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Turkey’s Corruption Scandal Goes from Bad to Worse

Sometimes, bad things happen to bad people. I wrote here last week regarding the political civil war in Turkey which has erupted between Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and followers of Islamist leader Fethullah Gülen. Many trusted Turkish interlocutors have written to expand on the topic, which has manifested itself as a bribery scandal. Erdoğan, in true banana republic style, reacted initially by seeking to sack the police chiefs overseeing the investigation. His ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is now threatening to classify any information from the bribery scandal as a “state secret,” the publishing of which could be punishable as treason.

Several Turkish journalists and academics point out that the investigation appears to now focus on Egemen Bağış, Turkey’s minister for European Union affairs, and one of Erdoğan’s closest aides. Illegality or not, Bağış is one of the AKP’s least-liked figures. AKP colleagues, Turkish journalists, and both American and European diplomats describe him as boorish, arrogant, and a bit of a blowhard. He is also extremely litigious, and has sought to sue Turkish journalists and analysts who have touched on some of his shadier dealings. Now that the arrests have propelled discussion of AKP corruption to the forefront, Hürriyet Daily News discusses the case in a bit more detail. Not surprisingly, it involves several AKP officials seeking to profit off of Iran’s sanctions-busting “Gold-for-Gas” scheme with Turkey:

[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… the amount of the total bribery is reported in Turkish media to be as high as 142 million Turkish Liras, nearly $70 million….

Not mentioned in the Turkish press is the fact that the Obama administration issued sanctions waivers on Turkey’s business dealings with Iran because it concluded that the Turkish government was approaching the issue in good faith.

The wall of fear now seems to be breaking down. Newspapers journalists who once only whispered the truth about events in Turkey but whose employers would sanitize whatever they put in print, out of fear that the government might jail them or confiscate their newspaper, now publish what amounts to confessions about just how corrupt the AKP has become. Today’s Zaman, the English-language flagship paper of the Gülen movement, for example, wrote:

A foreign businessman who has been working in Turkey for over 10 years told me last week that he was not surprised at all by the allegations of corruption at the highest level. Without close connections in the ruling party and, apparently, big bribes, it was impossible to win any tender in the highly profitable energy sector, he explained.

The allegations of bribery and corruption are also starting to get too close to Erdoğan for his comfort. Supposedly, one element of the scandal is that the prime minister’s son, his wife, his in-laws, and some close friends 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 now under detention. So what Erdoğan’s family did with the money they claimed was spent on the dormitory is an unanswered question.

The AKP has long claimed to have advanced Turkey’s democracy. If a core of democracy is rule of law, then Turkey now is put to the test.