Russian telecoms group Vimpelcom is suspected of paying bribes to Gulnara Karimova, the disgraced eldest daughter of President Islam Karimov, to enter the Uzbek market, according to Norwegian daily Klassekampen.
Sweden’s General Prosecutor Berndt Berger presented documents to a court in Stockholm on November 14 that allegedly show that Vimpelcom paid $55mn in bribes - $25mn in 2007 and $30mn in 2011 - to a Gibiltrar-based company named Takilant which is registered under the name of Gayane Avakyan, Gulnara's friend and business partner. Another $37.5mn was transferred in the form of profits from a partnerhip agreement signed in 2007. Suspicion arose that the payments constituted bribes to get the Uzbek government to issue telecommunications licenses, Klassekampen quoted Berger as writing.
Vimpelcom holds operating licences in Uzbekistan through local subsidiary Beeline. Its major shareholders are Altimo, the telecom arm of Alfa Group, a Russian investment company controlled by oligarch Mikhail Fridman, which owns 47.9% of total voting rights, and Telenor, a telecom group controlled by the Norwegian government, which owns another 43% of voting rights.
“These recent reports actually do not provide any new information to what the company has already disclosed in its financial statements and to regulators,” a spokesperson for Vimpelcom told EurasiaNet.org on November 17. “The company continues to cooperate with the pending investigations, and it continues to focus its energies on improving its compliance program.”
The group had already acknowledged in a 2013 SEC filing that Takilant had held a minority stake in its Uzbek subsidiary Beeline in 2007-2009 and that it had worked with Takilant to acquire frequencies in Uzbekistan, warning that it could give no assurance that it would "not become subject to investigations, face liability or suffer presentational harm" as a consequence of its dealings with Takilant.
The group's Uzbek operations are currently under investigation by the SEC in the US and a Dutch court - the group is headquartered in Amsterdam. The Swedish prosecutor is interested in the case because TeliaSonera, controlled by Sweden's government, is under investigation in Stockholm for allegedly paying up to $300mn in 2007 to acquire licenses in Uzbekistan. Gibraltar-based Talikent served as an intermediary also in that occasion.
Gulnara Karimova, once rumoured to to succeed her father as Uzbekistan's president, has now fallen victim to an escalating internal struggle for power and has been under house arrest in Tashkent since February.
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