Jon Fredrik Baksaas, chief executive officer of Norwegian telecoms giant Telenor, has resigned his seat on the board of mobile phone operator VimpelCom, which is under investigation for alleged corruption. Telenor officials said Baksaas simply wanted to resolve any conflicts of interest.
Telenor owns a large stake in VimpelCom, which otherwise is majority owned by Russian interests led by oligarch Mikhail Fridman. VimpelCom is suspected of paying bribes in order to obtain its operating license in Uzbekistan.
Asked by newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) whether Baksaas was trying to distance himself from the trouble at VimpelCom, where he’s been a member of the board of directors for the past four years, Telenor spokesman Glenn Mandelid said “no, we don’t think of it like that. This is just to clarify what is and isn’t Telenor’s role.”
Baksaas already has been called in for questioning by police investigating VimpelCom in several countries, and both he and Telenor chairman Svein Aaser were also summoned to the office of the government trade minister, to share what they knew about VimpelCom’s process of obtaining its license in Uzbekistan. The Norwegian state still owns a majority of Telenor’s shares, making the government its biggest shareholder.
The two men also face questioning by the Parliament’s disciplinary committee, after politicians have complained they haven’t been told enough about Telenor’s involvement with VimpelCom. Baksaas, Aaser and Norwegian officials all claim they have zero tolerance for corruption, but that doesn’t explain how VimpelCom, with Telenor as a major shareholder, could pay around USD 100 million to a company in Gibraltar as part of its license procurement in Uzbekistan without anyone viewing the transaction as questionable.
Mandelid of Telenor denied Baksaas gave up his seat on VimpelCom’s board because of political pressure. “No, this is something Baksaas has decided himself, in consultation with Telenor’s board,” Mandelid told DN. He said that it had been important for Baksaas to join VimpelCom’s board in 2010 when the company merged with Kyivstar in 2009 and was established as VimpelCom Ltd, based in Amsterdam, “but the situation is different now.” VimpelCom secured its license to do business in Uzbekistan in 2007. Telenor already had interests in the company at that time.
VimpelCom declined to comment on Baksaas’ resignation from its board, nor would government minister Monica Mæland comment. Skeptical politicians claim Baksaas’ resignation doesn’t free him of responsibility in the VimpelCom case.