“Money can get you anything … the guards protect the racket”. How corruption works in Turkmen prisons
This is the story of how the family of Meret Orazov, Turkmenistan’s ambassador to the USA, acquired four houses, three apartments and a tract of forest on an island near the Canadian border in his 18 years in post in the country. According to the most conservative estimates, this real estate is today worth over six million dollars in total. Such investment by the ambassador and his family breaks the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations and the laws of Turkmenistan “On diplomatic service” and “On combating corruption.” So the authorities of both Turkmenistan and the USA should have questions for the Turkmen diplomat to answer.
Born in 1950 in Ashgabat, Doctor of Physical and Mathematical Sciences, Doctor of Economics. From January 22, 2001 serves as Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Turkmenistan to the USA
Meret Bayramovich Orazov, 68, has led Turkmenistan’s Embassy in the USA since 2001 – over 18 years. He is today the second longest serving foreign ambassador in Washington, just three years behind the ambassador of the Republic of Palau, Hersey Kyota.
During the time that Ambassador Orazov has been head of the Turkmenistan diplomatic mission, other countries have changed their ambassadors in Washington many times: Pakistan – nine times, India – eight, Afghanistan – seven, and Uzbekistan – four. Most countries accept the principle of the regular rotation of diplomats, and change their ambassadors every three to four years. Great Britain, China, Ukraine, Japan, and several dozen other countries have replaced five ambassadors to the USA in the past 18 years.
It is accepted in the civilized world that diplomats in general and ambassadors in particular should not stay too long in one place, lest they develop overly close relations with the receiving state. If diplomats stay in a country for a long time, they will begin to put down roots there and to assimilate, losing their motivation to serve their homeland and gradually becoming a foreigner. Anyone living in another country for a long time inevitably gets used to it and begins to live the life of that country, which is totally off limits for an ambassador. An ambassador’s job is to put all his effort into defending the interests of his state and to act in the name of the head of that state, who appointed him.
It all went wrong from the start in the case of Turkmenistan’s ambassador Orazov.
Usually ambassadors are either professional career diplomats, which is the practice, for example, in the USA or Great Britain, or political appointees, senior civil servants without any previous connection to the diplomatic service but chosen by the head of state on the principle of personal trustworthiness, which is the practice in Turkmenistan. Orazov was appointed ambassador according to a third principle – he sealed an agreement with President Saparmurat Niyazov.
As he set out across the ocean, Orazov already knew he would not return. Niyazov knew too. He needed someone in this position who was an outsider in Turkmenistan. Turkmenistan’s ambassador to the USA was not required to defend the interests of his country, but to give the appearance that those interests do not exist. Since the ambassador would have access to the American establishment, he might pose a threat at any moment. He would have the unrestricted opportunity to effectively support a plot against Niyazov himself from across the ocean. Therefore a candidate had to be found who was completely devoid of political ambition and did not have close links with the Turkmen elite.
That is why a foreigner, Turkish businessman Halil Ugur, became Turkmenistan’s first ambassador to the USA. In 2002, when Niyazov entered the next phase of his conflict with the former foreign minister Boris Shikhmuradov, and realized that he had himself brought Shikhmuradov and Ugur closer together, he decided to get rid of the Turk promptly and to start the search for a new ambassador to the USA. That’s when Meret Orazov turned up, a real find for Niyazov. Orazov of all people posed no threat at all, as he only loved money and was interested in nothing else.
Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Turkmenistan to the USA Halil Ugur (right) and President of «Merhav» Corporation, Special Advisor to the President of Turkmenistan Yossi Maiman (Israel).
Meret Orazov completed post-graduate studies at Lomonosov Moscow State University and returned to Ashgabat in the mid-1970s with a doctorate in physics and mathematics. He worked as a university teacher for several years, became rector of Ashgabat Institute of Economics, and then of Turkmenistan State University, at the same time managing to travel to St Petersburg and defend his second doctoral dissertation, this time on economics.
