By John Helmer, Moscow
From small seeds, big truths can be cultivated, pressed, packaged, and retailed profitably. Lies, too.
The elder daughter of Uzbekistan’s president, Islam Karimov, Gulnara Karimova, was so named because in the Uzbek language Gulnara signifies the flower of the pomegranate. The Persians say the same thing.
Last week, after months of negotiation with newspapers worldwide, Karimova issued two press interviews in Switzerland, where she is Uzbekistan’s representative to the Geneva branch of the United Nations. Her effort has been arranged before prosecutors in Switzerland and Sweden file public indictments against Uzbek, Swiss and Swedish company officials for corruption offences, including bribery and money-laundering. They acknowledge they are cooperating with each other; they may be cooperating secretly with the Prosecutor-General of Russia. The deadline for the opening of the Swedish criminal dossier in the Stockholm District Court is July 25.
Karimova’s purpose is to deny the allegations already published that she has been the secret owner and manipulator of the multi-billion dollar mobile telephone business of Uzbekistan. For the Russian side of the story, read this.
Over the past year, the scandal has resulted in the cancellation of Vladimir Yevtushenkov’s MTS concession in Uzbekistan, known as Uzdunrobita; the flight to safe haven and hiding in Russia of Uzdunrobita’s chief executive, Bekhzod Akhmedov; and the write-off of asset value and provisioning for loss by Yevtushenkov’s companies of $1.08 billion.
In Sweden, Teliasonera, the listed telecommunications group part-owned by the Swedish and Finnish governments, has been obliged to sack its chief executive, Lars Nyberg, as he and several subordinates face possible indictment in July. Six members of the TeliaSonera board are not seeking re-election at the annual shareholders’ meeting on April 3. As new media reports of the Uzbek case have appeared, TeliaSonera’s share price has plunged:
SIX-MONTH SHARE PRICE TRAJECTORY FOR TELIASONERA
The market capital lost in October-November and then in January-February was SEK18.7 billion ($2.9 billion) and SEK14.7 billion ($2.3 billion), respectively, or 9.1% and 7.3%.
After giving a platform for Nyberg to defend himself, the Financial Times of London issued a summary of other investigators’ reports on the affair on March 7. The newspaper also noted that “Ms Karimova could not be reached for comment despite multiple efforts by the FT during the past four months. She did not respond to detailed questions addressed to her by the FT via her charitable foundation or an email address she gave a journalist on Twitter.”
Instead, Karimova had been in negotiation with Bilan, a Swiss business publication which appears in hard copy every fortnight, and publishes breaking news on a website. Bilan, edited by Stephane Benoit-Godet, is best known for the biggest vanity publication in Switzerland, the “300 Richest Swiss”. Karimova doesn’t appear on the lists. But on March 7, Bilan issued this interview which had been assembled from emails and other communications.
Translated from the French, this is what Bilan reports, with questions asked by Bilan’s reporter, Luigino Canal:
‘A mixture of Princess Diana, Sarah Palin, James Bond girl, Cruella of Hell and the right arm of her father,’ the portrayal few years ago by the Spanish newspaper El Pais, of Gulnara Karimova, elder daughter of the President of Uzbekistan Islam Karimov, is at least colorful. It is true that at 40 years old, the mother of two leads a multifaceted life. Former Ambassador of Uzbekistan to Spain, she occupies the post of her country’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations Office in Geneva. But she is also a designer of luxury jewelry and a singer under the stage name of Googoosha.
Finally, Gulnara (which means “flower of pomegranate” or “the shade of a flower” in Uzbek) writes poetry and is at the head of various charitable foundations. Rich, beautiful and intelligent, she pursued a course of the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. She holds a soctorate of prodfessor in political sciences at the University of Tashkent and a Master of Arts from Harvard University. Since 2008, Gulnara Karimova is established in the canton of Geneva where she acquired a villa for 18.2 million francs. Her younger sister, Lola Karimova-Tillyaeva, also lives at the end of the lake.
