Telia and Azerbaijan: Closed Investigation Not A Green Light for Future Transactions

Published: 05 May 2016

Baku (Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

By Sarah Holmes

Swedish prosecutors say they won’t be pressing charges against Swedish-Finnish telco Telia Company (formerly TeliaSonera) for a suspected record bribe in Azerbaijan based on their recently completed investigation.

That does not mean, however, a green light for future payments to the company’s local partner.

“We have, despite concrete suspicions, with the tools we have available, failed to prove that bribery has been committed, and regardless, we cannot prove intent,” prosecutor Gunnar Stetler told TT News Agency (TT), a Swedish partner to OCCRP.

The now defunct investigation was initiated after OCCRP, TT and Swedish Television (STV) disclosed in May 2015 what is thought to be the largest suspected bribe in Swedish history.  The 2008 deal, and subsequent follow-up transactions, with Telia were likely worth around US$ 1 billion for its local partner linked to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev's family.

Telia's current management inherited the deal, but did not report it to the police. CEO Johan Dennelind has said he does not know why Telia bought a greatly undervalued share of the local operator Azercell and then gave it away to its partner. The partner invested nothing.

TT asked the prosecutor: If that is not corruption, what is the alternative explanation?

“It's a legitimate question, but I have no reason to comment on it,” Stetler said.

According to the prosecutor, investigators have gone through a great deal of material, but have found no evidence of an intention to commit crime.  

Telia's press officer, Henrik Westman, commented on Stetler’s decision not to press charges, saying: “If it can help to straighten out question marks about Telia Company's former business operations in Eurasia, it is obviously a good thing.”

Since 2012, bribery can be committed by negligence under Swedish law.  Following publication of the OCCRP, TT and STV investigation, Telia has prevented the payment of dividends from its Azerbaijani business to its partner, and also thus to itself.  

Stetler said his decision should not be interpreted as a legal go-ahead for future payments from Telia to the local partner.

“(Dividends) are not a high priority for us,” said Westman. Telia intends to pull out of the entire region over this year.

Stetler is continuing separate investigations into alleged corruption by Telia in Uzbekistan, which he hopes to complete by year-end.  Telia’s former CEO Lars Nyberg is suspected of abetting bribery in connection with Telia’s business deals in Uzbekistan, but denies the offense.

By Ola Westerberg, Swedish News Agency (TT)