Friday, 28 February 2014

Are These Guys For Real?

One of the most annoying aspects of the massive corruption scandal in Turkey is the sheer incompetence coupled with unbelievable arrogance and brazen in-your-face behaviour of the alleged perpetrators.

            I mean, really, what self-respecting thief would keep millions of dollars in a shoe box, of all things, tucked away in a closet? Another one of these geniuses managed to have his picture taken with a $350,000-watch prominently displayed. If you’re going to steal, do it with some subtlety. You don’t have to throw it in everyone’s face.

            One doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry about the latest taped conversation between Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan and his son Bilal. Erdoğan is caught telling his son to move about €30 million from his house to various other locations. The prime minister is now yelling and screaming that the tapes are manufactured. But so far he has offered no proof of his claim. If he were serious the least he could do is have the tapes analysed by an independent expert.

            All that cash in their homes?! Haven’t these guys ever heard of the Cayman Islands, Lichtenstein or even Switzerland? I will admit it is a little hard to see this crowd sipping chilled Margaritas with Jimmy Buffet on some Caribbean island. But you have to wonder about the sheer arrogance. If you’re sure you’re never going to get caught why bother some little island hide-away?

            Then there is poor Muammer Güler, the former Minister of the Interior, who closely resembles a chubby little rabbit caught in the glare of the headlights of a huge truck. The taped conversations between him and his son who was arrested in the corruption probe provide some of the best humour of this entire situation.

            He reminds me somewhat of a story I covered as a young reporter on the police beat. A burglar who held up a convenience store was amazed when the police found him so quickly after his crime. “How did you guys find me so fast,” he asked, genuinely puzzled. The police laughed that the clerk in the store could identify him because his name was written in large letters on his shirt.

            One can almost feel sorry for Egeman Bağış, former Minister for the European Union, who reportedly got less than $2 million for services rendered to various shady characters. He must feel very hard done by when he reads that the former Minister for Industry collected more than $50 million – plus the watch – and even hapless Muammer Güler reportedly got more than $10 million.

            While vehemently denying even a hint of corruption none of these people has offered the slightest bit of half-way convincing evidence of their innocence. It’s almost as if they are challenging anyone to do something about their alleged larceny. “Yeah, I did it. So what? There’s nothing you can do about it.”

            And as long as Tayyip Erdoğan stays in power they are absolutely right. Nothing will be done. One minister was fired for being caught in the glare of corruption and then resigned from the party with nasty parting shots at the prime minister. He was brought sharply back into line when it was pointed out to him that the best way to avoid the unpleasantness of a trial was to support Erdoğan 100%. Then this case just might never come to trial.

            In short, all these people owe their wealth to Erdoğan. Without his favour they would most likely be collecting unemployment checks. Any public trial of their behind-the-scenes activities would reflect very badly on the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). And with a series of important elections coming up this not something that Erdoğan can afford.

            It has to be said that Turkish government officials are hardly the first to supplement their ordinary income with a few side deals. I remember one senior official from a large, relatively poor, Middle Eastern country who was returning home from Asia in the first class section, naturally, where the airline used real gold cutlery. This official saw no reason why he shouldn’t put that very nice cutlery into his brief case. The airline objected, and over the vigorous objections of the official searched his brief case. He was met by police when the plane landed. However, rather than punish the official for embarrassing the country, the president kept him in place. A friend close to the situation told me the president’s rationale for the lenient response was something like “Now I own him.”

            And Erdoğan’s henchmen must be green with envy at the excesses of Viktor Yanukovich of the Ukraine. Next to him the Turks look like amateurs.

            It is entirely possible that Erdoğan and his crew do not even recognize these alleged excess ‘payments’ as corruption. He actually said that if the famous money in the shoe box was not stolen from the state then it was not corruption. If this is his narrow definition of corruption then it is no wonder he finds it hard to accept that bribery of state officials is even unethical let alone criminal.

