oDR: Investigation

Key liberaliser in “Uzbek spring” faces questions over business past

As Uzbekistan rebrands, research by UzInvestigations raises new questions over the business past of Komil Allamjonov, a key public official responsible for the country’s PR effort and defending media freedoms.

Dilmira Matyakubova Kristian Lasslett
7 October 2020
Source: UzInvestigations

All over the world, state officials are increasingly conscious brand managers, encouraged by a growing nation-branding industry. Using in-house managers and outsourced PR firms, pitch perfect messages are strategically communicated to citizens, investors, human rights bodies, financial institutions and risk analysts.

Uzbekistan’s authoritarian government is a challenging candidate for a rebranding campaign. Under its first president Islam Karimov, the country’s administration had a well-earned reputation for brutality, grand corruption and political repression. But since Shavkat Mirziyoyev took over the presidency, following Karimov’s death in 2016, the country has initiated a slick rebranding exercise in an effort to boost its reform credentials. The key message: Uzbekistan is open for business and now backed by a responsible government with a strong liberal reform platform.

One notable figure fronting the Mirziyoyev government’s ambitious rebranding exercise is businessman and former public official Komil Allamjonov. He has become one of the regime’s most outspoken figures defending the government’s record on media freedom, human rights and reform. “[T]here’s a huge difference between that time and now,” Allamjonov said to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty earlier this year when asked about the Karimov years. “[President Islam Karimov] had a certain method. During his time a lot of problems accumulated. Really a lot. And accordingly, these problems had to be solved by our president Mirziyoyev. And he’s solving them now.”

Having previously served as the presidential press secretary and then head of Uzbekistan’s media regulator, Allamjonov is a powerful asset for the Mirziyoyev government’s rebrand - which, judging by newspaper headlines and testimonials from high profile international institutions, is enjoying a certain degree of success. But a joint investigation by Ulster University and the Uzbek Forum for Human Rights into Allamjonov’s business empire reveals that opaque applications of state power, abuse of consumer rights, and the award of lucrative deals without tender have advantaged businesses founded by him.

In brief, this research found that Uzbek tax inspectors forced companies into buying subscriptions to a tax newspaper and accounting software sold by companies Allamjonov claims to have founded, at a time when he served as head of the State Tax Committee’s press office. The study notes it cannot be inferred Allamjonov was aware of the apparent coercion being carried out for the benefit of these businesses. In another case from 2017, a driver-training business founded by Allamjonov received a lucrative monopoly over compulsory advanced driver training, to the anger of consumers - two months before he was appointed Mirziyoyev’s press secretary. In 2020, a company substantively linked to Allamjonov was awarded, without tender, a lucrative project converting Uzbekistan’s real estate “passport” documents into plastic smartcards.

In September 2019, the authors sent a draft copy of the investigation to Allamjonov via email. While he initially welcomed dialogue in correspondence with one of the authors, the authors did not receive any further response to inquiries over possible conflicts of interest in these state-led business opportunities.

Uzbekistan’s media freedom tsar

In Uzbekistan, Komil Allamjonov has been an important conduit for president Mirziyoyev’s message of liberalisation and reform. In 2017-2018, Allamjonov served as press secretary to the president, before being appointed to head Uzbekistan’s media regulator, the Agency for Information and Mass Communications. At the agency he was responsible for growing the country’s fragile fourth estate, and advancing an open government agenda. Allamjonov’s deputy at the media regulator was Saida Mirziyoyeva, the president’s eldest daughter.

Allamjonov has personally claimed credit for a wide range of reforms while at the Agency for Information and Mass Communications, including unblocking domestic access to foreign news and human rights websites, initiating moves to abolish imprisonment for defamation and insult, opening up government to the public through the creation of 400 press services, and the facilitation of a code of ethics for journalists in Uzbekistan. He also claims to have significantly improved Uzbekistan’s international reputation for protecting freedom of speech and freedom of press.

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President Shavkat Mirziyoyev | Source: President.uz

Earlier this year, Allamjonov and Mirziyoyeva left the agency to oversee what is being framed as a landmark NGO, the Public Foundation for Support and Development of National Mass Media. Under their leadership, the Public Foundation will guard media freedoms, and grow journalistic capacity through scholarships and grants. According to Allamjonov, the organisation’s “main goal is to create a safe working space for media workers”.

