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'Whistle-Blower' Details Alleged Corruption By Western Telecoms In Uzbekistan

One of several undated photos of Gulnara Karimova -- apparently under house arrest and being restrained by security troops -- released in September by Ryan Locksley.
One of several undated photos of Gulnara Karimova -- apparently under house arrest and being restrained by security troops -- released in September by Ryan Locksley.

Two days after Telenor executives said they found no proof of corruption, a newly released document from a self-styled "whistle-blower" claims the Norwegian minority owners of Uzbekistan's largest mobile phone operator should have known about millions of dollars' worth of alleged bribes.

The Norwegian Ministry of Trade Industry and Fisheries says it forwarded the fresh allegations to Telenor after receiving them from an anonymous sender on January 13.

The document points to transactions between mobile operator Vimpelcom -- which is one-third-owned by Telenor -- and a Gibraltar-based company that's been accused of being a front for the daughter of Uzbek President Islam Karimov.

Amsterdam-based Vimpelcom is already under investigation by Dutch, Swiss, and U.S. authorities over its business practices in one of Central Asia's most authoritarian countries.

"VimpelCom will not comment on allegations made to our shareholders by an anonymous source," said Bobby Leach, a Vimpelcom spokesperson, in an e-mail to RFE/RL. "VimpelCom is cooperating fully with all the authorities conducting an investigation into these issues and continues to comply with all requests for information made by these authorities."

A separate probe by Swedish prosecutors alleges that in 2007 TeliaSonera, a Swedish mobile operator, paid 2.3 billion Swedish crowns ($358 million) to Takilant, the same Gibraltar company that allegedly once acted as a front for the business of Karimov's daughter, Gulnara. She has since had a falling out and is being held under house arrest in Uzbekistan.

VimpelCom has said that it worked with Takilant "in the past" to buy mobile frequencies in Uzbekistan.

The document that came to light in Norway points out that under the terms described in VimpelCom's own 2009 U.S. filings, Telenor's board members would have had veto power over any such acquisitions.

"Although our board has approved an overall strategy for expansion into the CIS, each acquisition is subject to review on a case-by-case basis by our board, and there can be no assurance that our board will approve other acquisitions in Russia, the CIS or other regions," the filing statement says.

Telenor representatives did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but in a press release posted on its website the company said the document had prompted Telenor to request "further explanation from Vimpelcom."

"The information received describes circumstances regarding VimpelCom’s entry into Uzbekistan that are new to Telenor," the company said.

Telenor advised caution over the new document and said that "overall, this can be interpreted as an attempt to discredit Telenor, in light of the serious situation concerning VimpelCom's investments in Uzbekistan."

Telenor is majority-owned by the Norwegian state.

On January 14, Svein Aaser, Telenor's board chairman, told a Norwegian parliamentary committee that VimpelCom had assured it that its Uzbek investments had met all of the requirements outlined in the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.

"If it is true that they find it hard to believe us, then that's a great a pity," he said later, according to the ABC Nyheter news site.

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    Glenn Kates

    Glenn Kates is the former managing editor for digital at Current Time, the Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA. He now reports for RFE/RL as a freelancer. 

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