As Turkmenistan’s People go Hungry, President’s Nephew Profits off Food Imports

As Turkmen cit­i­zens stand in long lines for scarce, gov­ern­ment-sub­si­dized food, mem­bers of the rul­ing fam­i­ly are liv­ing large. For the first time, reporters found doc­u­men­tary proof of how con­nec­tions to President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov can mean lucra­tive insid­er deals.

Every day across Turkmenistan, hun­gry cit­i­zens line up for hours to buy small amounts of sub­si­dized food amid an eco­nom­ic melt­down. Ruled by a closed cir­cle of cor­rupt auto­crats, Turkmenistan has spent decades iso­lat­ed from the world. But its food cri­sis began in 2016, when Russia abrupt­ly stopped pur­chas­ing its nat­ur­al gas. Suddenly, the Turkmen gov­ern­ment was des­per­ate­ly short of dol­lars to pay its debts.

The Central Asian coun­try was hit by hyper­in­fla­tion, its cur­ren­cy col­lapsed, and the gov­ern­ment imposed tight restric­tions on exchanges.

As a result, imports plum­met­ed, dri­ving food prices out of reach of most fam­i­lies. The gov­ern­ment began sub­si­diz­ing imports by select com­pa­nies, but sup­plies are still short.

Little is known about how this food import scheme works, as the gov­ern­ment releas­es no pub­lic infor­ma­tion about its con­trac­tors or the val­ue of the imports.

But reporters for Turkmen.News and Gundogar, OCCRP’s Turkmen part­ners, found that one of the com­pa­nies that received a food import con­tract belongs to a 39-year-old nephew of President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, Hajymyrat Rejepov.

Rejepov’s U.K.-registered firm, which has no web­site and no pub­lic his­to­ry of busi­ness activ­i­ty, received a US$25.7‑million con­tract to import sta­ples like chick­en, sug­ar, and cook­ing oil as the result of a decree signed by his uncle in November 2016. The doc­u­ment has nev­er before been made public.

The source of Rejepov’s wealth has long been a mys­tery, though it is wide­ly assumed that he ben­e­fits from his famil­ial con­nec­tion to the pres­i­dent. This deal is the first doc­u­men­tary evi­dence that he does.

Reporters also dis­cov­ered where he has spent some of his money.

After receiv­ing the lucra­tive con­tract from his uncle, Rejepov acquired a lux­u­ri­ous man­sion for his fam­i­ly in Turkmenistan’s cap­i­tal, Ashgabat. The state­ly home fea­tures mar­ble, Italian crys­tal chan­de­liers, and bronze dec­o­ra­tions — lux­u­ries far out of reach for ordi­nary Turkmen.

None of that — not the secret con­tract, not the nepo­tism, and not the lux­u­ry amidst oth­ers’ mis­ery — sur­pris­es Rachel Denber, deputy direc­tor of the Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia division.

Corruption “is part of the Turkmen rul­ing circle’s DNA,” she said. “It’s wide­spread, it is deeply entrenched, and it is eye-popping.”

Rejepov could not be reached for comment.

Family Affair

In a 2009 diplo­mat­ic cable pub­lished by WikiLeaks, a U.S. offi­cial wrote that President Berdimuhamedov had “gone to great lengths to con­ceal infor­ma­tion about his fam­i­ly and per­son­al life from the public.”

This secre­cy is par­tic­u­lar­ly effec­tive with­in Turkmenistan, where the gov­ern­ment con­trols all media, the inter­net is cen­sored, and jour­nal­ists have been arrest­ed and tor­tured. Still, some details have emerged about the fam­i­ly of the obscure coun­try den­tist who became leader of one of the world’s most secre­tive regimes.

In the ear­ly 1980s, when Turkmenistan was part of the Soviet Union, Berdimuhamedov prac­ticed at a rur­al clin­ic out­side Ashgabat. He worked his way up through the med­ical sys­tem dur­ing the wan­ing years of Soviet rule and after his country’s inde­pen­dence in 1991. By 1997, he was health min­is­ter under President Saparmurat Niyazov, and in 2001 he was pro­mot­ed to the post of Deputy Prime Minister, just one step below the president.

