Many years ago when I had just returned to Turkey to work in the financial sector a very senior Turkish bureaucrat gave me valuable advice about how to operate in that country.
“I know very well that the rules and regulations in this country are antiquated, contradictory, and often obscure. It seems simple to take advantage of this confusion and make a great deal of money through, shall we say, ‘irregular’ channels. My advice? Avoid this temptation at all costs. Do everything in your power to stay inside the rules. One thing we (Turkish officials) are good at is finding out about the little games people play to get very rich. Whether or not we do anything about it depends entirely upon circumstances at the time. But trust me, if you ever cross anyone in power, displease them in any way, they will pull out your file and make your life miserable as they reveal all your activities.”
In other words, “You can get away with anything you want. But do understand that someone, somewhere knows exactly what you are doing. And when it suits them they will lower the boom right on top of your head.” I have seen this happen time and again in Turkey.
This admonition came to mind when I read about the latest corruption scandal to rock Turkey. In an operation that seemingly was a surprise to the prime minister – who notoriously hates surprises of any kind -- police officials arrested a number of people close to the government, including the sons of three cabinet ministers, on corruption charges. When searching the home of the general manager of a state bank officials found shoe boxes filled with $4.5 million. The allegations are continuing to spread and now involve the Minister for European Affairs.
Rumours of corruption in high places have been circulating in Turkey for years. But up to now it was in no one’s interest or ability to do anything about it. Word of pay-offs to get projects completed would be greeted with a shrug of the shoulder. “What’s new? This is just the price of doing business.”
Suddenly, out of the blue, someone has decided the time has come to lower the boom. Turkey is no blushing virgin in matters of corruption, and this is not the first time people close to the government have been have been caught lining their own pockets. But why did this come out right now? What brought these claims to surface now in such a dramatic fashion? Who are they really aimed at? Who is behind them? How could this investigation have been going on for a year without anyone in the government realizing what was happening?The Minister of the Interior apparently learned about his son’s arrest on television. And this man is in charge of the police?! Either he is completely incompetent or strong forces outside the government’s control are at work here.
Needless to say the country is filled with rumours of great conspiracies involving the usual suspects of Israel and the United States. Also coming into the spot light is the reclusive Islamic scholar Fetullah Gülen whose followers allegedly control much of the police and judiciary. Gülen was one of Prime Minister Erdoğan’s early supporters. But the two fell out when Erdoğan moved to close the private college preparatory schools, many of which were run by Gülen’s people. Gülen has adamantly denied any involvement in the latest investigation. But those denials do not find many believers in Turkey.
The government’s first response to this investigation was straight from the pages of George Orwell. They fired about 30 senior police officials, including the police chief of Istanbul, involved in the investigation. “How dare you do your job?!!” This is the same police chief who earned Erdogan's high praise for cracking down hard on the protesters around Gezi Park last spring. No one has said a word about the substance of the investigation. There was not even a ritual statement about the evils of corruption. No, all they could do was claim that the investigation was somehow ‘dirty’, the result of a plot to undermine the government.
An added twist is the involvement of a shadowy Iranian Turk who was allegedly involved in the illegal, sanctions-busting gold trade with Iran. According to initial allegations he was also directly involved in bribing certain Turkish ministers for several items like building permissions and help with getting passports and visas for relatives.
The only thing that is clear right now is that this investigation could not come at a worse time for Prime Minister Erdoğan. He faces three key elections – municipal, presidential, and general – in the next 18 months. While he could shrug off massive protests last spring from the urban, liberal segment of Turkey, he may have more trouble with this one. His party came to power claiming to bring a new, clean style of governing to Turkey. As these corruption revelations continue to dominate headlines even his strong supporters could begin to rebel at the seeming hypocrisy of those claims.
For the first time since he came roaring to power more than 10 years ago the prime minister seems to be on his back foot. Where does he draw the line on support for some of his closest allies, many of whom have become very rich? Can he escape the fall-out from the steady revelations of corruption in high places? Can he continue to claim the ethical high ground?
Meanwhile the press and social media in Turkey are consumed with speculation about this investigation. Pictures of cash counting machines and millions of dollars hidden in shoe boxes in the suspects’ apartments dominate the front pages. There are claims that four ministers are about to resign or get fired. Who will be next? And then there is the billion-dollar question. Who is behind this drama?