Last year, Uzbekistan appeared in the forefront of the Swiss media scene when the Ministry of the Prosecutor-General has blocked in Swiss banks several hundreds of millions of francs of Uzbek assets in the framework of a case of money laundering. [It’s a] dossier with multiple ramifications, which has passed through Sweden, where a telephone operator, TeliaSonera, was suspected of having paid out commissions during its establishment in Uzbekistan. Gulnara Karimova has agreed to give her version of events by answering a few questions exclusively for Bilan. The interview was conducted via Twitter and e-mail between Geneva and Tashkent.
[L.C.] Last summer, the name of Bekhzod Akhmedov, the Director General of the Russian telephone operator MTS, also active in Uzbekistan, appeared on the list of persons wanted by Interpol. Following this announcement, the Swiss authorities blocked in Swiss banks hundreds of millions of francs of Uzbek assets — a case of alleged money laundering. Your name has been mentioned by various media in the context of this investigation which would seem, then, to have been linked with a corruption case concerning the establishment in 2007 of the Swedish operator TeliaSonera in Uzbekistan. What is your position on this?
Gulnara Karimova: For a long time I did not want to talk about this, but I think it is time to clarify the situation. The case began after the investigation launched by our tax service in autumn 2011 into the activities of MTS Uzbekistan. The media have revealed that the operator had broken various laws. Since that time, I observe a surprising chain of events.
MTS is a big company which conducts an aggressive policy. It has already had deplorable experiences, notably in Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and India. Unsurprisingly, she has pursued this strategy of commercial war in Uzbekistan. I have known Bekhzod Akhmedov for a long time, since I met him during my studies at the University of Tashkent. At that time, I also knew well his sister, his mother and father. He has profited from that in order to forge for himself the image of an untouchable person in Tashkent. With his clan, he played a political role and has taken an important place in the economy of the country.
We learned later that he had set up a special system for billing in order to divert money from the accounts of subscribers. Attempts to solve the problem have met with bad faith displayed by MTS and I guess the flight of Bekhzod Akhmedov from Uzbekistan has much deeper roots than just the telecommunications sector.
This case has then developed in Moscow, Switzerland and Sweden. Opponents took the opportunity to associate my name with it. The case has gained momentum when, in the e-mails of former managers of TeliaSonera, it would appear that the negotiations on the establishment of the company in Uzbekistan passed through contacts in relations with my sister, or that Bekhzod Akhmedov acted as my representative.
This is not the first time that I have to deal with this type of attacks. They have already taken place in 2011 during Fashion Week in New York on the occasion of my election as co-chair of the Soiree “Cinema against AIDS” at Cannes in May 2010, and during the presentation of my jewelry collection at the Basel World Fair. This wave has also hit close friends. At the moment, complaints by well-known persons have been filed against employees of a bank in Geneva for defamation and perjury.
[L.C.] The authorities are particularly interested in the role played by Bekhzod Akhmedov. According to internal documents of TeliaSonera, he would have been your representative in negotiations with the Swedish operator to purchase the Uzbek operator Coscom . Some believe that he would have been one of your bagmen. Have you played a role in the arrival of TeliaSonera in your country?
G. K. : I ask myself the same question. What role did Bekhzod Akhmedov in several projects related to the purchase of communications equipment in Uzbekistan, or yet in the national holding Uzbekneftegaz, in the laying of optical fiber and in various other sectors. On its website, the Uzbek ministry of the prosecutor stated that during the importation of equipment via MTS, the invoices were inflated to 50 times their real cost.
The questions are many. Bekhzod Akhmedov worked with various well-known people in Uzbekistan. People who do not like publicity but who have considerable funds. Most of those who know Bekhzod Akhmedov wonder how he managed to combine his role as CEO of MTS with various obscure deals. This while all the time being our friend. The media have different versions of the situation. Thus the sites centrasia.ru, news.ivest.kz and maxala.org have written articles that coincide with the information of the public prosecutor.
