Why Turkey’s Mother of All Corruption Scandals Refuses to Go Away

One year after the start of the biggest corruption scandal in modern history, Turkey's political elite is sweeping it all under the rug.

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It’s now been just over a year since Turks learned of the most serious corruption case in our country’s recent political history. On Dec. 17, 2013, police officers raided several homes, including two belonging to the families of the ruling elite. In the course of the investigation the police confiscated some $17.5 million in cash, money allegedly used for bribery: $4.5 million was found at the residence of Suleyman Aslan, the director of state-owned Halkbank, and $750,000 at the home of Baris Guler, son of the former minister of the interior.

At the heart of the probe was businessman Reza Zarrab, who was reportedly involved in a money laundering scheme as part of a strategy to bypass United States-led sanctions on Iran. All of the 52 people detained that day were connected in various ways with the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Prosecutors accused 14 people — including Aslan, Zarrab, and several family members of cabinet ministers — of bribery, corruption, fraud, money laundering, and gold smuggling. The whistleblowers who tipped off the police claimed that the son of then-Prime Minister (now President) Recep Tayyip Erdogan was next in line. A firestorm was sparked by the release on YouTube of audio recordings in which Erdogan was reportedly heard telling his son, Bilal, to urgently get rid of tens of millions of dollars. Erdogan has claimed the recordings were a montage but the experts begged to differ. Turks found themselves gripped by a real-life version of House of Cards, one that pitted Erdogan against his former ally, U.S.-based cleric Fetullah Gulen.

In the thirteen months since then the political scene has changed completely. Widespread public indignation forced four cabinet ministers to resign, while Erdogan dismissed the whole graft investigation as a coup attempt targeting his government. He then proceeded to dismiss thousands of police officers, prosecutors, and judges. The government tightened its grip on the media and the judiciary. Officials accused Gulen and his followers of treason and started referring to them as “terrorists.”

Erdogan’s wrath over the scandal was so all-encompassing that it even drew in Francis Ricciardone, then U.S. Ambassador to Turkey. After accusing the ambassador publicly of engaging in “provocative actions,” Erdogan threatened to declare him persona non grata. In the aftermath of the scandal, officials and pro-government papers accused just about everyone of various malfeasances in an attempt to deflect attention from the allegations. That conspiracy mentality has remained largely unchanged: On the first anniversary of the corruption investigation a few weeks ago, Interior Minister Efkan Ala hinted that Israel was behind the graft allegations against ruling party officials.

AKP members may have tried to use the U.S. and Israel as scapegoats, but as their main enemy they clearly regarded the Gulenists and their sympathizers, who were said to make up what Erdogan calls a “parallel state.” Though the initial sweep had yielded enormous amounts of highly incriminating evidence, in May of last year officials announced that they were closing the graft probe. Meanwhile, the Istanbul Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office rejected appeals filed against an earlier decision to dismiss corruption and bribery charges. The farce continued last month, when the Prosecutor’s Office decided to return money seized from the homes of Aslan and Guler — with interest.

All that remained was for a special parliamentary body to decide whether it wanted to refer the cases of the four ex-ministers to the Supreme Council, a body that only hears cases against cabinet ministers and other top officials, for trial. On Jan. 5, to no one’s surprise, the parliamentary Corruption Investigation Commission decided to quash the cases. Just to heighten the absurdity, the commission also declared that it would soon reconvene for the purpose of destroying the incriminating audio clips that feature some of the accused ex-ministers and their sons. In most countries this would be tantamount to destroying evidence — but not, apparently, in Turkey.

Although the commission refused to refer the ex-ministers to the Supreme Council, the main opposition party is expected to file a motion seeking a new vote by parliament to bring the four men to trial. Many believe this to be “a necessary but useless waste of time,” since the AKP majority in parliament is unlikely to let this pass. (The photo above shows members of the opposition demonstrating against corruption and bribery in Istanbul on Dec. 18.)

A member of the ruling party, speaking on condition of anonymity, told me that the four former ministers should be punished for their wrongdoings, but denied the involvement of Erdogan family. He also stressed the “ill intentions” of Gulen sympathizers, whom he accused of illegally wiretapping members of the cabinet and pro-government businessmen. It is no secret that many AKP members are disturbed by the scandal, but they believe that sending their colleagues to the Supreme Council for trial may have unforeseen consequences for the party. Many in the AKP also believe that sending the ex-ministers to the Supreme Court would mean capitulating to the “coup attempt” by Gulen and his camp. So the parliamentary commission’s refusal comes as little surprise.

According to the TV network CNNTurk, Prime Minister Davutoglu has urged the four former ministers (Economy Minister Zafer Caglayan, Interior Minister Muammer Guler, European Union Affairs Minister Egemen Bagis, and Environment and Urban Planning Minister Erdogan Bayraktar) to stand trial before the Supreme Council so that they can be acquitted. Such a move would certainly help Davutoglu, who recently assured the AKP rank and file that he has zero tolerance for corruption, saying that the authorities will “break the arm of anyone involved in graft, even if it’s our own brother.” Some suggest that the decision shows how little real sway Prime Minister Davutoglu has over the government decision-making process, which is dominated by President Erdogan’s loyalists.

The authorities and lawmakers may be turning a blind eye to the biggest graft scandal in Turkish history, but anti-corruption watchdogs warn that the situation is deteriorating. According to Transparency International’s annual Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), corruption in Turkey is rapidly getting worse. TI ranks 175 countries on a scale of 0 to 100, with zero meaning “very corrupt” and 100 “very clean.” In last year’s survey Turkey experienced the sharpest drop of any of the 175 countries survived, falling five points to a CPI score of 45. Anne Koch, the organization’s director for Europe and Central Asia, said that Turkey’s slide from 53rd to 74th in the overall rankings had everything to do with the events of Dec. 17. “Millions of dollars in shoeboxes, the firing or resignation of ministers, many detentions, led the news on corruption,” said Koch. As a result, she noted, some countries in Africa and Middle East were faring better in the rankings than Turkey.

Let’s forget for a moment about the merits of the government’s charges about the Gulenists. If the government really wants to lift Turkey into the ranks of the top 10 economies in the world by 2023, as it has so often said, then sooner or later Ankara will have to face up to its own sleaze problem.


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