Uzbeki 3G licence scandal forces resignation of squeaky-clean TeliaSonera CEO

Feb 4, 2013

An external and independent Swedish law practice, Mannheimer Swartling, was brought in by the TeliaSonera board to investigate rumours that money laundering and bribery had been factors in play in the operator's Uzbekistan business.

Intriguingly, Mannheimer Swartling reported that it had "not found any substance to the allegations that TeliaSonera committed bribery or participated in money laundering in connection with its investments in Uzbekistan”, but the investigation did conclude that there were "shortcomings in the investment process" and added that TeliaSonera had "not made sufficient effort to investigate the local [Uzbeki] partner" and had failed to elucidate how that partner “could hold the rights that were later transferred”.

In a further criticism, the investigating lawyers found that TeliaSonera's internal control regime was neither robust nor proactive enough to ensure that the company did not become involved in "unethical business".

As a result of the report the TeliaSonera board came to the conclusion that the Uzbeki investments “were not carried out in a satisfactory manner” and withdrew its backing for the CEO - leaving Lars Nyberg dangling in the wind and with no option other than to resign - in spite of the fact that he was in no way connected with the Uzbeki licence.

It seems to be a case of "the buck stops here" and "noblesse oblige" rather than any convoluted conspiracy.

The Uzbeki operation at the centre of the furore is Takilant, a company which is believed to have close links to one Gulnara Karimova, who just happens to be the eldest daughter of Uzbekistan's president, Islam Karimov.

Karimov has been the the president of Uzbekistan since the office was established in 1991 in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet empire. He has won three consecutive elections by rermakable, some would say impossible, landslides. His third election was by far the most controversial (to date) given that the extant Uzbek constitution stipulates that a president may serve for no more than two seven-year terms. Karimov goot out of that little problem by claiming that his first term was under the auspices of the previous soviet Constitution and therefore did not count towards the new 14-year limit. (do the arithmetic).

The allegations of bribery and money-laundering at TeliaSonera first became public in September 2012 when Sweden's SVT TV network aired an investigative report into the company's actions and holdings in Uzbekistan.

In the programme it was revealed that Takilant helped TeliaSonera to break in to the Uzbek mobile market in 2007 when the two companies agreed a US$350 million deal that included the purchase of a 3G mobile license in the country. It is alleged that $300 million found its way to Karimova's various bank accounts by various circuitous means.

That same programme also included with two senior TeliaSonera employees who described that the secret negotiations to seal the deal were, in fact, between TeliaSonera and "people representing Gulnara Karimova."

Then. last month new documents emerged indicating that TelaiSonera executives requested direct contacts and face-to-face with Gulnara Karimova herself. It is not yet known whether such a meeting or meetings did take place but, as the lady in question spends much of her time in Geneva, Switzerland, if they did happen no doubt they were very, very discreet.

Either way, Swedish prosecutors believe they have enough evidence of possible malfeasance to conduct an ongoing criminal investigation into the allegations. Gunnar Stetler, a senior Swedish anti-corruption court prosecutor says, "There are substantial suspicions, enough in this case, to believe that a crime has been committed."

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