The foundation has laudable aims, and credible founding members, but its foreign activities raise questions over its independence from the Mirziyoyev government.

Shortly after Allamjonov and Mirziyoyeva were appointed chairperson and deputy chairperson of the foundation’s board, the Public Foundation put a Washington DC public relations firm, Bridgeway Advocacy LLC, on a $30,000 monthly retainer (plus expenses).

According to Foreign Agents Registration Act filings, Bridgeway Advocacy has been instructed to work with Uzbek embassy officials, and the head of Uzbekistan’s Capital Markets Development Agency, to promote the Mirziyoyev government’s human rights record in corridors of public and private power in the United States.

This gives the appearance that the Public Fund is acting as an auxiliary for the Mirziyoyev government’s international rebranding campaign, leveraging their image of civil society independence to further their influencing efforts.

Forced purchases

Before he stepped onto the national stage in Uzbekistan as a major public figure, Allamjonov launched a series of successful tech and media industry start-ups, while at the same time scaling senior levels of public service.

In 2005, aged just 21, Allamjonov found himself in an unusual situation. He was made head of the press service at Uzbekistan’s State Tax Committee. The Committee’s chairman has historically been one of the key decision makers in government, alongside the president and chief of the security services. Heading the State Tax Committee’s press service situated Allamjonov within one of the core seats of authoritarian power.

Several years after this senior appointment, in 2008 and 2009 Allamjonov founded a number of start-up businesses while employed at the State Tax Committee. First was a newspaper for tax specialists in Uzbekistan, Soliq Info, and second was a piece of specialised accountancy software, BEM.

When company records were checked in August 2019 Soliq Info Tahririyati LLC was owned by Yelena Kamalovna Allamjonova. On Komil Allamjonov’s wikipedia profile, Elena Kamalovna Allamjonova is listed as his wife. BEM System LLC is owned by Soliq Info Tahririyati LLC and Soliq Info Centre LLC. A filing to patent software with Uzbekistan’s Intellectual Property Agency, submitted by Soliq Info Tahririyati LLC, lists the author as Komil Allamjonov.

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Komil Allamjonov | Source: Public Foundation for Support and Development of National Mass Media

Both Soliq Info and BEM System received significant patronage from the State Tax Committee. The committee co-convened workshops for tax specialists where ringing endorsements were given for BEM and Soliq Info, encouraging participants to purchase subscriptions. The nature of these endorsements took on a more sinister tone when the authors of the joint study into Allamjonov found evidence suggesting Uzbek tax inspectors had apparently coerced companies and accountants into subscribing to Soliq Info and BEM products.

In May 2013, a company manager wrote on a forum for accountancy professionals in Uzbekistan: “Good day! We have a state of emergency, yesterday the taxman brought and left a contract and an invoice from LLC ‘SOLIQ INFO SYSTEMS’ for the delivery of the electronic newspaper Solik Info, along with the program for sending electronic reporting. All this is at 249,000 soums [approx. US$125], and [he] said to sign and pay”. Other users on the forum responded to this post with their own stories.

In the course of research, the authors approached several accountants in Uzbekistan to verify these online allegations, who confirmed their veracity. One accountant with over 15 years experience claimed: “The tax office told us to buy BEM and we could not refuse. The tax inspector reminded us to buy it a thousand times.” Another experienced entrepreneur and tax expert recalls that “the tax committee made me buy BEM and also subscribe to Soliq Info… Well, we did what they say, otherwise, you know how it works, they won’t let us work.”

It cannot be inferred that Allamjonov or company management knew state tax inspectors were forcing companies to purchase subscriptions to their products. Komil Allamjonov did not respond to requests for comment sent by one of the authors, despite initially welcoming dialogue.

In 2012, whilst head of the State Tax Committee’s Information Service Allamjonov set up another start-up, E-Report Service LLC, a programme and digital platform that allowed industry professionals working in taxation and accountancy, to submit tax documents online, and receive dedicated feedback from public officials.