I would like to see these “internal documents” to see if they actually exist. An independent survey conducted by Swedish law firm Mannheimer Swartling did not find these documents. I never had the occasion neither to meet nor speak with representatives of TeliaSonera. I prefer not to act through the intermediation of authorized persons, my experience shows that this kind of situation creates problems, especially taking into account my status.
Besides, I wonder how TeliaSonera could be dealing with Bekhzod Akhmedov while he held the position of CEO of MTS, a company in direct competition with the Swedish operator on the Uzbek market. For 10 years, he received from MTS as much from Moscow as from Tashkent. Not to mention his big bonus in the form of real estate in Moscow worth $ 15 million. The TeliaSonera contract could not be concluded without the approval of MTS. This seems to violate all the business rules. Buying Coscom, TeliaSonera established itself not only in Uzbekistan, but also in Afghanistan and Tajikistan. But it is curious to note that corruption charges have only been issued for the Uzbek market.
[L.C.] Have you invested in, do you control, or have you controlled directly or indirectly, companies in Switzerland?
G. K: I never had the plan of doing business in Switzerland. Besides, my diplomatic status prohibits me from doing so. If I had any interest in Switzerland over the past six years, it would have been the target of investigative procedures not only from Swiss justice but also the UN, because I held the position of Permanent Representative of my country to the United Nations Office in Geneva. These allusions are insinuations of my opponents. My name has been mentioned several times concerning companies like Zeromax in Zug, Interspan, the goldmining company Oxus Gold, the Russian dairy producer Wimm-Bill-Dann, the brewer Carlsberg, and many others.
In 2011, I tried to sue Switzerland for blackmail and threats, but my diplomatic status prevents me from filing to defend my rights. But I got the right of response in some Swiss newspapers that falsely claimed that I was one of the founders of Zeromax and that I controlled the company. These targeted attacks demanded great efforts in staff and distracts you [GK] from your principal activities such as the Foundation Forum that I support and from which benefit seven million people.”
The text is more revealing than Karimova may have intended, or than the Swedish press have noticed. The Russian press have missed it altogether. Yevtushenkov’s office in Moscow was asked to review Karimova’s remarks, and respond. So far, nothing.
According to Karimova, Yevtushenkov and the MTS company have pursued in Uzbekistan an “aggressive policy” and “commercial war”. She also charges the company with “bad faith” for defending Akhmedov. He is described as a family friend since childhood. But Karimova goes further, hinting that Akhmedov had clashed with her over his political ambitions, or hers. “With his clan, [Akhmedov] played a political role and has taken an important place in the economy of the country,” Karimova claims. “I guess the flight of Bekhzod Akhmedov from Uzbekistan has much deeper roots than just the telecommunications sector.” The deeper roots, she is hinting, are political ones. The implication here is that Akhmedov, with Russian support, is threatening to oppose Karimova in the presidential succession; this must be completed at the Uzbek election scheduled for March 2015.
On the same day as Karimova was counter-attacking Russia, she released this filmed interview from the Tashkent Film Festival with Peter Allman, a celebrity advertiser and promoter from Las Vegas. Release of the 38-minute film has been delayed by five months, as it appears to have been shot last November. According to Allman’s website, he charges for such things not less than $10,000. “I call her the Princess of Uzbekistan…like Princess Diana was to the people of Great Britain….I see a time when you would be president.”
To which Karimova responded: “I don’t really see myself as a visionary for the decades ahead of us…the words you use are very much striking for me. I am not trying to do it for career or for PR, to build a base….I realized I could be the tool for many people to lead their professional life, their life together…I am comfortable where I am right now. I am a person who doesn’t really take steps before there is an assurance to be able to do certain projects. I probably will prefer to take step by step.”
Call this an announcement that Karimova is not running for her father’s job. Not yet. Soon.