In 1995 Niyazov decided to interrupt Meret Orazov’s “academic” career and appointed him minister of foreign economic relations. This was a time of surging foreign interest in independent Turkmenistan – bewitched by the prospect of easy money from natural resources foreign businessmen were eager to gain an audience with the president in order to make various commercial proposals. Access to the president was for money and passed through the office of Minister Orazov who also controlled the process of state registration of legal entities with foreign partners.
When he had been minister for less than a year, Orazov was given his old job back too – he was reappointed rector of Turkmenistan State University. Combining the duties of minister and rector allowed him to effectively put into operation his main fraudulent scheme – the Innovation Fund of Turkmenistan.
The Innovation Fund of Turkmenistan was set up with the supposed aim of accumulating resources to finance education and scientific projects. To this end, commercial subdivisions of the Fund received permission to buy oil products for Turkmen manats and to sell them abroad, and were exempt from all taxes, duties, and levies. Officially the Innovation Fund was led by its general director, Mikhail Brodsky, Turkmen State University pro-rector for economics and finance, and a long-standing acquaintance and subordinate of Meret Orazov from his time at the Ashgabat Institute of Economics in the 1980s. Behind the scenes the de facto head of the fund was Meret Orazov.
The real work of the Innovation Fund was to embezzle the money made from selling oil products for hard currency, ensuring it didn’t return to Turkmenistan. In addition, money was made through fraudulent operations with loans received from Turkmen banks.
Some episodes came to light, prompting a scandal. The fiscal and law-enforcement bodies took a lively interest in the Innovation Fund. A fair few guilty people, and some innocent ones too, suffered for their collaboration with the Fund, but Meret Orazov himself always got away with it, although Niyazov received several reports on his financial crimes. So when the president needed a new ambassador to the USA, the compromising material on Meret Orazov was just the ticket.
By this time, Orazov had already managed to move his main capital abroad, accumulated over years of swindling, and had also got out of the country a large quantity of valuables, antique Turkmen jewelry, handmade carpets and so on, enough to ensure a comfortable life throughout his twilight years. All that was left to do was to avoid imprisonment and get out of the country himself.
The deciding conversation between Meret Orazov and Saparmurat Niyazov took place without witnesses of course. According to some reports, Orazov took a million dollars in cash to the conversation. It’s not known what they talked about or whether Orazov gave Niyazov the cash, and it doesn’t really matter anyway. What is known for certain is the result: Niyazov conferred on Orazov the diplomatic rank of Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary and appointed him ambassador of Turkmenistan to the United States of America, allowing him to take all his relatives abroad too.
Time has shown that Niyazov’s unrivalled instinct as an experienced apparatchik was not wrong. Meret Orazov has done an excellent job in his new role and continues to do so.
Kyrgyzstan had an ambassador to the USA by the name of Baktybek Abdrisayev, whom we will meet gain during the course of this story. Abdrisayev was head of his country’s embassy in Washington in 1996, having been appointed by his president, Askar Akayev. When Askar Akayev was overthrown in 2005, the ambassador considered it impossible to work with the new authorities and remained loyal to his president. He resigned and sought political asylum in the USA. Back home, as usually happens, they anointed one of the dictator’s corrupt flunkeys in his place, but this didn’t worry Abdrisayev. He had completed his service and now lives and works in the USA, lecturing students on the foreign policy problems of the countries of the Middle East and Central Asia, writing articles and doing business.
Having mourned the late President Niyazov, Turkmen ambassador Meret Orazov did not follow the example of his Kyrgyz counterpart and did not resign, even after Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov took over from Niyazov and began to pick off Niyazov’s protégés one by one.
The fact is that Orazov suits the people upon whom Berdimuhamedov depends for his place in power. The new president did try to appoint a new man in Washington, but was rapidly thwarted by his own circle.