This company also received significant assistance from Uzbek government agencies. At an inter-departmental meeting on developing Uzbekistan’s information systems between 2013 and 2020, it was decided that the State Tax Committee, the State Committee for Statistics, and the State Commercial Bank of the Republic of Uzbekistan, would “develop the rules of interaction and take the necessary measures to integrate their information systems for receiving electronic reports with the E-Report software”. In effect, the Uzbek government was promising to reconstruct how they manage electronic data to calibrate with technology developed by Allamjonov’s new start-up company.

Uzbekistan’s State Tax Committee, State Committee for Statistics and State Commercial Bank also agreed to work “on an ongoing basis, together with interested ministries and departments to conduct wide explanatory work among all business entities and to assist E-report Service LLC in concluding contracts for the purchase of Ereport software”. The meeting minutes state that tax professionals would be asked by government agencies to buy a subscription on “a voluntary basis”.

Allamjonov left his State Tax Committee media post in 2013. This directive in support of E-Report Service LLC appears to be dated 2014.

The Financial Action Task Force, a key international anti-graft body, notes senior officials should be considered politically exposed individuals even after they stand down from a public post. This is due to an ongoing elevated risk they may use their networks and influence to inappropriately shape government decisions.

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Source: UzInvestigations

It cannot be assumed the dedicated sales and marketing support given to E-Report Service LLC by government agencies, was the result of improper political influence. But the unique nature of the state support, combined with Allamjonov’s recent senior role, does nonetheless constitute a red flag which would require a satisfactory explanation by the implicated parties confirming this support was properly administered in a transparent and fair manner.

Soliq Info, E-Report Service and BEM Systems were approached for comment, but no response was received. Their websites no longer exist, and their registered email addresses no longer function. Allamjonov did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Primed for business success by the Cabinet of Ministers

Following his departure from the State Tax Committee, Allamjonov’s media empire expanded, with the founding of Milliy TV (National TV) in 2014. By 2017, the station was broadcasting throughout Uzbekistan and claims to be one of the country’s top channels for TV series, film, music and educational programming.

In December 2017, Allamjonov was called back into government to serve as press secretary to president Shavkat Mirziyoyev. With the Mirziyoyev government enacting an ambitious series of reforms that were presented as a historic change in direction for Uzbekistan, this role placed Allamjonov at the centre of the government’s national and international rebranding campaign. As a visible public face of the rebranding effort, it was important he did not come with any baggage that may contradict the reform message.

There was one problem in this regard. Back in 2014, Allamjonov founded the company Avtotest Report, which sold what was described as pioneering immersive driver training software. This digital innovation was converted into real-life training centres rolled out across the country, with generous Uzbek government support - a 2015 Cabinet of Ministers decree ordered regional authorities across the country to provide Avtotest with vacant land for the construction of educational complexes.

It was a September 2017 Cabinet of Ministers decree, however, that prompted controversy. The decree forced all registered legal entities with a car, such as companies, to undertake advanced driver training every two years. Crucially, Avtotest Report was granted the “exclusive right to carry out in the Republic of Uzbekistan activities to improve the skills of persons (drivers) who drive vehicles owned by legal entities”.

Two months later, Allamjonov was made the presidential press secretary, provoking public outcry over Avtotest’s monopoly. This led to a rare occasion on which the Mirziyoyev government backed down - Avtotest’s legal monopoly was rescinded in 2018. Advanced driver training could be purchased from any provider with a license.

Earlier this year, Uzbekistan’s Anti-Monopoly Committee reported that no other provider has yet been issued with a license to conduct advanced driver training. According to a committee press release, it was deliberating on whether to add Avtotest to Uzbekistan’s monopoly register. The committee did not respond to a request for confirmation of whether this in fact occurred.

Patents

Shortly after Allamjonov’s departure from the Agency for Information and Mass Communication in January this year, Uzbekistan’s Cabinet of Ministers passed a decree. No trace of it can be found on Uzbekistan’s national legal database where decrees are ordinarily published. This has led to allegations it was kept secret after the decree was leaked to RFE/RL’s Uzbek service, Radio Ozodlik.

The February 2020 decree, which has been seen by the authors, grants a locally incorporated company, GID Systems Tashkent, the right to implement a potentially lucrative project, without tender, converting Uzbekistan’s paper real property titles into digital smartcards. Opaque and uncompetitive procurement processes have been highlighted by the OECD as one significant challenge that should be addressed if the Uzbekistan government is to get value for money, and limit the opportunities for improper forms of influence.

