Sunday, December 29, 2013
Turmoil In Turkey; Is Erdoğan Finished?
An important story bubbling under the headlines concerns Turkey's Islamist leader Tayyip Erdoğan, and a huge corruption scandal that contains juicy elements like money laundering using the state-owned bank Halkbank with Iran as a conduit, corruption at high levels of Erdoğan's AKP Party,nepotism, his implication in possible personal corruption, major authoritarian overkill, and major infighting within the Islamist coalition itself.
As you can imagine from just that small taste, this is a very complex story and it's still unfolding, but here's the gist of it.
About ten days ago, police in Istanbul and Ankara carried out a wave of arrests that included powerful,well established businessmen with ties to the AKP, the sons of three cabinet ministers, and the head of Halkbank.The arrests were the result secret corruption investigations that were underway for a year or more, and what is even more interesting is that the investigations were carried out without informing Erdoğan, or even some of supervisors in the justice ministry.
How that happened is a tale in itself.
When Erdoğan and the AKP took over Turkey a decade ago,they pulled off a marriage of convenience with another popular Islamist faction, the Gülenists, headed by Islamic cleric Fethullah Gülen. While Erdoğan's AKP has its Islamist roots in the Muslim Brotherhood, the Gülenists are much more nationalistic and Turkic in their outlook.
The Gülenists were willing partners with the AKP over the past decade in turning Ataturk's secular republic into an Islamist state. But as essentially the number two men in an increasingly more dictatorial Turkey, as time went on there was much more pressure on the Gülenists by the AKP. Fethullah Gulen, their charismatic leader (pictured above with Erdoğan) finally fled Turkey in the late 1990s and now lives in exile in rural Pennsylvania. Erdoğan and the AKP opened major hostilities with the Gülenists recently by targeting and ousting Gülenists in power and by seeking to eliminate their dershanes, prep schools that serve as a major source of money and influence for the Gülenists.
Another major flashpoint between Erdoğan and Gülen occurred last July with Turkey's Gezi Park protests. These were major riots and demonstrations against Erdoğan and the AKP government, a movement the Gülenists were active in. Erdoğan was able to quash the protests, but he had to use extreme brutality to do it. That alienated large sections of Turkey's population.
In response, the Gülenists formed an alliance with Turkey's secularists, who simply can't stomach Erdoğan's increasingly autocratic rule and find the Gülenist's brand of more nationalist, Turkic-oriented Islamism much more palatable. They began attacking him and the AKP in the Gülenist-owned media, and it was Gülenists in the security apparatus along with Erdoğan's other enemies who carried out the investigations and leaked them publicly.
What was found was evidence of a huge money laundering scandal involving the trading of oil and gas for gold in violation of the Iran sanctions.
Economy Minister Zafer] Çağlayan’s son was arrested during a corruption operation on Dec. 17, together with the sons of two other ministers; Environment and Urbanization Minister Erdoğan Bayraktar and Interior Minister Muammer Güler. The leaks, possibly from prosecutor’s office and police, to Turkish media claim that those ministers, plus Turkey’s European Union Affairs Minister Egemen Bağış have been involved in facilitating the “business” of Reza Zarrab in Turkey by taking bribes and abusing their offices. The “business” is to transfer Zarrab’s money from gold trade over Turkey to Iran via the government-controlled Halkbank, providing a short-cut to Turkish citizenship to Zarrab (now he is Rıza Sarraf and under arrest) and his entourage, facilitating Schengen visas for them (including Zarrab’s relatives), allegedly from Italian channels, and the amount of the total bribery is reported in Turkish media to be as high as 142 million Turkish Liras, nearly $70 million.
Let's not fail to mention that Erdoğan is one of President Obama's best friends among foreign leaders, and that the Obama administration issued sanctions waivers for Turkey’s business dealings with Iran because it believed that the Turkish government was could be trusted to act in good faith.
Those Schengen visas are another story, and one likely to effect Turkey's hope of entering the EU. They allow the bearers to cross EU borders with only minimal checks, and I'm certain various security officials in the EU are trying to determine exactly who might have crossed their borders and what they were up to.