Orazov’s ethically dubious qualities, which were appreciated by Saparmurat Niyazov, remained in demand. Nothing had changed in Turkmenistan in this regard, at least not for the better.
The English 16th-17th century poet John Donne wrote in verse to his friend, the diplomat Sir Henry Wotton, who had been appointed English ambassador to Venice:
After those reverend papers, whose soul is
Our good and great king’s loved hand and fear’d name;
By which to you he derives much of his,
And, how he may, makes you almost the same,
A taper of his torch, a copy writ
From his original, and a fair beam
Of the same warm and dazzling sun, though it
Must in another sphere his virtue stream;
The poetic metaphor of the copy and the original is remarkably accurate. Both presidents of Turkmenistan were and are concerned purely with themselves, only with their own profit, and not at all with the good of the Turkmen people and state. The copy perfectly matches the originals – for many years Meret Orazov’s diplomatic service in the USA has not gone beyond attendance at meaningless protocol events.
Sir Henry Wotton himself, to whom John Donne dedicated his poem, is well known for his aphorism from 1604, “An ambassador is an honest gentleman sent to lie abroad for the good of his country.”
Alas, the venerable Sir Henry was wrong about at least one ambassador. The Englishman lived 400 years ago and didn’t have the chance to meet Meret Orazov. Today, though, we do have the chance, and you can judge for yourselves how honest he really is and how mendacious.
For the ambassador of any country to be in post for so long is out of the ordinary and attracts attention. However, Meret Orazov has managed to avoid this attention for 18 years! What has he been doing there all this time?
Orazov began to buy property in the United States practically as soon as he arrived and even before that. The firm Oronco Investment & Development Corporation, established in the USA in August 1994 by Orazov’s friend and partner Mikhail Brodsky, was used for his initial operations.
Do you remember Mikhail Brodsky who together with Orazov conducted fraudulent operations through the Innovation Fund of Turkmenistan? You might be surprised to hear that this was another Mikhail Brodsky, let’s call him the “First” – a native of Leningrad, an economist, a graduate of the Zhdanov Leningrad State University, who went to work in Soviet Turkmenia in the 1980s.
Mikhail Brodsky «First» was initially head of a department at the Ashgabat Institute of Economics (when Meret Orazov was rector), then headed the department of science, education and health of the Presidential Administration of Turkmenistan. Later, Orazov became rector of Turkmenistan State University and made Brodsky his pro-rector for economics and finance. In 1994 Mikhail Brodsky «First» returned to St Petersburg where he still lives today. On March 14, 2019 he turned 71.
But Mikhail Brodsky «Second» lives and works in the USА. Who would have thought Meret Orazov could have two crooked friends with the same name?
Mikhail Brodsky «Second», or Michael Brodsky as he is more commonly known in America, is 67 and was a fellow student of Meret Orazov at the Moscow State University Faculty of Mechanics and Mathematics and Orazov’s trusted representative in all his American dealings.
Michael Brodsky never worked in Ashgabat; he just visited and bought up hand-made carpets and silver jewelry when they were still plentiful at the famous Ashgabat “Tolkuchka” market. At that time Meret Orazov had only just taken up the post of rector of Turkmenistan State University, but was already contemplating his possible departure and had begun to gradually take abroad the capital he had accumulated through corrupt dealings.
To launder Orazov’s money Michael Brodsky set up the firm Oronco Investment & Development Corporation in California, registering it at his home address, and appointing himself its president. It was in this company’s name that Orazov initially registered his American property. To avoid Brodsky feeling lonesome, Irina Borisovna Orazova, Meret Orazov’s wife, was made vice-president of Oronco.
Orazov purchased a house at 4359 Westover Place NW, Wesley Heights, Washington DC in the Oronco firm’s name in February 2002 for 660,000 dollars. It is a town house with 255 sq.m of living space and a plot of land of around 125 sq.m. It has four rooms and three bathrooms and is located in a prestigious, but not the most expensive, district of the U.S. capital, in the neighborhood of the American University campus and 10 minutes by car from the Embassy of Turkmenistan.
