Turkish titans clash over cash-filled shoe boxes

  • December 21, 2013

People & Power

Tensions are rising in Turkey as public officials and ministers’ sons are arrested on allegations of corruption, sparking a strong reaction by Prime Minister Erdoğan.

Fifty-two people arrested in dawn raids — including the sons of three prominent government ministers, the CEO of a national bank, the head of a major building company, and a city mayor. Corruption charges at the highest level. Cash in shoe boxes. Accusations of an infiltrated police force. Investigators being fired. Whistleblowers being silenced. A furious Prime Minister. And two powerful men at war. Add to the mix a country where power-bases are being consolidated, where egos have spiraled out of control, and where elections are drawing near. If political chicanery and scandal is your thing, then Turkey is the place to be these days.

Corruption charges are being laid on two fronts. First of all, it is alleged that the Azeri businessman Reza Zarrab paid a bribe to the son of Economy Minister Zafer Çağlayan, in order to prevent suspicious gold-for-oil sanction-busting transactions with Iran from being noticed. He is also accused of bribing the son of the Interior Minister Muammer Güler, to ensure that his family and business associates could receive Turkish citizenship.

Secondly, at least one building company is alleged to have paid the son of the Environment and Urbanization Minister Erdoğan Bayraktar money to obtain building permits. This is a particular point of sensitivity in Turkey since the Gezi Park protests in June, as Turkey has witnessed a wave of activism to protect the few remaining green areas of Istanbul. Another area they were allegedly given permission for was around the newly opened Marmaray Tunnel, which links Europe and Asia under the Bosporus. Some experts had disagreed with the planning permission, arguing that it could place the safety of the tunnel in jeopardy. Somewhere along the line, the minister is alleged to have taken millions of dollars in bribes, in a story that escalates by the day.

But in Turkey, nothing is ever quite as it seems. At this point in time, anything that could potentially destabilize the ruling party could probably only mean one thing: a calculated move. Surely though, nobody would dare arrest people so entrenched in the powerful elite. Not these days. But as an amount of 4.5 million dollars was being counted in front of the cameras out of shoe boxes in the cellar of the house belonging to the head of the national bank, it suddenly became apparent that this was going to be a political scandal with substance. And one man — a man with followers who are said to have infiltrated the police and judiciary; a former ally of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan — had to be behind it. But this was only the start. The battle of the egos was really only beginning.

So what of the egos? In one corner you have Erdoğan. A lot has been said on this subject, but in brief the big man has had a busy year, brutally quelling the Gezi Park protests in June, and otherwise polarizing the electorate into being either strongly for or against him. Overall he has a very good economic record; has played a key role in modernization, and still seems to be on the same wavelength as most voters. To his critics, it is now very clear that under Erdoğan’s tutelage Islam is increasingly scampering into political life, and he has long stopped pretending to have any democratic intentions.

Erdoğan wants to change the constitution in order to give the position of President a lot more power just as he takes that position. While Putin was happy to serve his term away as the hand behind the puppet, Erdoğan would rather be the hand and the puppet at the same time. Nothing much, it seemed, could really get in his way. The media have been silenced, as the journalists in jail will testify. The opposition is divided. The judiciary is complicit, and the army has been defanged. His critics have been bullied into submission. The only person left who could have any real affect was the man who helped him get elected in the first place.

To find Erdoğan’s friend-turned-foe, we go to Pennsylvania, USA, where we find Turkey’s most powerful Muslim cleric in self-imposed exile. Fetullah Gülen has a huge number of followers, and it is alleged that they have spent the past few years systematically infiltrating the police. While Turkish people love a good conspiracy theory, this one would seem to have more legs than most. Certainly Gülen has friends in high places, as one of his biographers languishing in jail can testify. Gülen and Erdoğan enjoyed a marriage of convenience for many years, as they shared similar religious beliefs, and shared the same enemies too. Gülen was always fearful of what the generals could do to him. Erdoğan spent four months in jail — Gülen was keen to avoid that scenario.

Disagreements occurred during the Gezi Park demonstrations. While Gülen started his professional life as a cleric of the fire-breathing variety, he calmed down a lot as he became older. A human lives with love, is made happy by love and makes those around him or her happy with love, his website reads — showing something of a divergence from Erdoğan’s increasingly abrasive style. Gülen’s newspapers started to be more critical of the government, and of the Prime Minster’s increasingly autocratic style. At this point though, rumors of a break-up were still thought to be, in the eyes of the secularists, too good to be true. But a month ago the first shots were fired, unexpectedly, straight at Gülen’s main source of income: prep-schools. Threatening to close down Gülen’s schools was a call to arms.

But has Fetullah Gülen bitten off more than he can chew? It appears that the corruption arrests, although they may be valid, are also an act of retaliation from the cleric and his followers. And Erdoğan reacted in typical style, with claims of a media stitch up, a foreign plot, a ‘dirty war’, and claiming a throwback to the bad old days of military coups. He decided to implicate Gülen quite openly. Immediately, the main police investigators into the crimes were fired or moved. At last count, over fifty police officers have lost their jobs, or been moved to other departments, including the police chief of Istanbul. A critical journalist was fired, and the prosecutors have been switched. A purge on Gülenists throughout the public sector has been hinted at.

With the battle now in plain sight, and in the context of the personalities involved, there can be no doubt that Erdoğan will not rest until his enemy movement is disarmed. For Gülen also, a great deal of pride is at stake. Make no mistake, of course, in the eyes of Erdoğan’s critics, Gülen is merely their enemy’s enemy. Under enough pressure, Gülen may run out of friends and funds. Most of his followers are also normally amiable to the current ruling party — and given the choice of who to follow, most will opt to back the man who has kept Turkey out of recession and can keep them in their jobs and out of jail.

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James Smart

James Smart is from the South of England and is currently working as a university teacher and teacher trainer in Istanbul, Turkey.

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Source URL — https://roarmag.org/essays/akp-gulen-corruption-probes/

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