Print | Corruption

16,000 kilometers, 1 bus and a license to bribe

By - 09.12.2011

On the Mongol Rally, budgeting for corruption is a must to complete treacherous journey across 25 countries.

This past summer, we set out on a 25-country bus trip from London to Mongolia as part of the annual Mongol Rally. The point of the rally is to drive a vehicle that is completely unsuited for such a long journey and to raise as much money for charity as possible. The six of us on the bus were sure we’d experience corruption along the way. In fact, we actually had a “bribes” line in our Excel budget spreadsheet. But between the two of us, Grif was keen to note the ostensible, everyday corruption we had expected to come across and how it was correlated to corruption on a national level. Meanwhile, Robin spent time musing about how the corruption we faced along the trip related to the stories of corruption we were hearing from back home. We not only explored how our experiences matches transnational expectations of corruption, but also the ways that corruption rears its ugly head around the world.

Did this mean that by the time I got back to Europe, everyone would be swindling each other and I'd have to bribe immigration to get back into the country?

Just as we witnessed the gradual changes in people’s physical appearance, culture and language by driving across one-third of the Earth, we were also able to witness a slow shift in corruption from the robotically efficient, professionally polite and incorruptible police and border guards of the West to their warm, disorganized, corruptible counterparts farther east. Corruption is a product of human nature that is visible to varying extents from country to country.

Grif: Pimping out for a discount

We were warned about driving through Azerbaijan, a country that ranks 134 of 178 on the 2010 Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index. “The most corrupt police in the world,” “checkpoints every 10km,” and “the only awful part of the entire Mongol Rally” were comments we heard time and again. Within 10 minutes of entering the country from Georgia, we had the pleasure of our first checkpoint. The officer muttered something about illegal overtaking and asked that the driver, Kishor, get out of the car. Robin joined him and they were escorted to a small police stand and asked for $250 to do this the “easy way” or else the higher ups would be getting involved and it would be much more expensive. Laughing at the audacity of the officer, Robin said that they would be happy to wait and see all the formal paperwork rather than pay $250 on the spot. Annoyed that we did not fall for this officer’s masterful trap, the price quickly dropped to $100. This $100 could also be transferred for 30 minutes with one of our female teammates, the head police officer kindly added, with the very uneuphemistic mime that always goes with that type of proposal. In the end, the waiting game played to our advantage and we got out with a payment of $25, a pair of sunglasses and no pimping of our teammates.

AT A GLANCE: Mongol Rally destinations

  • Population: 5.3 million
    Capital: Ashgabat
    Main exports: Oil, gas, textiles, raw cotton

  • Population: 27.8 million
    Capital: Tashkent
    Main exports: Cotton, gold, natural gas, mineral fertilizers, ferrous metals, textiles, motor vehicles

  • Population: 5.5 million
    Capital: Bishkek
    Main exports: Fruit, vegetables, gold, tobacco

  • Population: 140.3 million
    Capital: Moscow
    Main exports: Oil and oil products, natural gas, wood and wood products, metals, chemicals, weapons and military equipment

Robin: Bigger, nastier scandals in the West

Although we were stopped at least a dozen more times in the country, this was our only payment and we made it uneventfully to Baku. So there you go, corrupt power structures trickle down to everyone else in the country, comforting us in the idea that back home in the West, we have a safe and reliable democracy: being mostly honest law abiding citizens, we must be the reflection of a mostly uncorrupt ruling class. Yet during this summer trip, each time I checked the headlines back home in France and the United Kingdom, I would read about these scandals cropping up: News Corp., the world’s second largest media group is under investigation for hacking phones to get juicy tidbits. Meanwhile, the French government was sentenced to pay almost a half-billion euro to Taiwan as penalty for irregular sales of French warships, with money swindled on the way and a few million handed out here and there to bribe both arms dealers and politicians. And then the most surreal of all news broke out: Robert Bourgi, a former aide to the current French president comes out on TV to explain how he’d spent the better part of the past couple of decades carting huge suitcases stashed with cash to and fro in a golden triangle between French arms dealers, African dictators in the former French colonies and French leaders, including former President Jacques Chirac himself. Did this mean that by the time I got back to Europe, everyone would be swindling each other and I’d have to bribe immigration to get back into the country?

