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Vol. 42 No. 15 · 30 July 2020
Diary

In Ashgabat

James Lomax

4081 words

Monument to Gur­banguly Berdimuhamedow, the president of Turkmenistan, in Ashgabat, 2015

Iwassitting next to a Coca-Cola sales exec on the flight to Ashgabat. ‘I hope you’ve got the right-sized photo,’ he said. ‘If you haven’t …’ He gave a short, sharp whistle through his teeth and jerked his thumb backwards: ‘Home you will go.’ Arrivals in Turkmenistan can only get visas at the airport and it is a notoriously hit and miss affair. I showed the man my photo. I would have to present it to the immigration officials, along with my letter of invitation and my official fee in cash. He produced his noticeably larger photo. ‘Or maybe you could pay a little extra.’ He rubbed his thumb and forefinger together and laughed. I laughed with him.

Entrances and exits are a preoccupation of the senior and middle managers of multinationals. Travel dominates their lives. They are frequently rotated through international placements and do an enormous amount of flying in order to cover the territory for which they are responsible. And when you spend all your time travelling to difficult places, getting in and out of airports as fast as possible becomes very important. The problem is that a five dollar bribe to get to the front of the queue attracts exactly the same legal liability as a multimillion bung to win a huge chunk of business. If your company is already the recipient of a conviction under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, as mine was, you cannot afford to be caught again, no matter the size of the inducement. Anti-corruption professionals worry almost as much about corporate warriors getting to and from meetings as they do about meetings with the Angolan minister for oil or the Kazakh Telecoms licensing authority chief.

I laughed, then, because I spent a fair amount of my time training people like the Coca-Cola guy to see the particular dangers of international entrances and exits from an anti-corruption perspective, and this man, who would have received identical training, was doing exactly what I suspect the recipients of my advice do: that is, he was ignoring it on the basis that the business is too important, that no one will ever know and that the compliance department is full of box-ticking jerks who don’t live in the real world. I also laughed because I had been awake for 24 hours and I was hysterical from lack of sleep.

I was going to Turkmenistan to interview a manager who had been accused of cooking the books. Even though I started my journey next door in Kazakhstan near the Caspian Sea, I had to fly across the country from Atyrau to Astana and from there across the country again to Istanbul to pick up this final flight. I had spent the night in Istanbul Airport, sitting, dozing, pacing, obsessively checking the departures board. The original plan had been to send an investigation team – auditors, accountants, lawyers – into the country. But in the end, after a long wait, I had been the only person to receive a letter of invitation. This seemed even weirder in light of the fact that the US Embassy had been responsible for getting all our letters of invitation and I was the sole non-American in the party. (The State Department was incidentally far more effective than the diplomats of my own country, who gave up on me at a very early stage in the process.) At Istanbul, a team from Turkish Airlines had arrived at the boarding gate two hours before the flight and set up a perimeter around the desk using stretchy queue barriers. The entrance was guarded by a number of ground staff. As soon as I began walking towards it carrying my passport and boarding card, the reason for the precautions became clear. I was approached by one Turkmen after another, each of them cursing when I refused to accept the bubble-wrapped packages they tried to press on me.

We were now making our final descent into Ashgabat. Before the plane had even touched down, the Turkmen passengers stood up, got their hand luggage from the overhead lockers and surged as a bloc towards the front of the plane. The cabin crew were ready for this and pushed forward to meet them just before they managed to enter business class. No one was going to disturb the valedictory distribution of hot towels and boiled sweets to the people in the posh seats. After this brief, almost ritualised mêlée, the Turkmen settled for half-squatting in the aisle as the plane skidded to a halt. The old hand from Coca-Cola advised me that they were doing this because even they, citizens of Turkmenistan, were given a hard time entering the country and there was a far smaller chance of being hassled for a bribe by border guards if there was a long queue behind you. In all corrupt countries, the easiest pickings come from those who are travelling alone, last off the plane, arriving at night. By the time I reached the immigration desk to try and obtain my visa, the Coca-Cola man was arguing with the officials behind the glass. He was throwing in a few ‘fucks’ and the faces on the other side of the counter were angry. I presented my documents, the officially mandated amount of money and my wrongly sized photo. The official stuck my visa into my passport, stamped it and waved me through.