When Niyazov died in December 2006, Berdimuhamedov was appoint­ed act­ing pres­i­dent in a move that arguably vio­lat­ed the Constitution. He was elect­ed to the office two months lat­er, win­ning almost 90 per­cent of the vote in an elec­tion that fea­tured no true oppo­si­tion candidate.

Though infor­ma­tion about the pres­i­den­tial family’s wealth is hard to come by, social media posts show his nephew Rejepov enjoy­ing the high life. An Instagram pho­to sug­gests he spent a hol­i­day in Courchevel, a five-star French ski resort, with a group of friends. Other pho­tos show him trav­el­ling in first class on an Emirates flight, dri­ving expen­sive cars, and show­ing off lav­ish watches.

While social media reveals the family’s opu­lent lifestyle, it has been impos­si­ble to dis­cov­er where they get their mon­ey. But Berdimuhamedov’s direc­tive, grant­i­ng Rejepov the right to import food, pro­vides a pos­si­ble indi­ca­tion: state contracts.

As pre­vi­ous­ly report­ed by Turkmen.News and Gundogar, Bekdurdiyev’s social media posts show off watch­es val­ued at over $1 mil­lion. When Berdimuhamedov pre­sent­ed him with the “For the Love of the Fatherland” medal in 2018, the then-28-year-old was described as work­ing in a mid-lev­el posi­tion at the nation­al gas com­pa­ny that could hard­ly finance such a watch habit. Rejepov’s cousin Kemal also has a col­lec­tion of lux­u­ry watch­es, includ­ing a $400,000 Swiss-made Richard Mille RM 011.More

Foreign Firms

On November 11, 2016, Berdimuhamedov signed decree No. 14995, instruct­ing the Ministry of Trade and Foreign Economic Relations to sign import con­tracts with sev­en for­eign com­pa­nies for a total of near­ly $60 mil­lion. At least three of the com­pa­nies raise seri­ous questions.

The largest con­tract, worth $25.7 mil­lion, went to Greatcom Trade LLP. The British company’s own­ers were con­cealed behind two off­shore firms. But it was now respon­si­ble for sup­ply­ing Turkmenistan with 15,100 tons of sug­ar, 7,000 tons of chick­en quar­ters, 2,083 tons of sun­flower oil, 170 tons of but­ter, and 107 tons of margarine.

Since then, the U.K. has begun to require all local com­pa­nies to dis­close the names of their ben­e­fi­cial own­ers. Greatcom’s fil­ings show that it was ulti­mate­ly con­trolled by Rejepov.

Berdimuhamedov’s decree autho­riz­ing Greatcom to import food is a unique doc­u­ment in a coun­try where the pres­i­dent plays a direct role in most facets of gov­er­nance. It is the only pres­i­den­tial order direct­ly relat­ed to food sup­plies out of thou­sands of decrees reviewed by journalists.

It like­ly wasn’t a one-time deal.

This decree is the president’s sig­nal to Turkmen offi­cials down the chain — from the deputy prime min­is­ter in charge of the trade sec­tor to the min­is­ter — that, from now on, they should only work with these firms,” said a per­son in Ashgabat famil­iar with the food import sys­tem, who asked to remain anonymous.

At least one oth­er for­eign com­pa­ny includ­ed in the decree was also con­trolled by an insider.

Merdan Kurbanov, a long-stand­ing busi­ness asso­ciate of Rejepov, appears in U.K. cor­po­rate records as the ben­e­fi­cia­ry own­er of a firm called Staunchest Holdings LP, which received a $7.8 mil­lion import con­tract. (His younger broth­er Maksat was one of those who accom­pa­nied Rejepov to Courchevel.) As has report­ed, the firm once enjoyed a monop­oly on the import of frozen buf­fa­lo meat into Turkmenistan. It was dis­solved in March.

Another $3.5 mil­lion con­tract to import over 1,200 tons of sweets went to Intergold LP, a Scottish firm that had been found­ed less than a year earlier.

Intergold has since been rechris­tened with the innocu­ous name of SL024852 LP, and its own­ers remain anony­mous. But the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists report­ed that Deutsche Bank flagged as sus­pi­cious a $1.6‑million trans­fer in 2017 from Turkmenistan’s trade min­istry, which was labelled as pay­ment for “con­fec­tionary.”

