Expat Living: What Does Extortion Look Like Where You Live?

Generally, I write from a multi-cultural perspective. Regular readers of these posts know that I spent 10 years in the former Soviet Union, and not in the most reliable of times.

Soviet era stamp

Old Systems Fall Away

In fact, these posts Which Came First and What Happens When… each shared with you a culture that involved guns, cheating, bribery, theft, and other skull-duggery (is that a word?) around me, and happening to me, when I arrived in Baku.

So I’m no stranger to the need for Rule of Law training in developing markets… it’s part of the territory, and it’s heartening to see when progress is made.

But there are times, as in my post on Would You Recognize Corruption, where it isn’t just the developing countries that are challenging the notion of fairness. The Minister’s point in that piece was a sort of “tomato/to-mah-to” argument that what we call corruption is no more than another way of doing business not unlike our ‘snail mail’ versus FedEx-type expediters.

This bit of linguistic gymnastics, or twisted logic, sounds an awful lot like he foresaw our current ‘net neutrality‘ internet service discussions… something like “pay up if you want good service”… that talk-show-host John Oliver highlighted on his “Last Week Tonight” show recently.



Forgive me, I know that was making light of a serious issue. But I use this humorous clip to highlight something much darker: The common feature in each of these examples today is the “pay up or else” tone to the transactions.

When I wanted something notarized or officialized in Baku, I could wait days by paying the posted amount, or… pay a little more under the table and get bumped to the head of the queue. If an expat got stopped for a driver’s infraction, a license with a few more dollars/manats/rubles usually made the citation wind up as a warning.

Expats know that’s often the way things work even today in many places around the world. Do we like it…?  %$## No! Do we tolerate it? Perhaps.  Perhaps because the place is not ours to change. Or because there are perks to the system that allow expats to operate somewhere other than on the bottom of the pile so we play along. Or perhaps because we know we can go home if it gets too bad…

Well here’s a sobering thought: We may not be able to. Extortion-tactics seem to have become a way of life for many of us, regardless of where “home” is.

Like I said, I’m aware, as I’m sure many of you are as well. But sometimes it still shocks and saddens me, as it did in a story this week. I’m still mad as %&#! about this and wouldn’t mind Tony Soprano weighing in with some options.

Here’s the deal…

***Only the names have been changed (for the usual reasons…)***

Fuad and Nayla both worked for the same man for about a dozen years, she doing the books and he running the shop. They were like family. Fuad and Nayla worked many long hours to make ends meet for this man and his company, took minimal days off- Nayla worked at home when she was sick or after surgery; Fuad covered all jobs when other workers were out or got fired. Essentially they were the ones who made things happen.

As the economy got worse in the recent slow-down, tempers flared and the man fired Fuad. Nayla stayed on because they needed to have some money coming in, but she knew it was only a matter of time before the shop closed down or he fired her too. Finally Nayla found another job and left.

Over the next two years, Fuad and Nayla found and lost jobs as the economy worsened. Finally they feared they would lose their home and have no way to feed their two daughters. So they went to the courts to be declared insolvent. They lost face in the community, had to admit to their older daughter that they could not pay for a wedding she had hoped would be hers, as tradition says.

Even this wasn’t the end. They ended up moving in with Nayla’s family because they could no longer pay for their home and utilities.

Bad Becomes Worse

Now almost three years later, the man has come back and told police that Nayla stole money from him. He claims the equivalent of 5,727,703 Rubles or almost €110,000 had been taken, spent, or stolen from him.

The police said they must pay the man or risk Nayla going to jail.

Fuad and Nayla denied the claims of course and protested her innocence. Nayla had spent company money, yes, but always with the man’s direction or approval. After so many years, he often told her to run things and she had. But never dishonestly.  Why was he saying such things and why wait this long to make such a claim? At this point, she of course had no papers from the company that could either prove or disprove anything. She was totally at his mercy. It was his word against hers.

If she went to jail, she would never work again- certainly not with money for any firm. With Fuad out of work, who would provide for them? Where could they get such money if paying up was the only way out?

They consulted an advocate who told them this was really a difficult aspect of the law. If they wanted to see the evidence, a formal charge would have to be made by the police- but that could mean damage to Nayla’s credibility in her new employer’s eyes. If they lost (a corrupt judge?) that would mean jail for sure- at least 6 months, maybe more.

Out of Options

Nayla continued to protest her innocence. Was she being framed? There was no way to tell.

The bottom line became not how to prove her innocence, not how to clear her name, but how to get so much money to pay what felt like extortion. How does this happen to good people? How does this happen, especially by someone who had been trusted like family?

[When I first got to Baku, a “friend” advised me, “Only work with family- they are the only ones you can trust.” (Said by someone who I later discovered was splitting my rent payment 5 ways behind my back…)  So maybe family is not the right answer for trust issues.]

Bitter Taste

When I last heard, Nayla and Fuad had raised about 3,000,000 Rubles or around €55,000 from family. It’s nowhere near enough but they hope this will put an end to their nightmare.

Are you appalled? Are you shaking your head in anger that good people get bullied like this?

Or do you shrug it off and say, “It happens in that part of the world.”

Would you be surprised if I said this was not in Baku? Would it surprise you to know this is not in Russia or the former Soviet Union anywhere?

Would it surprise you to know that the smugly corrupt now-former Minister in Baku was right after all?

We do have a problem with the rule of law in America. This is happening to real people, here in the land of the free. And I am shocked.

Change the names to Bill and Sue and re-read this story.  Does it change your perspective? Do your sympathies feel different?

Sometimes we accept this kind of thing abroad (wherever abroad may be) but at home? I would never have believed this happens here. It certainly shakes my faith and comfort in the safety of home.

My husband, our retired Deputy Chief of Police here, a veteran of 35 years in law enforcement, assures me this  is the way things work. How can this be? How can I not be angry?

Call me truly naive, but I am dumbfounded that in America people apparently are not really innocent until proven guilty. You have to take your chances on any number of variables to prove your innocence if someone says you are not. And proving your innocence can have real consequences in terms of reputation and trust from others who provide your livelihood.

This has saddened me and shaken me in a way I would never have thought possible.  I am ashamed that we are not better than this after telling the Azerbaijanis to clean up their act.

At the moment I am trying to put this in perspective. I count my blessings that it’s not happening to me, but thinking like that makes me feel like an ostrich.  I need to deal with this disbelief and disappointment, to write a letter expressing my anger, or punch something hard.

Suggestions? Thoughts? Ever happened to anyone you know? What would you do if this happened to you?

I’m certain there are some voices of experience reading here so let me know what your take is on this or other similar situations.

Truly, thank you for letting me share my eye-opening moment with all of you… it helps for sure!

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