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TASHKENT, January 16 (RFE/RL) — Did Scandinavian telecoms giant TeliaSonera pay Gulnara Karimova upwards of $300 million in bribes in order to break into the Uzbek mobile-phone market?b_350_250_16777215_00_images_Karimova_uznews.jpgb_350_250_16777215_00_images_Karimova_uznews.jpg

The company, which is partially owned by the Swedish, Finnish, and Norwegian states, continues to say no.

But new documents offer compelling evidence that company executives actively sought direct contact with Karimova — the daughter of Uzbek President Islam Karimov and an object of increasing interest as money-laundering investigations unfold in Sweden and Switzerland.

The documents, submitted last week by Swedish prosecutors, include TeliaSonera correspondence from 2007, in which executives speak of initiating "several channels" to the ruling elite — including "a potential meeting with the No. 1 Daughter of Karimov, Gulnara Karimova, and her telecom colleagues soon".

The e-mail, written by Serkan Elder, the head of TeliaSonera subsidiary Fintur Holdings, also warns against meeting with the Uzbek telecoms minister, Akhmadully Aripov, until "we have an understanding with Karimova's team as to who will be our local partner and how we would like to manage this operator".

In 2007, Karimova, who during the last decade has progressed through a series of diplomatic posts, was serving as an adviser to Uzbekistan's Foreign Affairs Ministry, a post that would not normally serve as gatekeeper to major investment negotiations.

But the president's daughter, described as a "robber baron" in U.S. diplomatic cables, has long been suspected of acting as the family moneymaker, using her status to shake down local and foreign businesses. The Karimovs' private fortune is estimated in the billions.

Elder's letter goes on to list 13 companies that Karimova was believed to own or hold a share in at the time.

They include several telecoms companies, including Uzdunrobita, which was later sold to the Russian telecommunications giant MTS. It made headlines last summer when Tashkent aggressively sought to strip the company of its assets.

Incestuous business dealings

In an indication of the incestuous nature of Uzbek business dealings, it was the head of Uzdunrobita, Bekhzod Akhmedov, who served as Karimova's middleman in her negotiations with TeliaSonera, an ostensible competitor.

A Swedish television documentary aired last month cited an anonymous TeliaSonera executive outlining Akhmedov's role in the talks and describing the situation as "totally crazy".

Akhmedov, who fled Uzbekistan in the wake of the MTS scandal, has since returned to Tashkent to face corruption charges. His fate is unknown.

Akhmedov is also one of four named suspects in the Swiss and Swedish money-laundering investigations. Swiss prosecutors have frozen upwards of $600 million in bank accounts held by Akhmedov in Geneva.

Swedish prosecutors last week followed suit, submitting the latest tranche of documents to an appeals court with the aim of confiscating 1.5 billion Swedish crowns ($230 million), part of the initial payments to Takilant, the shadowy, Gibraltar-based company that orchestrated TeliaSonera's entry into the Uzbek market.

Gayane Avakyan, an associate of Karimova's still in her twenties, served as the head of Takilant and is one of the four Uzbeks named in the ongoing investigation.

TeliaSonera denies any wrongdoing. In a statement following the submission of the court documents last week, it expressed confidence that ongoing investigations would prove the company had not participated in bribery or money laundering of any kind.

TeliaSonera, which is aggressively investing in the mobile-phone market in neighboring Kazakhstan, has also resisted suggestions from a government minister to temporarily suspend senior managers implicated in the Uzbek deal.

Karimova, who has recently taken to Twitter to rebuff allegations made against her in the press, has made no comment on the TeliaSonera case or Elder's e-mail, which cites sources as saying her claims of receiving a degree from Harvard University are untrue.


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