TeliaSonera's mobile operator Ucell confirmed it was a sponsor of the festival Art Week Style.uz and the opening concert with Russian violinist Yuri Bashmet. The telecom company's headquarters in Stockholm also confirmed the tie-up, but underlined that the decision was made at local level.
"Ucell contributes to projects meant to contribute to Uzbek society," TeliaSonera told the TT news agency, declining to give details of the amount of money Ucell had parted with to support the Gulinara Karimova's high-profile event.
The Canadian singer Lara Fabian had been set to sing at the closing ceremony but has been contacted by human rights groups urging her to pull out. The star-studded events - with a focus on music and fashion - have been graced by Sting and Julio Iglesias in the past.
"The point of Style.uz is to show up a glamourous image of the country, while human rights violations are getting worse and worse," Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch, told TT. "At the same time, millions of Uzbeks are being mobilized by the state to pick cotton under degrading circumstances. That contrast makes it all the more noteworthy."
"Uzbekistan’s human rights record is atrocious," Human Rights Watch's official evaluation reads. "Torture is endemic in the criminal justice system. Authorities intensified their crackdown on civil society activists, opposition members, and journalists. Muslims and Christians who practice their religion outside strict state controls are persecuted, and freedom of expression is severely limited."
Domestic critics are equally fierce, with NGO the Club of Fiery Hearts claiming that "the 41-year-old daughter of the Uzbek president acquired her multi-billionaire wealth from extorting money from foreign investors," according to Uz News.
That was precisely the kind of accusation that TeliaSonera got dragged into in the past year.
Allegations of bribery and money laundering emerged followed a September 2012 report by Sveriges Television (SVT). The reporters alleged that TeliaSonera paid a 2.2 billion kronor ($337 million) bribe to Takilant in 2007 for 3G mobile telephone licences and frequencies in Uzbekistan. Takilant has ties to Karimova.
The critique has been all the more virulent because the Swedish state owns 37 percent of the company, while the Finnish state has a 11.7-percent stake. When the CEO Lars Nyberg resigned in February 2013, Financial Markets Minister Peter Norman said the state would take a more active role in how the company was run.
"We will continue to work with the nominating committee, but the state has been too far removed from the company for a long time, which we will now change," Norman told SVT after an internal report criticized the company for ignoring its own ethical guidelines, while at the same time finding no direct evidence that TeliaSonera paid bribes to establish operations in Uzbekistan.