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TeliaSonera under fire over Uzbek bribe claims

The CEO of TeliaSonera, the Nordic telecoms firm in which the Swedish state has the largest ownership stake, said he was prepared to resign should new money laundering and bribery accusations related to the firm's contracts in Uzbekistan prove true.

TeliaSonera under fire over Uzbek bribe claims

TeliaSonera head Lars Nyberg said that the accusations were severe, but that he welcomed an investigation of the company.

“It’s extremely serious when Sveriges Television accuses the country’s biggest company of bribery and corruption,” he told Sveriges Radio (SR) on Thursday.

When asked how he would react if the information about the money laundering proved to be true, Nyberg responded: “I’d resign, I suppose”.

Nyberg’s comments came on the heels of claims made by Sveriges Television (SVT) investigative news programme “Uppdrag Gränskning” about how TeliaSonera secured contracts in Uzbekistan.

The company was awarded contracts worth billions of kronor to provide mobile telephone services in Uzbekistan.

However, the funds paid by the company in exchange for the contracts were funneled through a woman with close ties to the daughter of Uzbek President Islam Karimov, according to SVT.

The woman, named as Gayane Avakyan, is tied to the Gibraltar-based company Takilant, which served as TeliaSonera’s local partner when the Nordic telecom firm established operations in Uzbekistan six years ago.

Takilant received around 2.2 billion kronor ($337 million) for 3G licenses, according to SVT.

But in the public records of Takilant’s accounting, there is no trace of TeliaSonera’s payments in either money or stock.

SVT pointed to strong connections between Avakyan and Gulnara Karimova, the eldest daughter of Uzbek President Islam Karimov.

Meanwhile, Switzerland has blocked bank accounts containing several hundreds of millions of dollars in the probe, money which is believed to belong to Karimov’s regime.

According to TeliaSonera, paying out large amounts of money to a small, private company in a tax haven was completely normal when conducting business in Uzbekistan.

“We’ve paid money to a company that was the rightful owner of frequencies and licenses in Uzbekistan that we needed for telecom operations in the country,” said head of communications Cecilia Edström to SVT.

“We have looked into whether the person who represented the company had a mandate to do so and in addition we have not been able to prove if there were any other people behind it or who they were.”

She could not give a direct answer as to whether TeliaSonera had bribed Gulnara Karimova and the Uzbek regime. But Tom von Weymarn, former chairman of the company, answered “absolutely not.”

“TeliaSonera did not make a transaction with Karimova or the regime, but with a company,” said Edström.

“The company was properly registered, Dutch lawyers made an investigation into the risk for money laundering and Avakyan had a mandate to represent the company.”

Edström concedes that there was a risk that other people were behind the company that could have gotten a portion of the money.

“But it was nothing we could prove when we did this transaction,” she said

TeliaSonera denies that the company was the subject of a Swiss money laundering investigation.

“We’ve not been contacted at all by police or any other authorities concerning a Swiss crime investigation,” Edström said.

TeliaSonera also claimed Wednesday that the figure paid by the company was 200 million kronor and not two billion.

In a press conference on Thursday, CEO Nyberg characterized the payments as “an investment” rather than a bribe.

“I am convinced that TeliaSonera has not bribed anyone, or taken part in any money laundering,” he said.

Nyberg added that the company would nevertheless launch an external investigation into its dealings in Uzbekistan.

TT/The Local/og

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TELIASONERA

‘Rotten’ business claims at Nordic TeliaSonera

Swedish-Finnish telecom operator TeliaSonera has been accused of “rotten” business dealings in Azerbaijan, following a separate bribery scandal in Uzbekistan.

'Rotten’ business claims at Nordic TeliaSonera
A TeliaSonera conference in Stockholm last year. Photo: TT

Folksam, which is one of the largest insurance companies in Sweden, has accused the firm of “systematic cheating”, after it emerged that TeliaSonera’s subsidiary in Azerbaijan had ties with the family of Ilham Aliyev, the Arab nation’s leader.

It has been claimed that the dictator’s daughters were shareholders of TeliaSonera's subsidiary Azertel, via a connected company based in Panama.

“It is distressing that in a large Swedish company…people thought that cheating would pay off in the long run,” Carina Lundberg Markow, one of Folksam’s managers told the TT news agency on Wednesday.

She criticized TeliaSonera for failing to act “in an honest and open way” when entering new markets.

“Instead, they choose to pay for success,” she added.

TeliaSonera is one of the biggest telecom operators in the Nordic and Baltic countries and also operates in several emerging markets in Eurasia including Russia and Turkey, as well as Spain. The Swedish state owns 37.3 percent of the company.

Swedish prosecutor Gunnar Stetler is already investigating claims of unethical business practices in Uzbekistan and told TT he had also been given new information concerning potential bribery in Azerbaijan.

The company has voluntarily cooperated with the investigation, handing over what Stetler describes as “extensive information” about “the terms and conditions in Eurasian countries”.

Stetler said he was unable to discuss how he had responded to the information. But calls are growing for TeliaSonera to release a public report about its business dealings.

“Now it is extremely important to create transparency,” said Lundberg Markow.

“This shows the importance of having a set of values when doing business in complex markets or countries,” she added.

TeliaSonera and Norwegian rival Telenor recently merged their operations in Denmark, while the telecoms giant last year purchased rival Tele2's Norwegian division for 5.1 kronor.