When we got to Baku we had to locate a cyber cafe to upload Grif’s latest posts and pictures on the blog. After paying 6 euro for two espressos (does that qualify as corruption?) we spotted cyberspace and I seized that chance to check on the level of corruption back home. More of the same.

At a glance: Mongol Rally Destinations

  • Population: 8.8 million
    Capital: Baku
    Main exports: Oil, oil products

  • Population: 2.7 million
    Capital: Ulan Bator
    Main exports: Copper concentrate, dehaired cashmere, textiles, hides

  • Population: 15.7 million
    Capital: Astana
    Main exports: Oil, uranium, ferrous and nonferrous metals, machinery, chemicals, grain, wool, met, coal

  • Population: 4.2 million
    Capital: Tbilisi
    Main exports: Scrap metal, wine, fruit

At this point of my perusal of the headlines, the beach, vodka and food were all getting cold somewhere on the Absheron peninsula. It was time to go, and I shut the window. The next morning, in the dissipating vapors of vodka, we were busy digging the wheels of our bus out of the sand on a beach along the Caspian sea. I felt a little disappointed though, as I hadn’t had time to check out the latest on the French cash-filled suitcases. I felt that if there ever was such a theme as “corruption and travels” that truly was the epitome of it. And as I shared a game of croquet with Grif on the deck of the decrepit ferry sailing across the Caspian Sea, I was trying to picture Jacques Chirac and his Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin receiving the now infamous Bourgi (a.k.a. the cash carrier) at the Elysee Palace in Paris. He’s just stepped off a plane from Ivory Coast, the Democratic Republic of Congo or Libya and walks into the president’s office. He’s tired and sweaty, out of breath from having rushed down a series of long corridors hauling two huge suitcases behind him. Chirac gives him a big smile, pours him a drink and offers him a seat. De Villepin pulls out a cigar and gives him a friendly tap on the back. They open the suitcases and start counting. The phone rings, Jacques picks up the receiver. “Laurent (Gbagbo, president of Ivory Coast)! What’s up? Yes, we’ve just started counting. Sure. Gotta go … Love you! Mmm. No I love you more. No, me. Ok. Bisous, Ciao ciao!” Three hours later the three men are done counting and are stashing the cash in the empty Cardin, Versace and Prada shoe boxes that Bernadette, Jacques’s wife has thoughtfully been piling up in a corner for the past week on her way back from her shopping sprees. “Don’t trash them, we’re recycling,” she had told the maid every time she’d tried to clear them out.

At one point, a soldier made a motion to the rest of my team and said, “your boyfriend, your girlfriend, your brother, your sister? Uzbekistan. You? Turkmenbashi.” With this, about seven men erupted in laughter.

And on went my daydream. Next morning, we sailed into the port of Turkmenbashi safe and sound, walked off the ferry with backpacks, a croquet set and no suitcases and prepared to face the border crossing into Turkmenistan, ranking 172/178 on the corruption index. Grif had a hard time there.

Grif: The phantom stamp

While it was certainly a bureaucratic nightmare (11 hours, 12 import documents, 24 stamps and nine signatures), only about $5 ended up being paid in bribes and the entry process was relatively straightforward. Upon leaving Turkmenistan four days later, however, I was told that I was missing a stamp. Impossible. After such a tedious process in which every possible surface of paper appeared to have a stamp, how could one be missing? Without speaking any English, the customs officer pointed to what had to have been the only stampless section of a page, made a stamping motion and shrugged his shoulders. I, in turn, pointed at him, made the same stamping motion and pointed to the paper. This continued for about five minutes until he used a map to indicate that I would have to drive back to the port of entry to receive the stamp. Nevermind that this was a solid 18-hour drive in each direction and my visa expired the following evening, I was certain that driving back would accomplish nothing. If I wasn’t able to get this phantom stamp when I was actually importing the car, how on Earth would I be able to go back and retroactively achieve this? To further complicate matters, my five teammates had already cleared Kazakh customs and were on their way to the Uzbek border. At one point, a soldier made a motion to the rest of my team and said, “your boyfriend, your girlfriend, your brother, your sister? Uzbekistan. You? Turkmenbashi.” With this, about seven men erupted in laughter.