According to Turkmen law, no com­pet­i­tive ten­der process is required in “excep­tion­al cas­es” or for goods and ser­vices meant for reg­u­lat­ed domes­tic mar­kets. This pro­vides a loop­hole for the gov­ern­ment to sign sin­gle-source con­tracts at its own dis­cre­tion, as it did in the case of the 2016 food imports.

Rejepov’s Mansion

The house is in the exclu­sive Gazha devel­op­ment in cen­tral Ashgabat, which was built with almost $547 mil­lion of state funds in the runup to the 2017 Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games. To make way for the devel­op­ment, which includes a brand-new kinder­garten, a school, shop­ping cen­ters, and a park, the gov­ern­ment demol­ished homes and evict­ed res­i­dents with­out due com­pen­sa­tion, accord­ing to Amnesty International.

The walls and ceil­ing here are dec­o­rat­ed in Roman style, also of mar­ble,” the design­er says about a guest room. “It has one more fea­ture: par­quet floors. The own­ers put down a car­pet, but the floor itself is a masterpiece.”

In the liv­ing room, he empha­sizes the dec­o­ra­tive pat­terns on the doors. “Here we have wood, and these were cast in bronze,” he says, point­ing to the ornate designs. “And all such details, even on the fur­ni­ture, were cast in bronze.”

Showing off a spa­cious bed­room on the third floor, the design­er says it belongs to a boy in 8th grade, mak­ing him rough­ly 14 years old. The large bed’s head­board fea­tures the ini­tials B.H. in the Latin alphabet.

Journalists were able to iden­ti­fy B.H. as Rejepov’s son Begench, who uses the patronymic sur­name Hajymyradov, a com­mon prac­tice in Turkmenistan. He even pub­lished a pho­to­graph from the man­sion on his Instagram account.

The house also appeared in a video from Rejepov’s father’s 60th birth­day celebration.

The inte­ri­or designer’s Instagram account pro­vid­ed evi­dence of the house’s location.

A video he post­ed in January 2017 fea­tures a street of red-roofed hous­es being built in Ashgabat. Satellite images show that red roofs are uncom­mon in the Turkmen cap­i­tal, but they are char­ac­ter­is­tic of the devel­op­ment in Gazha, which was under con­struc­tion in 2017. Satellite pho­tos also show lamps on the fences sur­round­ing the neighborhood’s hous­es. They also appear in the video.

According to a state con­tract out­lin­ing the rede­vel­op­ment of Gazha, Rejepov’s house cost about$320,000 to build. It is unclear how much the inte­ri­or cost, but the video tour sug­gests it was quite expensive.

Profiting from Misery

As Rejepov enjoys his life of lux­u­ry, con­di­tions for Turkmenistan’s ordi­nary cit­i­zens show no signs of improving.

As the sit­u­a­tion con­tin­ued to dete­ri­o­rate last year, the gov­ern­ment imposed ration cards in all regions out­side the cap­i­tal and required cit­i­zens to pur­chase sub­si­dized gro­ceries near their legal reg­is­tra­tion address. Since then, rations have decreased in some areas.

As food sup­plies fell short of demand, some fam­i­lies began mak­ing small prof­its by show­ing up ear­ly to stand in line and buy gro­ceries before they ran out, only to sell them lat­er at a high­er price. Tensions have grown among hun­gry peo­ple wor­ried about how they will feed their fam­i­lies. Arguments, scuf­fles, and fights have become com­mon­place, lead­ing the gov­ern­ment to post police offi­cers at stores to main­tain order and pre­vent speculation.

In October 2020, res­i­dents of Mary, an oasis city in the Karakum Desert, found their rations cut to just two chick­en quar­ters per fam­i­ly each month, and six eggs per per­son. This April, the city of Balkanabat decreased the month­ly ration to one chick­en quar­ter, one liter of veg­etable oil, and 250 grams of sug­ar per family.

Food short­ages and long lines are “a source of tremen­dous stress” said Denber of Human Rights Watch. “It’s obscene that there are peo­ple in Berdimuhamedov’s cir­cle or any­one who is pos­si­bly mak­ing mon­ey off of that grief.”

Matthew Kupfer con­tributed report­ing. Olga Gein and Aiganysh Aidarbekova con­tributed research.

OCCRP by  Ruslan Myatiev and Bayram Shikhmuradov 

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