlight during the summer when they were made suspects in what is now one of Switzerland’s largest money laundering investigations with focus on exactly the company Teliasonera had done business with, Gibraltar based Takilant. One of the other suspects in the Swizz investigation was Bekzhod Ahmedov, CEO of the competing telecom company MTS, and one of Gulnara Karimovas closest associates.
”Uppdrag granskning” have interviewed two senior executives who from the inside followed the developments of Teliasoneras establishment in Uzbekistan. With regard to their positions and the risk of repercussions they have demanded to remain anonymous but tell in numerous interviews with “Uppdrag granskning” how representatives for Teliasonera traveled to Uzbekistan during the spring of 2007 to settle the deal with Gulnara Karimova.
”To reach a deal with Gulnara was a prerequisite to the whole deal. And the negotiations with her started in earnest around February – March 2007” says one of the executives and gives the name of the person negotiating for Gulnara Karimova: Bekhzod Ahmedov.
”Bekhzod Akhmedov was Gulnaras agent. He was her friend, her link into the telecom sector. He was handpicked by her.” ”Bekhzod was the counterpart. It was a crazy situation. He was the CEO of the competing [telecom company] MTS, and there was Teliasonera – at the oppositions headquarters negotiating payments to the Karimov family.”
The information from the two sources is supported by documents leaked through Wikileaks from the US state department diplomatic cables, these ones from the US Embassy in the Uzbek capital Tashkent. The US diplomats state that Teliasonera “has made the right approach to the Uzbeks, including lobbying President Karimovs daughter, Gulnara” and that Teliasonera negotiates ”…with Gulnara indirectly, through the good offices of Bekhzod Ahmedov, a director of MTS's Uzbekistan affiliate.”
When Teliasonera in July 2007 buys the Uzbek mobile operator Coscom to enter the Uzbek market the secret deal with Gulnara is already struck.
”I was then informed that Gulnara would receive shares in the new company that Teliasonera would form. And that she through a local company would receive around 20 percent. And that Teliasonera would buy back the shares 2-3 years later – at a preset price. I don’t know the amount.” says one of the executives in the interviews with”Uppdrag granskning”. ”In exchange promises were made of a 3G license, 2G- and 3G-frequencies and number series – which was needed in Uzbekistan” says the other executive.
In September 2007 the Uzbek authorities hand out the 3G license that Teliasonera wants, but not to the Swedish Telco but to a small local Uzbek company called Teleson Mobile. A company that was formed only seventeen days previously, owned and controlled by Gayane Avakyan, who after having received the license sells them on to Teliasonera.
The negotiator Bekhzod Ahmedov is also the person that controls Takilant account at the Swiss private bank Lombard Odier in Geneva to whom Teliasonera paid out the billions (SEK) for the deal with Takilant. At least until the 26: Th of June this year when suddenly everything changed.
- Something very serious happened that made the bank to panic. Gayane Avakyan showed up together with some other Uzbeks and presented herself to the bank. She tried to gain control over the accounts of Takilant, but there were problems, says François Pilet, financial correspondent at the Swizz magazine Le Matin Dimanche.
- The banker looked through his papers and the name he sees on the account is Bekhzod Akhmedov. He is the one in control of the account, not Gayane Avakyan. The bank becomes suspicious and tries to call its client Bekhzod Akhmedov. But he does not pick up the phone and they don’t know where he is, says Pilet.
She promised to return with papers and documents but they never materialized and the bank decided to alert the Swiss authorities.
Subsequently the Swiss police arrests two persons, but Avakyan escapes and Bekzhod Ahmedov is missing.
One week after”Uppdrag granskning’s” report in September the Swedish anti-corruption unit initiates an investigation into suspected bribery regarding Teliasoneras deals in Uzbekistan. Until today the investigations in Switzerland and Sweden has shown that Ahmedov and the other Uzbeks working for Gulnara Karimova has handled accounts with several hundred million dollars and more money has been frozen by the authorities in the two countries than during all of the Arab spring.
”Uppdrag granskning” has for the last nine months tried to get a comment from Teliasoneras CEO Lars Nyberg but he has declined all requests.
Teliasonera also refused to comment on the new allegations.
- Our present position is that we decline to comment. We will see if this changes, but at this stage this is all we have to say, says Teliasoneras spokesperson, Salomon Bekele.
According to information obtained by “Uppdrag granskning” two high executives in Teliasonera have been informed by the Swedish investigators that they are now formally suspected of bribery.