Through a soldier-cum-translator, I was then told a harrowing and sentimental tale of how if I did not go back to Turkmenbashi to get the stamp, the poor customs officer would have to drive all the way there to close the loop on the paperwork. He doesn’t have so much time, but even with gas prices going up, he has the kindness in his heart to take care of this for us, but it would come at a price. Aha! I was in. Even when border guards don’t speak English, they all tend to speak dollars. Robin and I had conversed about this earlier and agreed that $70 was high enough to not offend the customs officer but also not so much as to affect our budget for the trip. The customs officer accepted this offer and sent me on my way to join the team. As I left, I saw him stamp the page and file the paperwork away with other completed exit forms. I couldn’t help but smile.

Robin: On shady French arms deals

Meanwhile in France, the media was churning out more scandals about the ruling class. Bourgi’s missions, it turns out, didn’t just consist in carrying cash to France. That cash actually came from French arms dealers (mostly Serge Dassault, who happens to be an elected figure of the ruling conservative party and owns Le Figaro, one of France’s three main national newspapers) who were bribing African dictators to get contracts. As those weapons are used mostly for violent political repression or fired at the French forces whenever they step in to try and enforce ceasefires, a little kickback to the French executive branch was also necessary so they wouldn’t veto the sale. So Bourgi would actually take a plane from Paris with millions, drop them off in Kinshasa, Jamusukro, or elsewhere and fly back with one, two or five and drop them off at the Elysee Palace.

As I researched the subject a little more, I found out this is common practice. A similar scheme was set up for arms deals with Pakistan. With the little difference that in one of the transactions, one of the local intermediaries was short-changed. Now, remember the Karachi attack on a bus of French engineers who’d been working on a submarine? Thirteen people died. Turns out it was retaliation from said local intermediaries who’d been denied the usual suitcase. Also turns out the cashback from that transaction was poured straight into the campaign budget of right-wing presidential candidate Edouard Balladur. Guess who was in charge of his campaign finance? Nicolas Sarkozy. Oops.

Grif: Lusting after the Black & Decker

Between Uzbekistan, 172/178, and Russia, 154/178, on the corruption index, we were probably the victims of at least 25 police checkpoints. Reactions varied. Some officers merely pulled us over to give a thumbs up; others insisted on seeing a ridiculous amount of paperwork and performing odd exercises, the intended results of which I am unsure of: kicking the tires to check pressure, asking to look through photographs from the last party we were at, and the ever-popular write down completely random information in a massive book filled with other people’s completely random personal information. At one Russian checkpoint, Kate was brought into a booth and shown eight pictures of our bus taken at various stretches of highway over the course of an entire day. We were able to get through both of these countries without bribing anyone but have heard that historically these two countries are the most difficult for many teams, and headed to Mongolia 116/178 on the corruption index.

At a glance: Mongol Rally Destinations

  • Population: 1.8 million
    Capital: Prishtina
    Main exports: Coal, lead, zinc, chromium, silver

  • Population: 8 million
    Capital: Belgrade
    Main exports: Manufactured goods, food and live animals, machinery and transport equipment

  • Population: 625,000
    Capital: Podgorica
    Main exports: Aluminium

  • Population: 3.8 million
    Capital: Sarajevo
    Main exports: Wood and paper, metal products

While not corruption in the most traditional sense, this story certainly qualifies as it essentially represents a transaction in which a state official traded state property for his personal gain. I hesitate to add that this case is also nontraditional because the entire transaction was my idea. While poking around our bus looking for marijuana and cocaine, a Mongolian border officer developed a strong infatuation with our Black & Decker electric drill. After looking behind his shoulder, he began to take out his wallet and offer me money for the drill. I had no interest in trading away what had been to that point a very important tool for $10 or so when we still had 1,600 kilometers of difficult driving ahead. Persistent, the officer kept taking out more and more money. Then an idea hit me. Since Georgia, our team has been rather obsessed with the frying pan hats worn by soldiers, policemen and guards in all ex-Soviet countries. I thought that this would perhaps be my last and best chance of procuring one. His certainly fit the bill. A beautiful cobalt canvas with a glossy navy brim and a smart gold embroidery. Emblazoned on the front in the form of a gold medallion was a Soyombo, the symbol ubiquitous to Mongolia. The cap must have a diameter of at least 14 inches. In other words, it was perfect, and I wanted it.

