Eurovision's Shady Connections to Uzbekistan's Oppressive Regime

Amid all the kitsch, the singing contest's main sponsor's ties get scrutinized.
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Finland's Krista Siegfrids (centre, L) performs during dress rehearsals for the second semi-final at the 2013 Eurovision Song Contest at the Malmo Opera Hall in Malmo, Sweden on May 15, 2013. (Reuters)

When Swedish singer Loreen won the Eurovision Song Contest last year in Baku, she emerged as an outspoken champion of human rights in the former Soviet Union.

She angered host country Azerbaijan by meeting with activists and saying rights in the oil-rich nation were abused "every day."

Two months later, during a trip to Belarus, she criticized President Alyaksandr Lukashenka for jailing opponents and visited the wife of imprisoned activist Ales Byalyatski, saying the plight of the divided family "breaks my heart."

As the contest has expanded east to include new, post-Soviet countries, watchdogs have seized the opportunity to highlight rights issues -- particularly in the years when Azerbaijan, Russia, and other ex-communist countries play host.

So as Sweden prepares to host the 58th Eurovision final on May 18 in Malmo, there may have been hopes the liberal EU nation would follow suit and use the contest to gently push human rights onto the agenda.

Instead, Sweden is facing a rights liability of its own, with the communications giant TeliaSonera serving as the event's main sponsor.

TeliaSonera made international headlines last year when it was accused of paying hundreds of millions of dollars in bribes to Gulnara Karimova, the daughter of Uzbekistan's president, in exchange for access to that Central Asian country's massive mobile-phone market.

But even earlier, the mobile operator had come under scrutiny for its practice of granting post-Soviet client countries access to private phone and Internet records that were used to harass and even prosecute political opponents.

An investigative report, aired on Sweden's "Uppdrag Granskning" news program in April 2012, documented cases in which TeliaSonera subsidiaries had provided security forces in Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan with a real-time feed of citizens' private communication activities.

In one of the most egregious examples, the "Uppdrag" report found that KGB forces in Belarus used its access to life:), the local division of TeliaSonera's TurkCell, to physically track and arrest scores of protesters in the wake of Lukashenka's dubious reelection in December 2010.

The Democracy Report The co-producer of the "Uppdrag" report, Joachim Dyfvermak, has reported extensively on TeliaSonera's activities in the former Soviet Union. He says the company, whose majority owners are the Swedish and Finnish governments, knowingly made unsavory deals in order to enter the lucrative post-Soviet market.

"They took the risk, knowing about those countries' participation in crimes against human rights, knowing about the price they had to pay like in Uzbekistan, where they paid the regime money," Dyfvermak says. "They got the licenses thanks to the agreements with the regimes, giving the security intelligence total access to their customers 24-7. They're stuck with agreements with all these dictatorships."

In Azerbaijan, where press freedoms are among the world's worst, records obtained by "Uppdrag" journalists showed that TeliaSonera's local branch, Azercell, had allowed the phone of journalist Agil Khalil to be tapped after he published a piece about being beaten by government agents for his critical reporting. Khalil later fled the country after a second attack.

Ironically, Azercell had already become notorious for a scandal tied to Eurovision in 2009, when Azerbaijanis were summoned to the National Security Ministry to explain why they had voted for regional rival Armenia in that year's contest. An investigation revealed that Azercell had provided the government with the phone records of Azeris who had cast their impolitic votes by SMS.

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