After Oronco had outlived its usefulness and been wound up, this house was supposedly resold in October 2010 for the strange sum of $278,000, although it was actually worth much more. Orazov must have needed to hide its real value for some reason. In this sham deal Oronco sold the house to Irina Orazova. Today the real market value of the house is assessed at 1.1 million dollars.
The Orazovs didn’t live long in their first American house. Their next acquisition was their current family home, a 480-meter, seven-room house with five bathrooms at the address: 5004 50th Place NW, Spring Valley, Washington DC. The house was bought in April 2005 for 1.8 million dollars and since then has increased in price by almost half a million. Its owner is also Irina Orazova. This house has been the official residence of the ambassador of Turkmenistan and his family for almost 14 years now.
It is worth noting here that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Turkmenistan covers the cost of diplomats’ accommodation; i.e. the state is renting accommodation for the ambassador from the ambassador himself. Through this rent alone Orazov has “earned” around $700,000 of budget money over 14 years. And he has far more houses and apartments, which he rents out not only to himself but to other embassy staff too, though we are getting ahead of ourselves.
The relevant agencies in Turkmenistan should work out how much money allocated to cover diplomats’ accommodation has found its way from the state treasury into Orazov’s own pocket during all the years he has led the Turkmen mission in the USA. By the way, since the gentleman has far more property than subordinates, he feels no compunction in renting out his property to private individuals.
Does Ashgabat know about all this? Maybe, maybe not. At the end of the day it’s not all that important. What is important is that Meret Orazov has for many years been breaking with absolute impunity Article 42 of the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, which directly bans diplomats from doing commercial business for personal gain in their receiving countries. The law of Turkmenistan “On diplomatic service” imposes a similar ban; Article 12 of the law says that employees of the diplomatic service do not have the right to engage in entrepreneurial activity personally or through proxies.
In August 2005 Orazov acquired an apartment worth 280,000 dollars in the small town of Chevy Chase in the state of Maryland, right on Washington’s northwestern border. The 58 sq.m one-room apartment in a condominium at 4242 E. West Highway, #806, Chevy Chase, MD was needed by Meret Orazov’s younger daughter, Maya, who at that time was studying at nearby Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, just five minutes’ walk from her new home.
What is the buying and renting out of property by the Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Turkmenistan, if not illegal commercial (entrepreneurial) activity? It’s the only way to describe the receipt of rents from capital invested in lucrative property. It should also be taken into account that Ambassador Orazov and members of his family enjoy a whole package of diplomatic privileges in the USA, including tax exemption. It is highly unlikely that the American authorities will be delighted to hear that the ambassador of Turkmenistan is abusing these privileges, as well as violating the Vienna Convention, by registering the property in his wife’s name with a diplomatic passport. Meret Orazov’s predecessor, Halil Ugur, had to explain to the State Department more than once why he, a foreign diplomat accredited in the U.S., continued to be engaged in private business.
Though Maya has graduated from high school, the Orazovs still own the apartment. It’s the only one of their investments not to make a profit, as the apartment’s market value has fallen from 280,000 in 2005 to 200,000, which is not typical of the district as a whole, but is not surprising for a house built in 1966.
In 2007 Meret’s older daughter, Elena Orazova, graduated from university and joined the business. The latest house in Washington was acquired in her name: 4316 Westover Place NW, Wesley Heights, Washington DC (a neighbor of the very first house that Orazov bought in the USA). The 240 square meters, four rooms and four bathrooms cost $905,000, and here Orazov did not slip up. Today the town house is worth at least $1.1 million. In addition, employees of the Turkmen embassy in the USA lived here at various times, specifically in 2013-2014, military attaché Kurbanmurad Patyshov and his wife.