Erdoğan's reaction was quite typical for him. He refused to remove the four ministers involved, and accused an unspecified international group that he called “the interest-rate lobby” of fabricating the allegations. Oh, by 'interest rate lobby', he almost always means Jews.
“A totally illegal, very dirty, and extremely dark trap is being set under the guise of this corruption case,” Mr. Erdoğan said Sunday in Giresun, on Turkey’s eastern Black Sea coast. “The meaning of the conspiracy that was hatched last week is very clear: disrupting peace and stability….We will destroy these nasty games being played on Turkey.”
A few days ago, he even insulted U.S. Ambassador Frank Ricciardone and threatened to expel him from Turkey because he claimed the Ambassador was allied with his enemies and had told other western diplomats that the "empire (Erdoğan and the AKP) was about to fall.
Within a day after the news surfaced he fired more than 20 high-level police officers in Istanbul and Ankara, including those directly in charge of the units that carried out the raids. There are murmurings that the lead prosecutor supervising the investigations has also been sacked, but what's known for certain is that two new Erdoğan-appointed prosecutors were suddenly (and mysteriously) added to the team conducting the investigation. Most Turks see this as a blatant attempt to bury the evidence and sandbag the investigation, suspicions Erdoğan poured gasoline on when he began making noises about declaring all information about the corruption scandal a 'state secret'.
Meanwhile, pictures were published in the Turkish press showing six huge steel money safes, a money counting machine and a log book with $3 million worth of accounts, which were reportedly found in the house of Barış Güler, the Interior Minister’s son. And $4.5 million in cash was found in shoe boxes in the house of Halkbank’s General Manager Süleyman Aslan, who is also under arrest.
That in itself is a huge change. Turkey has more journalists in jail than any other country, and its a criminal offense to write and publish 'unTurkish' (read, anti-Erdoğan or anti-AKP) materials, so Turkey's journalists have been keeping their heads down. Until now, that is.
And as the investigation continues, it gets closer to Erdoğan personally. One element of the scandal is that the prime minister’s son Bilal, his wife, his in-laws, and some cronies set up a foundation last year for the “education of youth.” The foundation opened a residence for university students. Now it turns out the Foundation didn’t pay for the dormitory, but rather public money from the Fatih district municipality, which is headed by an AKP mayor who's now also been jailed. What Erdoğan’s family did with the money they claimed was spent on the dormitory is an unanswered question.
But wait, there's more
Members of Parliament (and of course, the press) are asking questions about some interesting land transactions that occurred. One of them involved the transfer of some state-owned land free of charge or at a much lower price than the land was worth to the Erdoğan's foundation, TÜRGEV, where Erdoğan's son Bilal sits on the board.
In a written parliamentary question, Umut Oran, a CHP deputy chairman, asked Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan if Erdoğan himself or his son Bilal had acted as a go-between in . Erdoğan's son is a member of the executive board of TÜRGEV.
“Were you or your son involved as an intermediary in the transfer to TÜRGEV of a piece of land in Altunizade [a neighborhood in İstanbul] which the Ministry of Education had asked to have but had been told to drop its claim [for the land]?” Oran demanded to know.
The other questions Erdoğan's enemies in Parliament are asking concerns some land worth $1 billion belonging to the Etiler Police Academy being sold to a company called Bosphorus without a public tender for a giveaway price of $460 million. Members of Parliament want to know exactly who's involved with Bosphorus, if officials from the Turkish Investment Support and Promotion Agency (TISPA) and some well-connected Saudi businessmen were part of the deal, and whether Erdoğan's son is part of the company or acted as an intermediary.
When you consider that one of Erdoğan and the AKP's selling points was clean,transparent government, this has had a major effect.
Is Erdoğan on the way out? Are the Turks finally fed up with Erdoğan and the AKP's brand of authoritatian rule and creeping Islamist fascism? If that's what goes down, this could be a major event in the Middle east involving one of the most important countries in the region.Stay tuned