In return for setting up this new cadastral system, the decree grants GID a 18% share in the fees charged for this public service, which real property title holders must avail of. The Cabinet of Ministers decree also states that GID Systems Tashkent’s expenses will be covered by the government. This appears to be a no risk investment, potentially highly lucrative, secured without tender in an opaque government resolution.

Radio Ozodlik was the first to raise concerns over this award. But they hit an evidentiary barrier. Shares in GID Systems Tashkent are owned by a United Arab Emirates (UAE) offshore holding entity, GID FZE, which is not required to disclose its share register to the public. Offshore locations such as the UAE, Singapore and Switzerland are increasingly popular because companies can withhold information on shareholdings from the public.

Despite this barrier in the UAE, alternative data sources in Uzbekistan were identified which connect Komil Allamjonov to the GID group in a direct and substantive way. No public record could be found to suggest Allamjonov has voluntarily disclosed this connection following the Ozodlik expose, despite his strong public commitment to transparency.

GID FZE has another fully owned subsidiary in Uzbekistan, GID Tashkent. In 2017, GID Tashkent patented smartcard technology with Uzbekistan’s Intellectual Property Agency. The author of this patented technology is, according to GIZ Tashkent’s patent application, Komil Allamjonov.

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Source: UzInvestigations

Corporate data submitted by GID Tashkent and GID Systems Tashkent to the unified register of legal entities, Uzbekistan’s official corporate register, was also cross-referenced with corporate data submitted by companies Allamjonov claims to have founded.

This revealed shared phone numbers and street addresses. For example GID Systems Tashkent and GID Tashkent share a phone and fax number with Avtotest Report, E-Report Service and Milliy TV.

Together this evidence indicates Komil Allamjonov has a substantive tie to the GID group. This is a concern due to the opaque way a significant economic opportunity was awarded to a GID group company, by the Mirziyoyev government.

Allamjonov did not respond to request for comment on his relationship to the GID group of companies.

Conclusion

Publicly, Komil Allamjonov is a strong advocate for freedom, human rights, open government and entrepreneurship in Uzbekistan - and has helped lead the country’s international rebranding effort. Yet evidence suggests that over the past decade, businesses founded by Allamjonov have been given a distinctive competitive edge from the arguable misuse of state power, which has been unchecked by democratic oversight or public accountability. This is an important reminder of why caution is needed before accepting at face value the substance of government rebrand efforts.

International market access, investor confidence and political legitimacy, is today premised to some extent on governments projecting their commitment to basic liberal norms around human rights, private property, and democratic reforms, even if contradictorily in the jacket of authoritarianism. Rebranding, accordingly, is big business for regimes with a poor human rights and corruption track record.

If rebranding is to succeed in the longer term, it is an exercise that must be proven. In the short to medium term though it appears disarmingly easy to build an international coalition of liberal institutions behind a rebranding effort.

An international euphoria of sorts sets in, where ‘good vibes’ and ‘hope’ replace hard headed analysis and realism. Authoritarian regimes, of course, are difficult to meticulously analyse, due to the closed nature of decision making and business. The absence of contradictory evidence though is commonly mistaken in this upbeat moment for confirmation of the authenticity of this liberal rebrand.

If evidence is uncovered suggesting all may not be on the ‘up and up’ this can be sidelined as false positives, activist nit-picking, or even worse, it can be framed as an attempt to ‘spoil’ or taint a historic moment of change.

However, in this challenging context there is arguably an even greater duty on civil society to hold a forensic lens to the pores of authoritarian regimes in the throes of a rebranding campaign, in order to carefully sift fiction from fact.

Given the key role played by Allamjonov in the Mirziyoyev government’s rebranding effort this evidence ought to give pause for thought, especially given other senior regime figures have been implicated in transactions and deals that seemingly contradict the values their government now espouses. This is not about spoiling transition. It is about critically analysing events and processes, so every stakeholder from the citizen through to international bodies such as the UN, has accurate information upon which informed decisions can be made about the authenticity of an authoritarian regime proclaiming to champion a new era of democracy and human rights.

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