I made a gesture to his hat, and he laughed and shook his head. He proceeded to take more money out of his wallet. At this point, I thought I might actually have a shot. I dug around the bus and emerged not only with the drill battery charger but also the original box. He was impressed. Casually, he took his hat from his head and tucked it into a sweater of mine. I had already placed the drill and its box into a plastic bag. We shook on it and he disappeared. When we left the border a few hours later, I looked into the rear view mirror to see ten soldiers exiting the main building. In the middle of the pack, I could see that one was not wearing his hat.

At a glance: Mongol Rally Destinations

  • Population: 11.2 million
    Capital: Athens
    Main exports: Textiles and clothing, food, oil products

  • Population: 2 milion
    Capital: Skopje
    Main exports: Clothing, iron and steel

  • Population: 4.4 milion
    Capital: Zagreb
    Main exports: Machinery and transport equipment, clothing, chemicals

  • Population: 5.4 milion
    Capital: Bratislava
    Main exports: Manufactured good, machinery and transport equipment

Robin and Grif: A mindset of unaccountability

Looking back on the Western corruption  that we were casually monitoring from afar, we had to ask the question: Is corruption pervasive in all spheres of society? One major difference between corruption along the trip and corruption at home is that the former is largely fueled by abject poverty, while the latter is a result of sheer greed. Luckily, we often found ourselves in the graces of good human beings who, in spite of being in a position of complete power, allowed us to pass without a bribe. Likewise, there are many Westerners who pass off greed in favor of good governance. Ultimately, we concluded that corruption presents itself in different forms around the world with unique motives and different levels of efficacy and extent. Fortunately, corruption was never ubiquitous in any particular region and more often than not, we were allowed to travel on.

Based on Transparency International’s 2010 Corruption Perceptions Index, it is interesting to see that of the 25 countries we drove through, the five countries we experienced problems in are the first, second, fourth, fifth, and sixth most corrupt countries of the lot. We did not experience any real problems in Kyrgyzstan, which ranked 164 on the list in 2010, placing it just ahead of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan (172) on our list. Only Iraq, Afghanistan, Myanmar and Somalia are ranked as more corrupt than these two Central Asian police states. Moving up the list from Russia (154), Azerbaijan (134) and Mongolia (116), the next most corrupt countries we drove through were Kosovo (110), Kazakhstan (105), Bosnia and Herzegovina (91), Serbia and Greece (T-78).  We’re happy to report that we did not experience any first-hand corruption in any of these countries.

To us, what this near perfect correlation indicated is the efficiency with which corruption can trickle down from the state level to the one-off border guard. TI’s index is based on surveys that largely capture high-level corruption, such as kickbacks in public procurement and embezzlement. Bribery of public officials is also a metric used, but it is inherently harder to measure due to its largely undocumented and ad-hoc nature. Nevertheless, our experiences, while far too small to represent any sort of scientific sampling, indicate that as go the governments go the public officials. Corruption is not a grass-roots movement that starts at the border guards and moves up. Rather, it is a mindset of unaccountability passed down the ranks that reeks worst in poorer countries with corrupt leadership. Therefore, the key to getting rid of headaches for future Mongol Ralliers is not going to be achieved just by sacking the crooked officials we came across but rather by installing governments that set a track record of anti-corruption and lasting development policies designed to fight blatant income inequalities. This, we fear, is no easy task. In the meantime, however, maybe you’ll at least be able to get a cool hat.

Corruption by the numbers (Source: Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index 2010)

  • CPI: 172/178

  • CPI: 172/178

  • CPI: 164/178

  • CPI: 154/178

  • CPI: 134/178

  • CPI: 116/178

  • CPI: 110/178

  • CPI: 105/178

  • CPI: 91/178

  • CPI: 78/178

  • CPI: 78/178

  • CPI: 69/178

  • CPI: 68/178

  • CPI: 62/178

  • CPI: 62/178

  • CPI: 59/178

  • CPI: 56/178

  • CPI: 53/178

  • CPI: 50/178

  • CPI: 25/178

  • CPI: 2/178

  • CPI: 20/178

  • CPI: 11/178

  • CPI: 22/178