Even in post-Soviet Uzbekistan, an ancient crossroads where torture and bribery allegations are endemic, Gulnara Karimova, the president’s Harvard-educated daughter, stood out for her ruthlessness.
As the U.S. embassy noted in a secret dispatch from 2005 that was later published by Wikileaks, Karimova was viewed by most Uzbeks “as a greedy, power-hungry individual who uses her father to crush business people or anyone else who stands in her way.”
These days the 43-year-old former globetrotting socialite who once publicly praised God for “my face” is confined to her homeland along the legendary Silk Road, watched over by the security services of her aging father, Islam Karimov, who has ruled for a quarter century. Even in isolation, though, Googoosha, as she’s called herself in music videos, remains in the eye of a storm, the protagonist in a multibillion-dollar tale of alleged greed and graft unfolding across three continents.
This story stretches back more than a decade, from the fringes of the czarist empire to the tidy streets of Oslo, via Gibraltar, Geneva and beyond. It touches companies owned by six of Europe’s richest men -- five Russians and a native Norwegian -- and thrusts the staid Scandinavian business world into a strange new light. It also offers a glimpse into a mercurial U.S. ally, a nation of 30 million that is ranked among the most repressive and corrupt in the world by Freedom House and Transparency International, even while providing occasional logistical support for American troops in neighboring Afghanistan.
The latest chapter of the saga opened near midnight on Nov. 4, when a flight from London touched down at Oslo Airport carrying the man shipping tycoon John Fredriksen had just hired to manage his industrial and financial fortune.
But it wasn’t Fredriksen Group that Norwegian investigators were after when they whisked Jo Lunder away in front of startled passengers. It was the former professional soccer player’s previous employer, VimpelCom Ltd., the U.S.-listed mobile-phone venture between a clutch of Russian billionaires including Mikhail Fridman and Norway’s state-controlled Telenor ASA.
Norway’s probe comes as the U.S. Justice Department and Securities and Exchange Commission are investigating VimpelCom, founded in Moscow and based in Amsterdam, for allegedly paying bribes to Karimova to win business in Uzbekistan, according to court documents and people with knowledge of the matter. They are also probing billionaire Vladimir Evtushenkov’s MobileTeleSystems PJSC, or MTS, and Stockholm-based TeliaSonera AB for the same reason.
VimpelCom, MTS and TeliaSonera all said they are cooperating with investigators and declined to comment further.