The same year, 2007, Irina Orazova became the owner of a snug little house in the town of Orem, state of Utah, in the western USA, worth $273,000 (98 W 1200 South Orem, UT): 878 sq.m of land, 159 sq.m of living space, four rooms, three bathrooms.
It’s a very long way from the capital, almost 2,500 kilometers. One might wonder why Meret Orazov needed to buy a house in Mormon country – the answer is that Utah Valley University, with which the Turkmenistan embassy has established strong ties, is nearby. Ambassador Orazov regularly visits to take part in the annual conference Women of the Mountains on tackling gender-related problems in countries with mountainous areas, co-organized by the Utah Valley University and the National Center for the Development of Mountain Regions of the Kyrgyz Republic. Delegations from Turkmenistan have visited several times on exchanges. In addition, Meret Orazov’s old acquaintance, the former ambassador of Kyrgyzstan to the USA, Prof. Abdrisayev, teaches history and political science at this university.
Orazov kept in touch with him after Abdrisayev resigned and received political asylum in the USA. We are interested to know what joint business the former Kyrgyz ambassador has with the current Turkmen ambassador, precisely because Baktybek Abdrisayev rented from Orazov that selfsame house in Orem.
In February 2013 came the next purchase in the name of Elena Orazova – a four-room apartment with an area of 106 sq.m in the town of Fairfax, Virginia, and to be more exact in its prestigious district of McLean (the address is 6800 Fleetwood Rd #616, Fairfax, VA).
Surrounded on all sides by parks, McLean is a residential area popular with diplomats, congressmen, senior civil servants in the U.S. government and other important people for its relative proximity to the capital Washington (around 15 km). In addition this is the location of the headquarters of the CIA, many of whose employees also live in McLean.
At the time of purchase the apartment in McLean cost $335,400, while today it has gone up in value by 20 to 30,000 dollars.
In 2017 Irina and Elena Orazova jointly acquired another house with an area of 150 sq.m for 235,100 dollars in the city of Orem, Utah. Its address is: 208 East 1135 South #219, Orem, UT. None of the Orazovs has moved to Utah, so this property has been bought not to live in but to turn a profit.
Last but not least, the final but no less important acquisition, and without doubt the Orazov family’s most glorious one, is 13.5 hectares of land on Anderson Island, state of Washington, in the northwest U.S. The island’s natural landscape is stunning. In an archipelago in the Pacific Ocean’s Puget Sound, the island is full of nature reserves, parks, and forests, and teems with wild deer. It is on Anderson Island (one of 60 islands in the area), with a population of around 1,000, according to the 2010 census, that the Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Turkmenistan to the USA, Meret Orazov, and his family hold land: seven neighboring plots of thick forest with an overall area of 32.98 acres (13.35 hectares). Orazov began to buy these plots one after the other in 1996 through the Oronco firm, although it wasn’t all registered in his wife Irina’s name until 2014.
Since the 1960s Anderson Island has been a popular retirement destination with American pensioners. Weary of living in noisy cities older Americans adore the peace and quiet there. The average age of the island’s residents is 54. The island also attracts tourists – every summer the population increases fourfold. Anderson Island can be reached only via private boat or the municipal ferry connecting the island to the mainland. There is just one general store on the island and one elementary school. From the sixth grade, local schoolchildren have to go to the town on the mainland to study. Most of the island’s population do some hobby farming or just relax.
Meret Orazov’s land on Anderson Island is worth around $400,000 today. Orazov hasn’t built anything on the land yet and there were no buildings there to start with. One can only guess why he chose to invest money here, but the first guess is highly symbolic.
Four houses, three apartments and a tract of forest on an island near the U.S.-Canadian border: taken together Meret Orazov’s real estate in the USA is today worth over six million dollars. The annual tax bill alone for these properties is around $50,000, and there are maintenance costs on top. And this is the real estate that we have managed to find out about. In order to earn that money legally, he would have had to eat and drink nothing for 100 years and save on clothes, as he has never officially been a businessman and all his life received a modest state salary.