This surprisingly easy entrance was very different from my experience on another occasion, trying to get into Egypt. I had been conducting an investigation into the payment of protection money to Bedouin at one of our facilities in the Sinai Desert, and arrived in Cairo on a night when the Egyptian airforce was conducting a bombing raid against Islamic State positions in Libya. I had purchased my visa on arrival and was feeling very pleased that I had beaten the majority of my fellow passengers to the immigration desk. I presented my passport to the official, who scanned it and waved me through. But then he did a double-take: he had noticed something on his screen. Just as I was shaking hands with the driver who had come to meet me, the official shouted after me to stop. Two of his colleagues came from behind the desk to make sure I didn’t get any further. They also insisted my driver came with me to act as an interpreter.

I was taken into a side room to be interviewed. It turned out that my name was on a watchlist as belonging to a journalist who had written pieces critical of the Mubarak regime for an Arabic news organisation. There was quite a lot of preliminary back and forth between my terrified driver and the immigration officials. Then they asked the driver to translate a series of questions. ‘They are asking whether you have ever worked for a government,’ he said. As I had been a prosecuting lawyer for various UK government departments, the answer was a clear yes. ‘Your answer is no,’ he added before I could respond.

Eventually, someone in charge called my inquisitors and I was released. It was now almost midnight and I was extremely relieved (though not as relieved as my driver) when I arrived at my hotel. All the other guests who had come from the airport were checking in and being directed to their rooms. I, on the other hand, was studiously ignored by the receptionists. Eventually, because I was making such a fuss, one of them felt compelled to tell me they were waiting for the manager of the hotel to arrive. A gleaming, fat man in a suit eventually turned up, took me to one side and explained that there was no room available for me. When I showed him my reservation confirmation, he looked pleadingly at me. I had to understand that, even though there were rooms, there was no room. I got a taxi and eventually found a hotel that did have a room. But they insisted on payment in advance and my corporate credit card was declined – the one and only time this ever happened. I was allowed to make a down payment with the cash I had on me.

The next day, my company made an official complaint to the US owners of the original hotel and I had to participate in a painful penitential rite. On my return I was met at the door of the hotel by the same senior manager – now humiliated and deeply resentful – and an honour guard of receptionists. I was presented with a bouquet of wilting flowers and shown to a huge suite. At thirty-minute intervals waiters brought one delicacy after another – baklava, dates, iced fruit – until, when I opened the door for the fifth time, the manager was there, fuming. Hadn’t he done enough? Could he stop now?

In Turkmenistan I was met by the company driver as arranged and we drove into Ashgabat, a sinister Oz of white marble ministries set among HD emerald-green lawns and sweeping highways reserved for high officials travelling between their luxury homes and their intimidating offices. Everywhere on the wide, deserted pavements were the ornate streetlamps whose curling finials were said to contain listening devices. I’d been told that the whole of Ashgabat was bugged and to assume that the secret police were listening to as well as watching everything I did. Finally, we reached my hotel, another enormous marble building, silent and empty. After checking in, I went up in a silent lift and walked along a thickly carpeted corridor about thirty floors up. Before I entered my room, I looked down into the entrance foyer. A receptionist walked from one side to the other, her heels clacking on the white marble, echoing upwards. Later, as I drifted to sleep, I could see the small, intense red eyes of the TV, the fire alarm, the clock radio staring at me in the darkness.

The next morning in a breakfast room built to hold several hundred, I counted five people in addition to myself. One of them was Phillips, the manager responsible for running the business in Turkmenistan. He was British, with a long, gaunt El Greco-esque face. He had been waiting for me to arrive for half an hour. He was desperate to talk to someone, even if that person had been sent to investigate him for fraud. ‘Let’s go for a drink after you finish your breakfast,’ he said.

The same driver who had collected me from the airport was waiting for us outside the hotel. ‘He’s a spy, you know,’ Phillips said loudly. The driver just smiled. In the white heat we drove to a huge plastic marquee on the edge of the city. It was set up like an Oktoberfest beer tent with a large bar and rows of trestle tables. Aside from us and two bar staff, it was empty. There were large speakers set up in the four corners of the marquee and as soon as Phillips brought our beers back to the table, pumping techno music started up. ‘They won’t be able to hear us over this,’ he laughed. ‘But that little shit has probably been trained to lip-read,’ he added, nodding in the direction of the driver, who was sitting outside the tent reading a magazine. He told me about his career and his disastrous marriage to a woman in Africa who had used him to get a passport then left him for another man, and how he had fallen from corporate grace and ended up in the arse end of nowhere.

