Telenor's Uzbekistan bribery allegations only 'tip of the iceberg', whistleblower claims

By bne IntelliNews January 20, 2015

bne IntelliNews -

 

Allegations that Russian mobile operator Vimpelcom bribed to win telecom licences in Uzbekistan are merely “the tip of the iceberg”, and the company and one of its main shareholders Telenor of Norway have used corruption systematically to expand in the former Soviet Union, claims an anonymous whistleblower in an email sent to the Norwegian government.

"Uzbekistan does not appear to be an isolated incident, but rather is indicative of Vimpelcom’s (and, indeed, Telenor’s) modus operandi in their dealings in the former Soviet Union," reads the email, as reported on Telenor's website on January 16.

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

Telenor denied that it could have done more to ensure transparency at Vimpelcom, but has said it will contact the Russian operator for more details of the deals.

“The information received describes circumstances regarding Vimpelcom’s entry into Uzbekistan that are new to Telenor… and as a minority owner, Telenor will contact Vimpelcom for further explanation immediately,” Telenor said in the press release.

Vimpelcom holds licences in Uzbekistan through local subsidiary Beeline, the country’s largest operator. Vimpelcom’s major shareholders are Altimo, the telecommunications 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 43% of voting rights.

Vimpelcom first faced bribery allegations for its Uzbek operations in November, when documents presented to a court in Stockholm alleged that payments worth a total of $55mn to a Gibiltrar-based shell company named Takilant and registered under the name of Gayane Avakyan, a friend and business partner of Gulnara Karimova, the disgraced daughter of Uzbek president Islam Karimov, constituted bribes to get the Uzbek government to issue telecommunications licenses.

The payments to Takilant may have been much higher though, according to the new evidence presented by the anonymous whistleblower, who detailed 11 transactions between 2006 and 2012 worth a total of $214.5mn.

"Who possibly could have thought it was commercially reasonable for a shell company (nominally owned by a woman in her 20s) to simply hold a telecom licence, tell the government what to do with it, and reap a massive windfall in the process?" the whistleblower wonders in his (or her) email.

Vimpelcom's licence acquisition is currently under investigation by American, Swiss and Dutch authorities.

Telenor has rebutted the bribery allegations, claiming that "there is no indication in the [Vimpelcom's] board materials or protocols that the board was aware or made aware that Takilant’s beneficial owner had any connection to anyone associated with Uzbekistan’s president," the company stated in a letter sent to the Norwegian Trade, Industry and Fisheries Ministry in November and disclosed on January 16.

Vimpelcom has also denied wrongdoing in the past, but refused to comment on the whistleblower’s new allegations. “Vimpelcom will not comment on allegations made to our shareholders by an anonymous source,” Vimpelcom spokesman Bobby Leach said in a statement emailed to The Wall Street Journal on January 16.

Another Nordic telecom, Swedish operator Teliasonera, has also admitted paying money to Takilant, but denied bribery or wrongdoing. Swedish prosecutors are looking into allegations that in 2007 it paid SEK2.3bn (now worth $283m) to Takilant.

Gulnara Karimova has since had a falling out with her family, and is being held under house arrest in Uzbekistan. She is under investigation in Switzerland for money laundering, and $900mn in assets linked to her have been frozen there.

The whistleblower in the email also pointed the finger at other Telenor investments in the region.

Telenor became a shareholder in a Russian telecom joint-venture, North-West GSM, in 1994. The company held operating licences in St Petersburg and the Murmansk and Arkhangelsk Regions. It later turned out through years of legal proceedings that Telenor's local partner was Leonid Reiman, at the time an executive with the state-owned telecom company and later President Vladimir Putin's telecommunications minister.

In 1998, Telenor bought into a Ukrainian joint venture called Kyivstar, which was later linked to former Ukrainian Prime Minister Pavlo Lazarenko and President Leonid Kuchma, as "strongly" suggested by evidence brought up by US prosecutors, corporate records and other disclosures, the whistleblower claimed.

Telenor rejected these allegations.

"Telenor wants to point out that there are several aspects [of the whistleblower's document] making it necessary to be cautious," the company said in its statement on January 16. "The information regarding the period in the early 1990s is not easy to relate to, since the document contains a mixture of known and unknown information, allegations and speculations. Overall, this can be interpreted as an attempt to discredit Telenor, in light of the serious situation concerning Vimpelcom’s investments in Uzbekistan."

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