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Swedish TV: How Millions In Telecoms Bribes End Up In Karimova's Pocket

Critics of Gulnara Karimova have labeled her a "robber baron" who pilfers funds from businesses operating in Uzbekistan to pad the family coffers.
Critics of Gulnara Karimova have labeled her a "robber baron" who pilfers funds from businesses operating in Uzbekistan to pad the family coffers.
A new TV documentary airing on Sweden's SVT public television offers startling eyewitness accounts of how Uzbekistan's ruling regime negotiates, and extracts, millions of dollars in bribes from foreign investors.

The program, "TeliaSonera and the Dictator's Daughter," appears to bolster allegations that the Swedish-based TeliaSonera telecoms company paid $250 million in bribes to Gulnara Karimova, the daughter of Uzbek President Islam Karimov, in exchange for entry into the Uzbek market.

Fredrik Laurin, an investigative reporter with the current-affairs program "Uppdrag granskning," says the documentary includes testimony from two executives within TeliaSonera's organization who witnessed the 2007 deal to enter Uzbekistan, an agreement negotiated on Karimova's behalf by a longtime ally with ties to the telecom market.

"These executives tell the story of how the secret deal was struck between TeliaSonera and Gulnara Karimova's representative, Bekhzod Akhmedov, who is the former CEO of the Russian telecom operator MTS in Uzbekistan," Laurin says. "He was also the front man for Gulnara Karimova in deals with other telecom operators."

Citing fear of repercussions, both of the TeliaSonera executives featured in the SVT documentary remain anonymous, with their comments voiced by actors*.

But the testimony they offer is a damning portrayal of how the Uzbek regime, widely considered one of the most repressive and corrupt in the world, regularly strong-arms foreign investors into buying their way into the market.

'Robber Baron'

Karimova, a self-described businesswoman and pop chanteuse who officially serves as her country's UN representative in Geneva, has a personal fortune estimated in the billions of dollars.

Critics have labeled her a "robber baron" who pilfers funds from businesses operating in Uzbekistan to pad the family coffers.

One of the TeliaSonera executives interviewed in the Swedish program describes Akhmedov, a prominent Uzbek entrepreneur, as the figure who served as Karimova's "agent." "He was her friend, her link into the telecoms world. He was handpicked by her," the executive says.

The documentary alleges that it was Akhmedov who met with TeliaSonera executives in February and March 2007, when the company -- a Swedish-Finnish venture whose largest shareholder is the Swedish government -- was looking to purchase a 3G license and frequency rights.

One of the executives claims a deal with Karimova was considered a "prerequisite" to the entire deal.

He adds that the negotiations were made all the more bizarre by the fact that Akhmedov was acting on her behalf even as he was serving as the head of a rival company. "Bekhzod was the counterpart. It was a totally crazy situation. Bekhzod was the CEO for the competitor, MTS. And there sat TeliaSonera, in the competitor's office, negotiating about money for the Karimov family," the executive says.

Shadowy Company

Laurin, who works in tandem with fellow Swedish journalists Sven Bergman and Joachim Dyfvermark, documented in a September "Uppdrag granskning" program that TeliaSonera had paid $250 million in illegal funds to a shadowy Gibraltar-based company, Takilant.

Takilant, which was run by a 24-year-old Karimova associate, Gayane Avakyan, is at the center of an ongoing Swiss money-laundering investigation. Swiss prosecutors have frozen more than $600 million in Uzbek assets and placed four Uzbeks -- including Akhmedov and Avakyan -- under investigation.

Laurin says that Swedish police have declared that they formally suspect two high-ranking TeliaSonera executives of bribery in connection with the case. Both the Swedish government and the TeliaSonera CEO, Lars Nyberg, have denied any knowledge of wrongdoing in the deal.

Akhmedov, head of MTS's Uzdunrobita, gained notoriety this summer when the authorities in Tashkent accused the company of massive tax evasion. Police arrested five managers, intimidated employees, and shut down operations in what many observers saw as a blatant takeover bid by the Uzbek regime. Uzbek courts, in an apparent retreat, in November reversed a ruling to seize Uzdunrobita's assets.

Akhmedov fled Uzbekistan at the height of the scandal and vanished. His location is currently unknown, although reports on Uzbekistan's UzMetronom website suggest he briefly sought refuge in Russia before being returned to Uzbekistan at the behest of an evidently displeased Karimova.

'That Was A Surprise'

An account by a Swiss journalist cited in the SVT report lends credence to a rift between Karimova and her onetime henchman, whose intimate knowledge of her financial dealings may have made him a liability abroad.

Yves Steiner, a financial correspondent with the Swiss public television station RTS, says Swiss officials first opened their investigation into the Uzbek money-laundering case after Avakyan walked into the Lombard Odier Bank in Geneva and attempted to get access to a large account managed, until then, by Akhmedov.

"Bekhzod Akhmedov apparently got angry with Gulnara Karimova, but it's not yet clear how, exactly," Steiner says. "In any case, people close to Gulnara Karimova came to Geneva and said, 'No, it's no longer Bekhzod Akhmedov who's the holder of this money, but Gayane Avakyan.' For the bank, that was a surprise."

CORRECTION: This story has been amended to reflect the fact that the SVT television documentary used actors to voice the statements from TeliaSonera executives wishing to remain anonymous.
  • 16x9 Image

    Farruh Yusupov

    Farruh Yusupov is the director of RFE/RL's Turkmen Service. Before joining the Turkmen Service in 2016, he was an editor in the Uzbek Service and led its journalistic investigations, including a series of reports on corruption involving family members of President Islam Karimov. Farruh also produced radio programs, including Health, The Other Side Of The Coin, and OzodNavigator. He worked for USAID-funded projects in Central Asia before joining RFE/RL in 2004.​

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    Daisy Sindelar

    Daisy Sindelar is the vice president and editor in chief of RFE/RL.