Phillips said that doing business here was almost impossible. Turkmenistan has huge oil and gas reserves but is extremely inefficient at getting any of it out of the ground. The country has one of the worst scores on the corruption perception index, the industry measure. (In 2019, Denmark was perceived as the least corrupt, with a score of 87 out of 100. Somalia is at the bottom, in 180th position. Turkmenistan is joint 165th with Congo, scoring 19.) But it is hard to tell just how corrupt Turkmenistan is because of the secrecy with which government business is conducted. The two national energy companies, Turkmenneft and Turkmengaz, are prime examples of the complex and opaque system whereby decisions over an inconsequential matter can be delayed for years, the reasons never given. Phillips led a shadowy existence here, summoned to meetings that never went ahead, or sitting in corridors waiting to catch the eye of some middle-ranking procurement manager. But some drilling did occur. In the Galkynysh field, companies like mine did bring oil and gas to the surface. The trouble was that the government hardly ever paid up. The bureaucracy left over from Soviet times, combined with a fresh layer of complexity applied by the most recent crop of dictators, had resulted in a fiendishly convoluted invoicing system, requiring a million different signatures in exactly the right place on a document at exactly the right time – the kind of set-up in which bribery is intended to thrive.

Western oil companies are prepared to tolerate all this because their eyes are on the prize. Their gamble is that, one day, the conditions will change, the fields will open up and the revenue will pour in. So the trick for men like Phillips is to reconcile these long-term goals with the pressing demands for short-term profit, growing the business, doing more with less. But in Turkmenistan, this is an almost impossible conundrum to solve without acting corruptly and, to his credit, Phillips refused to consider doing illicit favours for the apparatchiks. As a result, he sat and watched as his competitors were called into the rooms of power and came out smiling. Our company’s performance, bad to begin with, became dire under his morose but upright stewardship. And so, because he was an honest man, Phillips had been driven to commit fraud. There was no other way he could satisfy the corporation’s insatiable hunger for immediate cash. In part, Phillips blamed his team for his predicament. Apart from a few Russians on the rigs out in the desert, they were all Turkmen. Phillips said they did no work and refused to help him. He was convinced they were all spies or informants, in cahoots to get rid of him. I said we needed to discuss the details of the case, but by now the techno had become unbearable.

The driver took us out of the city and up into the mountains. I realised that we were on the approach to the border with Iran and asked Phillips if this was OK. ‘Don’t worry,’ he replied, ‘he knows what he’s doing.’ Once again he pointed to the driver and delivered his catchphrase: ‘He’s a spy.’ The mountains and the view over Ashgabat were beautiful. From here, the regularity of the white marble ziggurats made the city look like a pristine, sunbaked Sicilian graveyard. ‘No photographs,’ the driver said. But he didn’t have to worry on that score. I just wanted to get back in the car and get out of there.

Phillips told me about the fraud the following day. Because the company wasn’t getting paid for any of the work that had been completed, Phillips decided to make it look as if his team had done far more drilling than was actually the case. This would then be recognised in the books as income that had been accrued; we could rely on the money coming through in the near future. For a while, this trick made it seem as if Phillips had begun to turn things around. He was banking on some large bills being paid in a few months’ time, which would have smoothed the payment profile: his fraud was only intended to be a short-term fix. But Phillips hadn’t managed to buy himself even that amount of time. He had made the fake drilling estimates so large that it didn’t take long for an accountant at corporate HQ to spot the unlikely increase in activity and start asking questions.

Next I interviewed the team. Phillips was right: they did appear to hate him and their views of his behaviour and lack of leadership were very similar. But they also seemed to have good reason. According to them, Phillips ruled in splendid isolation, dispensing pearls of drilling know-how like a colonial magistrate among the natives. It was clear that they wanted Phillips’s deputy, a confident young woman who spoke excellent English, to lead the business in Turkmenistan. When I interviewed her, I could see why. She was intelligent, savvy, and her English was fluent. I asked if Phillips had ever brought her along to any of his meetings with the energy ministries. He had not. Why? She shrugged. Phillips just preferred it that way.

My final interview was with one of the rig-dwelling Russians from the desert near Merv. He could confirm the amount of drilling that had really gone on. He was a huge man with a deep scar that ran down from his forehead, bisected his eye socket and ended at his chin. I didn’t ask. He had travelled for two days in order to meet me and we spoke about the investigation for barely half an hour. He confirmed that Phillips’s drilling stats were pure fantasy but he had nothing else to add. Phillips was a desk jockey and therefore of no interest to this creature of the field. I apologised for causing him inconvenience but he told me he couldn’t be happier. He quite often worked in fifty degree heat and he lived with his crew on the rig for weeks at a time. Now he was off for a bonus night at a hotel and a piss-up on the company’s account.

