Turkmenistan: Only Those Close to the Family Get ‘Green Light’ in Doing Business

Turkmenistan’s Customs Agency removed excise duties on imported foodstuff for the period August 25 to September 30. The temporary decision will allow importers to replenish their stores in order to meet the increased demand that the authorities forecast for the forthcoming Asian Games in Ashgabat.

Turkmen authorities, however, failed to disclose this information through official channels. A few entrepreneurs learned about this new provision through their informal connections at the Customs Agency. Yet, even with knowledge of the new regulations, these entrepreneurs would not be able to benefit from the excise-free regime.

Importing foodstuff in Turkmenistan can be a lengthy process. First, the local company needs to work with the foreign supplier to gather all necessary documents and register their contract with the Turkmen Commodity Exchange. This process usually takes 5-6 business days. Once the first step is fulfilled, the two companies interact in the usual logistics of shipping the goods to Turkmenistan, which usually takes up to 15 days. When the shipment arrives, the Customs Agency keeps the cargo for up to 10 days, while it checks it and issues the required permits.

The timeline shows that hardly anybody would be able to benefit from the excise-free term. Local entrepreneurs said that the Customs Agency’s secret decision was disclosed beforehand only to those businesses close to the president’s family. Among which the new Kamil supermarket, opened by Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov himself in the Berkarar shopping mall in Ashgabat.

“Just imagine the benefits this supermarket will gain if they manage to bring Russian or European juices without paying the $2/kilogram customs fee. When they put foreign products on their shelves at competitive prices, the customers will surely buy in their store, because imported juices are of much better quality than local ones,” a Turkmen businessman told ATN.

Kamil supermarket also seems to be exempt from restrictions on banking operations, currency conversions or commodity exchange bureaucracy. In addition, foreign trucks with Polish, Russian, Turkish and Iranian license plates unload imported goods directly at the site of the Kamil supermarket, bypassing the customs terminal. Kamil is only required to show the necessary documents at a later date, a luxury that other businesses are not entitled to enjoy.

“There is no single government agency responsible for trade, import and certification of foreign goods that is allowed to open their containers during transit,” ATN source said.

Kamil, which mostly imports from Poland, also fails to fulfill the language requirements of obtaining customs certificates in English, Russian or Turkmen and often only shows documents in Polish.

Mergen Begenjov

Mergen Begenjov, a businessman from Ashgabat, manages Kamil. He is a close friend of the president’s nephew Hajimurad Rejepov. After starting his trade in the 1990s with a small space in the Russian market, Begenjov achieved success when Berdimuhamedov became president. In 2007-09, Begenjov brought luxury Christmas gift baskets from Dubai and then opened several stores. At the end of 2014, Begenjov became Kamil‘s top manager. He is the same businessman who runs the other major supermarkets in Ashgabat and in the surrounding areas, Paytagt, Shazada and 5 Yyldyz. This means that the supermarket business is indirectly controlled by the presidential family.

ATN sources have no doubt that last year’s arrest of Dovlet Atayev, owner of A-Market, and of Resul Atageldiyev, who controlled the Merdem entertainment center, as well as the hasty closure of the popular Turkish supermarket Yimpash, were all masterminded by Begenjov to eliminate competition. The link between these and other businessmen to the Turkish opposition preacher Fethullah Gulen is seen as a pretext that the president’s family used to push out competitors from the market. In fact, Begenjov could not do all this alone, without the support of Berdimuhamedov’s relatives, in particular, his nephews Hajimurad and Shamurad Rejepov and his sister Gulnabat Dovletova. Begenjov is not just connected to the president through his friendship with Berdimuhamedov’s nephew, as his wife’s brother also works as a personal security guard to the president.

Despite the fact that the government continues to put pressure on local entrepreneurs to replenish their stores and provide a wide variety of goods ahead of the Asian Games, the state apparatus is balking their business by placing additional barriers. Entrepreneurs from Ashgabat said they were indignant at the unfair treatment. At a time of economic crisis, they argued, it would be a better policy to support those who try to develop and create local jobs, rather than giving unparalleled advantage to a single company close to the president’s family.