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President’s relative controls Turkmenistan’s only mobile operator

Turkmenistan, Altyn Asyr, Russian telecom giant, MTS, 

International

President’s relative controls Turkmenistan’s only mobile operator

Turkmenistan’s only mobile operator, Altyn Asyr, enjoys an undisputed monopoly despite frequent complaints about poor service and exorbitant prices. Though its shareholders are not publicly named, reporters learned that it is run by a member of the president’s family. By Ruslan Myatiev, Bayram Shikhmuradov, and Matthew Kupfer

For most people in Turkmenistan, Shyhmyrat Shaharliyev is an unknown figure. His name barely appears online, he eschews social media, and he seems never to have made any public appearances.

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But Shaharliyev has a greater influence on the day-to-day lives of ordinary Turkmens than most realize. He is the secretive general director of Altyn Asyr (“Golden Age”), the only mobile operator in Turkmenistan, where telecommunications are closely monitored and censored. He’s also married to the niece of longtime dictator Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, who ceded the presidency to his son Serdar earlier this month.

Turkmen citizens regularly complain about the slow and overpriced telecom services provided by Altyn Asyr, which operates under the brand name TM Cell. Even Berdimuhamedov has criticized its service and accused its former managers of incompetence.

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But a new investigation by OCCRP, Turkmen.News, and Gundogar.org indicates that the poor service isn’t the result of a lack of investment. In 2011 and 2012, Berdimuhamedov authorized spending over $170 million to overhaul the company’s communications infrastructure.

After the investment was approved, Berdimuhamedov signed another decree, transforming the state-owned enterprise into a closed joint-stock company that keeps its shareholders secret.

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In 2017, the government also expelled the company’s only competitor, Russian telecom giant MTS, making Altyn Asyr a monopoly.

Then, in 2019, Shaharliyev became the company’s general director — and because Altyn Asyr was now governed by a board, no official decree was necessary. After he took office, the president’s public criticism of the company and its services ceased.

The lack of transparency about Altyn Asyr’s ownership, the decision to secretly appoint Shaharliyev to lead it, and the expulsion of MTS all suggest that Turkmenistan’s telecom infrastructure is being concentrated in the hands of the first family. Meanwhile, the flow of state dollars into Altyn Asyr hasn’t stopped.

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Since Shaharliyev avoids the limelight, little is known about his income, lifestyle, and personal habits. But there are indications that the Shaharliyevs enjoy the luxuries available to other members of Berdimuhamedov’s family: Shaharliyev’s son has shown off his expensive watches on social media, and several restaurants and a nightclub in Turkmenistan are also connected to the family.

Reporters were unable to reach Shyhmyrat Shaharliyev for comment.

From Modesty to Modernization

Altyn Asyr was founded in 2004 by official decree of President Berdimuhamedov’s predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov.

In his 15 years in charge of Turkmenistan, Niyazov established an all-encompassing cult of personality and even gained international fame for his megalomaniacal flights of fancy: renaming the month of January after himself and April after his mother, penning his own book of philosophy that all Turkmen students were made to study, and erecting a golden statue of himself that rotated to always face the sun.

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In comparison to these ventures, Altyn Asyr was relatively modest. The company was founded as a small national telecom operator, with a capacity of just 50,000 unique numbers in a country of 4.7 million people.

From the beginning, Altyn Asyr had problems. As a state company, it was not highly responsive to the market and coverage was poor outside Turkmenistan’s capital, Ashgabat. The company struggled to keep up with its main competitor, a private operator called Barash Communications Technologies Inc.

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In 2005, the owner of BCTI sold the company to MTS, a Moscow-based telecom heavyweight with operations across the region. Under its new brand, it remained the most popular option in Turkmenistan.

Americans in Turkmenistan

Altyn Asyr wasn’t the first mobile operator in Turkmenistan to enjoy a monopoly. For a decade before its founding, that role was played by BCTI, a private company that eventually ran afoul of the authorities.

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In 1994, Mikhail and Alla Barash, Soviet immigrants to the United States, founded Barash Communications Technologies as a Texas-based company operating in Turkmenistan. According to their contract with the government, BCTI would be the country’s only mobile operator for 10 years.

But around 2002, as the company’s 10-year agreement approached its ending date, it started having trouble with Turkmen authorities, Mikhail Barash told reporters. He said the government put pressure on BCTI to either exit the country or to sign a new agreement that would be more favorable to the government.

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In 2005, Mikhail Barash sold BCTI to the Russian operator MTS for $46.7 million in cash and exited the Turkmen market for good.

Soon after MTS entered Turkmenistan through this acquisition, the Turkmen government began to pour money into modernizing Altyn Asyr. Between 2007 and 2012, Berdimuhamedov authorized 11 contracts to purchase SIM cards for the company, modernize its equipment, and even build it a brand-new office building. In total, the contracts were worth over $188 million.

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The vast majority of that spending — over $170 million — was authorized in just one year, between October 2011 and October 2012. A month later, Berdimuhamedov abruptly transformed Altyn Asyr from a branch of a state enterprise into a closed joint-stock company, describing the move as a step towards integrating the company into the free market.

But an analysis by BMI Research, a business research firm, suggests that the company likely remained largely in state hands. Since its shareholders are not disclosed, the size of the government’s stake is unknown, as is the size of any share acquired by anyone else.

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Inside the Contracts

Not every decree signed by Berdimuhamedov to authorize a contract for Altyn Asyr stated its purpose, and one didn’t even list the value of the deal. But, in combination, they paint a picture of a government rapidly investing tens of millions of dollars into the state telecom.

June 1, 2007 — 200,000 SIM cards, contract of unstated value with Axalto (France)

July 13, 2007 — 100,000 numbers, contract worth $7,720,000 with Huawei Tech. Investment Co. (China)

February 14, 2008 — 100,000 SIM cards, contract worth $9,233,000 with Nokia Siemens Networks (Finland)

October 21, 2011 — contract to build a new office building for Altyn Asyr, worth $18,394,000, with Şahin Inşaat Gida Tekstil ve Otomotiv Sanayi ve Ticaret (Turkey)

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November 18, 2011 — contract worth $2,029,000 with Nokia Siemens Networks (Finland)

January 26, 2012 — contract worth $24,071,000 with Huawei Technologies (China)

January 26, 2012 — contract worth $24,353,000 with Nokia Siemens Networks (Finland)

January 26, 2012 — contract worth $20,129,000 with EastWind, a Russian software company, for both Altyn Asyr Ashgabat City Telephone Network (AGTS), a small partially-owned subsidiary Altyn Asyr.

October 19, 2012 — contract worth $44,460,000 with Huawei Technologies (China)

October 19, 2012 — contract worth $22,540,000 with Nokia Siemens Networks (Finland)

October 19, 2012 — contract for equipment and technical support services worth $15,796,000 with EastWind (Russia).

While the Turkmen government was investing in Altyn Asyr, it was also going after its more successful competitor, MTS.

By 2010, that company’s client base had grown to 2.4 million — over half the country’s population. But that same year, Turkmenistan’s Ministry of Communications cut its users off from phone lines and the internet, claiming that its five-year contract had expired.

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The company initiated legal proceedings against the Turkmen government and managed to reach an agreement with Berdimuhamedov that allowed it to return to the country in 2012, with its license extended until July 2018.

But MTS didn’t make it that long. In September 2017, almost a year before the license was set to expire, the Turkmen government broke the agreement without explanation and forced the company to shut down its operations in the country. That made Altyn Asyr the only mobile operator remaining in Turkmenistan.

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Meanwhile, the Turkmen government has continued to invest in Altyn Asyr. In November 2021, pro-government media reported that Turkmenistan had allowed its national communications agency to purchase equipment, software, licenses, and technical support for Altyn Asyr from international telecommunications companies like Huawei and Nokia. The report did not state how much money would be spent on the investment.

Secret Director

Altyn Asyr’s transformation into a closed joint-stock company at Berdimuhamedov’s behest would prove critical in hiding the fact that a member of his family controlled the company. Because Altyn Asyr was now governed by a board, the decision to appoint Shyhmyrat Shaharliyev as its director was not public — like the man himself.

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Before taking the helm of the mobile operator, Shaharliyev’s name appeared online only once. In October 2016, as Turkmenistan marked the 25th anniversary of its independence, state media published a decree listing him as one of several hundred people given commemorative medals by Berdimuhamedov for their contributions to the country’s development. The decree described Shaharliyev as the head of the material supply department of Turkmentelecom, a state company responsible for all landline phone, radio communication, and most home internet access.

But sometime between the 2016 award ceremony and the end of 2019, Shaharliyev became director of Altyn Asyr. A source in the company told OCCRP and partners that he was appointed in 2019.

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Unlike his predecessor, Shaharliyev has never represented Altyn Asyr publicly, leaving the job to his deputy, Vitaliy Patushenko, who represents the company at conferences and gives comments to state media on its behalf.

