Turkey has never been a particularly clean country when it comes to economic transparency and rule of law. One of the reasons why mainstream voters chose Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the 2002 elections was widespread disgust with the corruption of the established parties. Turkish voters basically gambled on the devil they didn’t know instead of the devils they did.
In hindsight it is clear they made the wrong decision. When Erdoğan became prime minister, he immediately set out to hijack the Turkish financial system, reportedly building a large slush fund with the assistance of oil-rich Persian Gulf emirates like Qatar. Over the course of his premiership, Erdoğan also became fabulously wealthy. Erdoğan explained his sudden good fortune as the result of wedding gifts sent to his son by his many friends and admirers. Still, U.S. diplomats privately suggested that Erdoğan has siphoned money off into eight different Swiss bank accounts. It is impossible to know for sure in the absence of transparency, but Erdoğan may very well be the most corrupt leader in Turkey’s history, and that’s a distinction for which the competition has been fierce.
The fact that Erdoğan is effectively above the law has led him to double down on opponents and answer corruption charges with impunity. A year ago, after a dispute erupted between Erdoğan and exiled Islamic thinker Fethullah Gülen, the Gülenists in the security services apparently leaked recordings allegedly depicting corruption in Erdoğan’s household and among senior ministers and advisors, like former EU Affairs Minister Egemen Bağış. In the recordings, Erdoğan purportedly asks his son to dispose of $1 billion stashed in various family members’ homes. The next day, Turks say that the Erdoğans bought several luxury villas, paying with cash. Meanwhile, police had seized millions of dollars from the homes of Bağış and colleagues. Bağış defended himself by calling such gifts a Turkish tradition. And so they have become.
A parliamentary commission charged with investigating corruption and bribery charges against four Erdoğan ministers decided, however, not to send the ministers to a Supreme Court trial. This outcome surprised no one because Erdoğan’s party enjoys a parliamentary majority and maintains authoritarian control over his party and its affairs. What is surprising, however, is that the AKP went further; the parliamentary commission handling the graft investigation decided to destroy all evidence. This is to ensure that no future government or independent court would have original evidence at its disposal. While recordings of the phone calls are all over YouTube and other Internet sites, under Turkish law copies are not admissible in court. The lesson? In Turkey, corruption occurs with impunity. That may be tragic for Turkey itself, the Turkish middle class, and foreign investors unwilling to pony up cash; but embezzlement, bribes, and kickbacks don’t necessarily take lives.
Alas, corruption has become endemic in other ways that can have devastating consequences. In his efforts to depict Turkey as a great, emerging power, Erdoğan decided to go nuclear. In 2010, he signed a $22 billion agreement with Russia—not exactly the industry standard of nuclear safety—to build a nuclear power plant at Akkuyu along Turkey’s southern coast. (In 2013, Erdoğan finalized another $22 billion agreement with a Japanese and French concern to build a second nuclear plant in Sinop, on Turkey’s Black Sea coast). Now it’s emerging that signatures on the engineering assessment of the plant’s environmental impact were forged. But, why worry? It’s only a nuclear plant in an active earthquake zone. Alas, the right people might have benefited in the short term, but the long-term impact of such fraud can be devastating and impact not only Turkey, but southeastern Europe, Syria, Lebanon, Cyprus, and Israel as well.