The allegation was substantiated. Phillips was finished. I might easily have fitted into the conspiracy that existed in his mind between the company, the Turkmen government and various other bad actors, including his ex-wife and the driver. But he was beyond caring. At least I was British and could talk to him about the Premier League. So that afternoon, as if nothing had happened between us, Phillips insisted we continue our sightseeing tour in the heat. It ended strangely, with Phillips insisting that I pose for photographs standing next to the enormous warriors that line the promenade up to the Independence Monument. ‘You won’t be coming here again,’ he said, promising to send the photos on to me later, which he did.

And then it was time to leave. Usually, border officials are much less interested in you as you leave their territory. You are about to become someone else’s problem. But not here. Phillips told me it may take three or even four times as long to get airside as it did elsewhere. There were numerous document, baggage and security checks, a final reminder of the almost perfect fusion of bureaucracy and paranoia that Turkmenistan had achieved. I was following a couple of young Turkmen around this obstacle course of scanners, pat-downs and stamps when, at the final document check before the Nirvana of the departure lounge, they were held up for questioning. As I passed, they were protesting and showing their papers. A border guard took their passports, walked into an office and closed the door. At the very least they were going to miss their flight.

The consequences of being detained while trying to get out of a country you’re visiting are, of course, far greater than those that follow from a failure to get into it. My company had only recently had to deal with such a situation. All across Africa, we had been closing down speculative operations in small countries. The cost of sustaining them couldn’t be justified by the tiny amount of oil we were extracting and – unlike in Turkmenistan – by any serious possibility that the potential might one day be realised. Operations in these countries had become crippling liabilities. But for the rulers of the host country, the presence of companies such as mine, as well as being a handy source of pocket money, endowed them with immense domestic prestige. The Big Man had provided work for his people. ‘Local content’ clauses in contracts were frequently a condition of being allowed a licence to extract resources. Their requirements ranged from the provision of hospitals and schools to putting members of the Big Man’s tribe on the books as unskilled labourers.

In one particular country, bit by stealthy bit, we began to close down our operations, shutting down our facilities and rigs, auctioning or donating any kit that couldn’t be exported. Then we laid off the local workforce and the expats rushed for the exit. The last to leave, like a captain – or maybe a rat – leaving the sinking ship, was the country manager. As he was boarding his flight, the vice president of the country arrived in person at the gate with his cronies to prevent him from getting on the plane. He was forcibly detained for almost a year in an airport hotel as negotiations took place between my company and the vice president. Occasionally the US government and even less frequently that of the UK participated in these discussions. The vice president’s official line was that our company had failed to pay a significant amount in compensation to our ex-employees and so had committed an offence under the country’s labour laws. We were told to pay a fine, but we didn’t want to because it seemed likely that it would go straight into the vice president’s personal Swiss bank account. After a month of intense negotiations, everyone lost interest and the affair dragged on in a desultory way. The joke in the office was that the country manager was accruing so many loyalty points he would never have to pay for a hotel stay again. Eventually, though, his health problems meant that the issue had to be resolved and he was allowed to leave. The next day, the vice president turned up at the airport again and detained another departing expat from an oil and gas firm.

At Ashgabat airport, I was finally airside. A large party of Sikhs from Birmingham was transiting back to the UK from Amritsar and I spoke to some of them for a while. Then, after multiple changes of departure gates and a long delay, I got on the flight back to Istanbul and fell asleep, listening to the relieved braying of businessmen getting pissed on airline whisky, filling the void with tales of corporate derring-do.

Back in the UK, there was a development. It turned out that a senior regional leader had been copied in on Phillips’s emails containing the exaggerated drilling estimates, yet had done nothing. (This man was notorious for an incident when, hearing that our company was subject to a takeover bid that would activate a clause in his contract and make him a multi-millionaire on completion of the deal, he rushed out of his office and danced a jig in the open-plan area, singing ‘We’re in the money’ to the clerical staff, who sat, unmoved, tapping at their keyboards. They had just been given the news that, because of ‘synergies’, the takeover meant their jobs were likely to disappear. The man had to be dragged back into his office by another, more aware exec.) Because he was so senior, I called in an external law firm to look into his failure to act. They conducted a perfunctory investigation under the aegis of the central compliance team in Texas and he was exonerated. How could such a busy man be expected to read every email he was copied in on?

I saw Phillips at our UK office a few weeks later. He was sitting in a booth, next to the row of executive offices, waiting to be called in. He ignored me. I found out later that he had been dismissed by the dancing senior regional leader, who then proceeded to raise a complaint against me for my handling of the investigation in Ashgabat. It was his revenge for having been dragged into the affair. I was exonerated in my turn. But I left the company soon afterwards with a bitter taste in my mouth.

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