The Turkmen ambassador to the USA’s basic salary is around 6-8,000 dollars a month. In addition Meret Orazov is entitled to supplements for combining the roles of ambassador to the USA, Canada and Mexico, and probably some bonuses and allowances, including to cover accommodation, which Orazov rents from himself.
Needless to say, Meret Orazov’s work for the state in Turkmenistan in the 1980s and 90s before he moved to the U.S. commanded a far more modest salary. Irina Orazova did not have any jobs either in which she could have legally earned millions of dollars, as she officially was not in business in Turkmenistan or America, other than her role in firms created specially to launder her husband’s corrupt income.
The Orazovs’ older daughter, Elena, did not complete her studies and start work until the purchase of property in the USA was well under way. Maya Orazova had only just finished school in 2012. Neither girl could have been involved in accumulating the family capital, not to mention the youngest, their son Timur who is still a student.
All Meret Orazov’s children have received and are continuing to receive top quality education, which is also expensive. It is not a matter of saving to spend on the children – there is no way that an ambassador of Turkmenistan could afford all this on his salary.
As well as investing in property, Turkmen Ambassador Meret Orazov is involved in other projects, including the small private Lincoln University (for 650 students) in the city of Oakland, California, founded 100 years ago and getting a new lease of life in 2009 through the direct involvement of Orazov.
The president of Lincoln University is none other than Michael Brodsky, while one of the senior faculty is Meret Orazov’s older brother, Boris, who was a lecturer at the Bauman Moscow State Technical University before moving to the States.
When the time finally comes for Meret Orazov to retire and give up his diplomatic passport, it is the private university that will help him get the necessary status and permission to reside in the U.S. At least this is what Meret Orazov is counting on, and he is extremely good at counting.
The only thing that could scupper Orazov’s plans is for his activities to attract public attention. Impunity engenders impunity, and as the philosopher said, greatly encourages crime. Perhaps it is time to move from encouragement to admonition, and from there punishment is only a step away.
In any normal country an official who receives money from the state is obliged to account for his income, his expenditure, and the tally between the two. In Turkmenistan the filing of such information by state employees is regulated by the law “On combating corruption.” It is crystal clear that Meret Orazov will never be able to account for the origin of six million dollars invested in property in the U.S. And of course he has not informed Ashgabat that as part of the property buying process he himself and members of his family regularly feature as parties to agreements on loans and securities with American banks and other financial institutions.
Turkmen legislation considers such actions a breach of the law and as such they should entail immediate disciplinary action going as far as dismissal from state service for loss of trust.
From the point of view of the U.S. authorities, as we said earlier, Meret Orazov is not clean either. On the one hand, it is in their interests that an ambassador of a foreign country should be so enmeshed in his own commercial interests in the receiving state that he is more likely to defend the interests of the United States than Turkmenistan.
On the other hand, no one has revoked the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, a U.S. federal law passed in 1977. Under this law, the very first acquisition by Irina Orazova, whose husband had been a PEP (“politically exposed person”) since the mid 1980s, should have at the very least alerted the U.S. State Department, Department of Justice, and FBI, and prompted some obvious questions: where did the former rector of a Turkmen university suddenly get so much money to buy himself property, and is this holder of dubious capital using diplomatic cover to launder money, breaking the Vienna Convention along the way?
The Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Turkmenistan to the USA, Canada and Mexico, Meret Orazov, should be immediately recalled to his homeland where he should explain to the law-enforcement authorities the source of his money and the breaches of the laws on state and diplomatic service. Or maybe he will not go to Turkmenistan, but will resign and remain in the USA, where he will still have to explain clearly where he got six million dollars. This is according to the law, but only time will tell how things will actually play out.
Bayram Shikhmuradov, Ruslan Myatiev
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