            This situation would be worthy of a TV sit-com if it weren’t so serious and damaging. Turkey has a long list of serious problems that need urgent attention. Unfortunately, while the prime minister is so busy defending himself, his family and senior officials from wide ranging corruption allegations nothing is getting done on the country’s real agenda. Turkey has worked hard to climb out of the Third World category. Now it is hanging on by its finger nails to these hard won gains and is real danger of slipping backwards fast.

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Kiev On The Bosphorus?

Could Kiev come to the Bosphorus? Could the mounting frustration felt by much of Turkey’s young, urban population with the increasingly autocratic regime of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan spill over into widespread demonstrations even greater than last summer’s Gezi Park protests?

Probably not. For one thing, Erdoğan is much better at tightening the screws on protests and opposition views in general than his former counterpart in the Ukraine – Viktor Yanukovich. Where Yanukovich let things get out of hand, Erdoğan has kept a steel grip on any dissenting voices. The new law on the internet attempts to stifle publication of any more news or opinions regarding the serious corruption claims. The proposed law on the judiciary completely erodes the separation of powers and increases political control of the already fragile Turkish judiciary.

The less said about the media the better. All but a very few outlets and writers have been completed cowed into supporting whatever outrageous claims the government makes. It is getting worse as the date of municipal elections draws closer. The prime minister is going out of his way to make sure that any opponents of his Justice and Development Party (AKP) get as little exposure as possible. He has gone so far as to call a TV station demanding that it give less time to the opposition candidate for the mayor of Istanbul. AKP is also accused of putting pressure on some newspapers to publish false poll results to give the impression that AKP candidates remain in far in the lead.

Another reason is that Erdoğan has been very clever at playing the ‘Us-Against-Them’ theme. In this case the ‘Us’ is that segment of the Turkish population that remains highly xenophobic, deeply suspicious of all foreigners, and distrustful of the well-educated, well- travelled economic, cultural and educational elite based mainly in Istanbul and Izmir. This segment is easy prey for the hair-brained conspiracy theories of varied lobbies – interest rate lobby, unnamed foreigners, Jews, the European Union – all working to keep Turkey from growing. The prime minister constantly accuses the ‘Them’ of trying to suppress the rest of the population by opposing what he grandly calls the ‘National Will’

Erdoğan’s constant, slightly panicky rants must be causing severe headaches for Turkey’s professional diplomats. How do they explain the irony – lost on Erdoğan – of sharply criticizing the Egyptian military for overthrowing the Moslem Brotherhood and then using the same techniques as that military for stamping on any dissent? How do they explain the prime minister’s often repeated love of democracy – or at least what he calls democracy – and his silence over developments in the Ukraine? Isn’t the overthrow of an autocrat something a real democrat should praise?  

The reality is that Erdoğan has absolutely no interest in foreign affairs at the moment. He is mainly concerned with two things: keeping AKP’s 50% vote threshold in the upcoming municipal elections and preventing any further investigations into corruption in his government.

Respected veteran journalist Hasan Cemal said in a recent interview that “Erdogan’s only concern is how to cover up the corruption charges. In order to do that he is trying to keep a tight grip on the media; his next target is the Internet, and he is trying to silence the internet . . . In a desperate attempt to save his political life he is trying to darken the (corruption) investigation by saying there is a coup attempt against him and his government. However, he is making a coup d’état against democracy in the country.”

Cemal was forced out of one of Turkey’s mainstream papers under government pressure last year. He is the author of several books and now writes online. 

One hope for the future is that much of the young generation in Turkey is no longer affected by the same ‘bunker’ mentality as previous generations. One of Turkey’s acclaimed novelists Elif Şafak wrote recently in The International New YorkTimes  that “at the same time, this warped mentality (of the past) no longer entices. Times have changed. The youth are far more open to the world than the previous generations, and the people are ahead of their politicians . . . As much as we tend to buy into conspiracy theories we Turks have also grown very, very tired of them.

Rather than accept that times have changed the Turkish government remains fearful of this development and is doing everything in its power to make sure the winds of change do not blow too hard. Ultimately, this approach will fail, just as it has failed in so many other countries. It is rather like using a fork to stop the tide from rising. It doesn’t work.  

The good news is that this change is inevitable. The bad news is that a great deal of damage can be done trying to block the inevitable.