The Daughter of Uzbekistan's President Personally Negotiates Bribes With Swedish Telecom Company

How singer, designer, and dictator-in-training 'Googoosha' has her hand in the bribery terms with TeliaSonera
Googoosha banner.jpg
Gulnara Karimova at Fashion Week in Moscow, Russia on April 2, 2011. (AP)

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.

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.

"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.

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