Telenor faces more bribery allegations

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An anonymous self-proclaimed “whistleblower” has sent new detailed documents to the Norwegian government trade ministry, regarding how state-owned Telenor allowed its jointly owned firm VimpelCom to expand in eastern Europe and into former Soviet republics. At best, according to the documents, Telenor executives are accused of closing their eyes to VimpelCom’s methods.

Norwegian telecoms firm Telenor is among the companies that's been hit by computer attacks tied to industrial espionage. PHOTO: newinenglish.no

Norwegian telecoms firm Telenor is caught being accused of shutting its eyes to alleged corruption at its mobile phone unit VimpelCom. PHOTO: newinenglish.no

Telenor holds 33 percent of the shares and 43 percent of the voting rights in VimpelCom, one of the world’s largest mobile telephone firms. The remainder is held by its Russian partner Alfa Group, owned by oligarch Mikhail Fridman. VimpelCom is already the target of a major international investigation into corruption involving the company’s entry into Uzbekistan. That, according to the documents sent to Norwegian government officials last week, is just “the tip of the iceberg.”

Telenor issued a press release on Friday after its chairman and its chief executive had spent two days last week being grilled by an investigative and disciplinary committee of the Norwegian Parliament. Since the Norwegian government still owns 54 percent of the shares in Telenor, state politicians have a keen interest in how Telenor has done business with VimpelCom, alleged to be guilty of paying bribes. Telenor is the latest of several state-owned Norwegian companies to be tied to corruption cases.

‘Requesting further explanation’
Telenor said the documents, forwarded from the ministry to Telenor, raised sufficient concern that they prompted Telenor to request “further explanation” from VimpelCom. The documents, signed “VIP Whistleblower,” allege that VimpelCom used aggressive raids on companies to gain control of them. Swedish and Dutch police, meanwhile, believe that VimpelCom gained access to the market in Uzbekistan by paying large sums of money to a system controlled by the Uzbek president’s daughter, Gulnara Karimova. “Whistleblower” wrote that VimpelCom’s investment in Uzbekistan illustrates its “modus operandi” in former Soviet states.

“Whistleblower” noted that Telenor itself had been subject to attacks by Alfa before the two partners agreed on a court settlement that has guided their partnership in recent years. To sum up, the whistleblower wrote, Telenor fought Alfa’s efforts to enrich itself at Telenor’s expense, but stayed “quiet as a church mouse” when VimpelCom sought to enrich itself at others’ expense.

At best, the whistleblower wrote, Telenor has shut its eyes to VimpelCom’s business methods. At worse, he or she wrote, Telenor has cooperated with Alfa and VimpelCom to acquire and retain ownership stakes through corrupt methods.

‘Attempt to discredit Telenor’
Telenor’s statement on Friday claimed it was “necessary to be cautious” about “several aspects” of the whistleblower’s information. Telenor referred to the documents as containing “a mixture of known and unknown information, allegations and speculations (sic). Overall, this can be interpreted as an attempt to discredit Telenor, in light of the serious situation concerning VimpelCom’s investments in Uzbekistan.”

Telenor maintains that its chairman, Svein Aaser, and its soon-to-retire chief executive, Jon Fredrik Baksaas, have “given a full account of the knowledge (Telenor) has of VimpelCom’s entry into Uzbekistan.” Telenor officials added that they “will update the Norwegian authorities on how the company assesses the serious allegations that have been anonymously put foward.” Telenor, meanwhile, would “continue to cooperate with the investigating authorities to the best of its abilities.”

Last week’s hearings before the parliamentary committee led to criticism of Telenor from committee leader Martin Kolberg, a Member of Parliament from the Labour Party. He claimed that Telenor’s representatives on VimpelCom’s board didn’t do enough to examine the investments in Uzbekistan. “Unfortunately we must raise questions as to why the board members who represented Telenor weren’t aware (of unusual payments) and didn’t stop them,” Kolberg said. Among them was Baksaas himself. He resigned his seat just last month.

Aaser also has raised such questions, also about the role of VimpelCom chief executive Jo Lunder, who formerly worked for Telenor. Aaser said he has asked for a meeting with VimpelCom’s chairman, Alexey Reznikovich.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund