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He's Back: Turkmen President's 'Sidelined' Cousin Ignites Punch-Up At Ashgabat Bar

Shamyrat Rejepov (right) and his brother Hajimyrat
Shamyrat Rejepov (right) and his brother Hajimyrat

ASHGABAT -- A cousin of Turkmen President Serdar Berdymukhammedov was seen punching a bartender and a man's wife in a dustup at a bar in the capital in what seemingly marks a return to his untouchable status as a relative of the first family.

Shamyrat Rejepov is well-known in Turkmenistan for acquiring enormous wealth through his family connections and often boasting about his luxurious lifestyle. He also had a reputation for unbridled behavior under the long reign of his uncle, authoritarian leader Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov.

But he had been relatively quiet since Serdar replaced his father as president of the resource-rich country, leading many to think the new president had put the reins on his privileged cousin. Now they're not so sure.

Rejepov apparently was angry that the restaurant had not been immediately vacated for him to drink and dine alone, people said.

Describing the incident at the Sky Bar in the popular Gyul Zemin Mall around 9 p.m. on January 6, an eyewitness said someone began shouting for people to leave the bar because Rejepov was about to enter.

"There were still a few people left in the bar when [Rejepov] arrived with two bodyguards, and he shouted at the barman: 'Why haven't you gotten rid of everybody?' before punching him," the witness, a frequent patron of the Sky Bar, told RFE/RL on condition of anonymity.

The Turkmen president's aunts, Gulnabat Dovletova (left) and Durdynabat Dovletova
The Turkmen president's aunts, Gulnabat Dovletova (left) and Durdynabat Dovletova

Rejepov -- flanked by his bodyguards -- also reportedly hit a pregnant customer in the face and threw punches at her husband as he tried to defend her, another eyewitness said.

RFE/RL cannot independently verify the claims. There was no comment by police or other officials in the strictly controlled country where criticism of the president, his family, and government policies is not tolerated.

A source in Ashgabat told RFE/RL that the incident dashed hopes that many had that Serdar had sidelined Rejepov and his brother, Hajimyrat, who both enjoyed immense influence when Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov ruled from 2006 to 2022.

Rejepov is the son of 63-year-old Durdynabat Rejepova, the eldest of Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov's five powerful sisters, who have used nepotism to enrich themselves with companies and property and who have been cited by observers as having strong influence over the former president, their little brother.

Rejepov, 38, married his cousin, the daughter of Gulnabat Dovletova, the former chairwoman of Turkmenistan's Red Crescent Society. Dovletova, 61, is Gurbanguly's second-oldest sister.

Rejepov reportedly used his mother-in-law's position to import cigarettes and other goods under the guise of Red Crescent shipments to avoid paying the customs tax.

Serdar Berdymukhammedov (center) attends Russia's Victory Day parade in Moscow on May 9, 2023.
Serdar Berdymukhammedov (center) attends Russia's Victory Day parade in Moscow on May 9, 2023.

Like the rest of the extended first family, the Rejepovs became fabulously wealthy using their presidential connection to secure lucrative contracts and allowed to privatize state properties at discounted prices.

According to a 2021 investigation by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, a firm controlled by Hajimyrat was granted a $25.7 million contract to import food to Turkmenistan. The company had no experience importing food, the investigation found.

Nusay Yollary, a company linked to Rejepov's father, Annanazar, was reportedly among subcontractors who were awarded a deal in 2019 to build the $2.3 billion Ashgabat-Turkmenabat highway.

'The Brothers Are Back'

The Rejepovs angered many Turkmen by showing off their life in the lap of luxury on social media as most people in the Central Asian country of some 6 million live in poverty.

Many of these social media posts have been deleted and some family members privatized their Instagram accounts since Serdar took office in a managed election in March 2022.

Serdar, 42, has reportedly long been unhappy with his cousins, accusing them of "bringing shame to the family."

He had launched an attack on the Rejepov brothers even before becoming president, closing down several Ashgabat stores owned by Shamyrat and ordering the arrest of one of Shamyrat's close friends in 2021, the Europe-based website reported.

Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov
Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov

Just a month after taking power, Serdar dismissed his scandal-hit aunt Dovletova -- Shamyrat's aunt and mother-in-law -- from the post of Red Crescent chief due to the accusations of her exploiting her position chief to illegally sell humanitarian aid through her private network of pharmacies.

Shamyrat and Hajimyrat temporarily left the country and moved to the United
Arab Emirates after Serdar became president.

But Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, 66, went on to gain even more political power than the president in his newly created role as the head of the People's Council, which oversees all branches of rule in Turkmenistan with the right to change the constitution, adopt laws, and determine government policy.

"It seems that with the 'return' of their uncle [Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov] to power, the Rejepov brothers regained their confidence," a source in Ashgabat said. "People were happy when they disappeared after Serdar became president."

Written by Farangis Najibullah based on reporting by RFE/RL's Turkmen Service

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