Neither Altyn Asyr nor any state media outlets have ever published Shaharliyev’s photograph. Initially, reporters were only able to find one image online that even hinted at a likeness of the secretive telecom director. It was a New Year’s family portrait published privately as an Instagram story by Shaharliyev’s daughter and reposted publicly by his son — but with his parents’ faces covered with red heart emojis to conceal their identities.

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Such extreme secrecy may seem unnecessary and even counterproductive for the director of a national telecom company that likely counts most Turkmens as its clients. But Shaharliyev is no ordinary CEO.

His wife, Yazgul Shaharliyeva, is the daughter of Berdimuhamedov’s sister Durdynabat and her husband, Annanazar Rejepov.

Finding Shaharliyev

Shaharliyev’s extreme secrecy has helped him evade attention since he married into Berdimuhamedov’s family. But reporters found ways to track him down.

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OCCRP, Turkmen.News, and Gundogar.org first learned that Shaharliyev was the head of Altyn Asyr and married to the president’s niece from sources in Turkmenistan. They then found him listed as the company’s general director in a leaked 2020 phone directory from the telecom. He was also listed as holding that position in an online business database run by Dun & Bradstreet.

Next, journalists sought to prove his tie to the first family. In the phone database, they found Shaharliyev’s wife, Yazgul, and saw that she listed the patronymic “Annanazarovna” (“daughter of Annanazar”). Later they found photos of the couple’s son and identified him in a video of his grandfather Annanazar Rejepov’s birthday party. In the video, the son referred to Rejepov as “baba,” a Turkmen term for a grandfather on one’s mother’s side. Finally, they ran Yazgul’s phone number in GetContact, an app that shows how phone numbers are listed in others’ phone books. Her listings indicated a connection to the first family.

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The Rejepov family is known for its broad business interests in Turkmenistan and beyond. On the same day Shaharliyev received his commemorative medal, Annanazar received one as well. He was listed in the state decree as “coordinator of Nusay Yollary,” one of several local companies constructing a new expressway between Ashgabat and the eastern city of Turkmenabat. The cost of the project is $2.3 billion.

OCCRP, Turkmen.News, and Gundogar.org have previously reported that Berdimuhamedov granted Annanazar’s son Hajymyrat Rejepov the right to import food to Turkmenistan at a time when the country faced a shortage of affordable groceries. A subsequent investigation found that both Hajymyrat and his brother Shamyrat benefitted from privileged access to their country’s mineral wealth and were involved in the export of petrochemical products for a considerable profit.

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OCCRP and partners also found that Hajymyrat Rejepov had built a luxurious mansion for his family in Gazha, an expensive development in the center of Ashgabat, and that both brothers owned multiple apartments in Dubai.

Secret Wealth

Hajymyrat and Shamyrat Rejepov are recognizable figures in Turkmenistan, widely known to be “yegenler” — in Turkmen, “nephews” of the president — who have published photographs of their jet-setting lifestyle on social media.

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By contrast, Shaharliyev’s secrecy means that he is neither widely recognized as the director of Altyn Asyr, nor as a member of the first family. But there are signs that he too enjoys the luxurious lifestyle that the Rejepovs have made famous.

Shaharliyev’s son has published photos on his private Instagram account of himself wearing expensive watches, driving elite cars, and riding on horseback. OCCRP and partners were able to match his watches with models produced by luxury brands Rolex, Hublot, and Franck Muller. The estimated combined value of these models would be around $125,000. The two cars pictured on the son’s Instagram are a BMW and a Toyota Land Сruiser.

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Reporters heard from sources inside Turkmenistan that Shaharliyev owns several restaurants, coffee shops, and a nightclub in the country. Turkmenistan does not publish company registration documents, but reporters found corroborating evidence that Shaharliyev owns two of these restaurants in a leaked database of Altyn Asyr phone numbers.

A phone number listed in the database as belonging to Shaharliyev also serves as the official number of Kopetdag Project, a brand that includes an upscale restaurant, pizzeria, beer pub, and nightclub. Earlier versions of the phonebook show that this number has belonged to Shaharliyev since at least 2015.

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OCCRP and partners called the main phone number listed on Kopetdag’s Instagram profile and asked whether it was Shyhmyrat Shaharliyev’s restaurant. The woman who answered the phone said it was.

Shaharliyev also likely has an ownership stake in Koshi Shashlyk, a popular restaurant known for kebab delivery. One of the numbers listed online for the restaurant belongs to Shaharliyev, according to the leaked phonebook. Another two of the restaurant’s numbers belong to his brother Shyhberdi Shaharliyev.

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Blitz’s Editorial Board is responsible for the stories published under this byline. This includes editorials, news stories, letters to the editor, and multimedia features on BLiTZ

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