ISTANBUL, Turkey — Turkish prosecutors unveiled a sweeping anti-corruption campaign this week that reaches deep into the country’s conservative government. More that 50 people have been detained so far, many of them tied to Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the powerful prime minister.
The investigations have drawn in business tycoons close to Erdogan, the sons of three of his ministers and the head of a state-run bank. They focus mainly on allegations of bribery, much of it tied to the kind of massive building projects redefining Turkey’s cities. More explosive accusations and detentions may be on the way.
Alleged leaked evidence has meanwhile kicked the local press into a frenzy and flooded social media, including photos of millions of dollars in cash said to be kept in safes and shoeboxes inside suspects’ homes. There are also transcripts of alleged phone calls — including one in which a businessman complains that a box of cash he delivered to a minister was so full it nearly burst.
After more than a decade in power, Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party seems to be reeling. But it hasn’t backed down, instead dismissing police chiefs in apparent retribution.
And as was the case during countrywide demonstrations against the government this summer, Erdogan and his allies have portrayed the crisis not as a domestic issue — but as a foreign-backed conspiracy. “There is a very dirty operation here,” Erdogan said as the news swirled. He described the investigations as a “plot” to weaken the country, undertaken by “some circles inside and outside Turkey.”
Erdogan didn’t provide the details. But his supporters in the press and government have filled in the blanks. Below are some of the plot lines that have emerged in the wake of the corruption probe.
1. The United States wants to weaken Turkey, because it has become too strong and too independent.
“America is trying to get rid of Erdogan,” read a column in the pro-government Sabah newspaper on Thursday. The author cited recent examples of Turkey’s defiance of Washington: a deal to buy missiles from China; Turkey’s willfulness on sanctions against Iran. The suspicion holds that America wants a Turkey it can control, and Erdogan won’t play ball.
One of Erdogan’s top advisors, Erten Aydin, also weighed in. “Arguments like they” — the forces behind the conspiracy — “want to stop Turkey and cannot stand Turkey’s power might sound very naïve and cliché, however there is truth in these arguments,” he said in comments published a local newspaper. “The fact that Turkey’s population is growing caused discomfort in the West. […] Now Turkey is at the table, and they have to pay attention to what we say.”
U.S. officials in Ankara felt the need to set the record straight. “Please don’t draw us into your family fight here,” they told Turkish journalists, urging both sides in the conflict not to “feed this conspiracy” about U.S. meddling. “We really don’t interfere. Not only because it’s inappropriate, it’s simply because we are unable to. As foreigners, what we do is respect Turkish democracy.”
2. More specifically, it’s neoconservatives in the United States who want to weaken Turkey.
Ceren Kenar, a Turkish political commentator and columnist, pointed out a potential problem with the anti-U.S. narrative: Washington is a key ally for NATO-member Turkey. “Some people may ask how you can be allies with the United States and still label it as a conspirator. So there is a separate theory,” she said, explaining the argument, not making the case herself. “They don’t say President Obama — they say the neocon lobby. There is a good America and a bad America. We like Obama, and we know Obama has no ill intentions toward Turkey. However there is also a bad America, and they want to hurt Turkey.”
3. Israel wants to weaken Turkey.
This argument always has currency in Turkey, Kenar said. She referenced Erdogan’s famous “one minute” outburst at the 2009 World Economic Forum in Davos, in which he dressed down Israel’s president over Gaza. “The Jews for obvious reasons,” she said, again explaining the argument. “We have a prime minister who is the only leader in the Middle East who can confront Israel. And this [corruption investigation] happened because Israel is upset.”
4. Israel and U.S. neoconservatives and/or the U.S. government wanted to punish a Turkish bank for skirting Iran sanctions — and engineered the current scandal in order to do so.
The corruption probe includes allegations of bribery, zoning law violations and gold-smuggling. It also touches on HalkBank, the state bank whose chief executive was detained for questioning. HalkBank handles Turkey’s oil and gas purchases from Iran, and the bank has drawn suspicion from U.S. officials who believe it may have helped Iran to skirt international sanctions.
Some in Turkey believe that Israel and its allies in the U.S. — neocons and the AIPAC lobby chief among them — initiated the current scandal as a way to attack HalkBank, perhaps by sharing intelligence with investigators. “The Traces Are Showing Israel,” read the headline of a story making that case in one hardline Islamist daily. “Since HalkBank became the center of trade with Iran, the Israelis started an operation to stop it.”
Cemil Ertem, a Turkish economist and commentator, said U.S. neocons likely helped. They were motivated by the desire to undermine Iran, he said, and also to throw a wrench in the Obama administration’s foreign policy plans. “There is not just one America,” he said.
The rest of the wide-ranging anti-corruption investigations, he added, is “a smokescreen.”
5. The global financial system has it in for Turkey.
Turkey has been touted widely for its economic gains under Erdogan. It attracts waves of foreign investment, and its own businesses are expanding internationally. An article in Turkey’s Star newspaper called this “the real reason behind the operation,” saying it was “triggered” by “the growing Turkish economy abroad.”
Sabah, the pro-government daily, went deeper, suggesting that Turkey’s finances have become a threat to foreign countries and financial institutions. “It looks like the bureaucratic oligarchy who are loyal to the financial tyrants have pressed the button to gain international support so that they can slow down [Turkey’s] economic growth,” read an article titled “The Foreign Lobby Pressed the Button.”
6. The army is behind this.
This is one theory that has been noticeably absent. Turkey’s military has a long history of interfering in its politics, launching several coups. But there has been scant mention of it in the current round of speculation. Analysts call this a sign of Erdogan’s success in pushing the army back into its barracks and keeping it there.
7. Fethullah Gulen, a powerful Turkish cleric who has spent nearly 15 years living in self-imposed exile on a Pennsylvania farm…
… has infiltrated his loyalists deep within Turkey’s police, judiciary and intelligence apparatuses, and the corruption probe is the latest volley of an internecine civil war between Gulen and Erdogan, which escalated this fall when Erdogan tried to close a bunch of private schools that Gulen’s organization runs in Turkey that prepare students for college entrance exams.
In fact, this is the conventional wisdom both in Turkey and abroad. Gulen oversees a worldwide Islamic movement that is believed to wield considerable influence among Turkey’s business and political elite. He and Erdogan used to be close allies, working together to help drive the army out of politics and ease religious restrictions in the staunchly secular state. But now that the threat posed by the army has subsided, the two men are turning on one another.
Gulen may be trying to weaken Erdogan ahead of important local elections scheduled for next year, possibly thwarting his expected bid for the presidency. Erdogan, meanwhile, looks likely to respond to the current onslaught by cracking down hard on Gulen’s organization in Turkey. Neither man will back down easily, paving the way for what one veteran analyst of Turkish politics has called “the mother of all battles” in the country.
8. The “master narrative” of conspiracy theories.
Kerem Oktem, a scholar at Oxford University who writes on modern Turkey, said the various conspiracy threads weave together in one over-arching narrative advanced by the government ever since this summer’s protests. In short, Turkey is being undercut by jealous rivals of the AKP’s dominance both at home and abroad. Gulen helps tie these threads together — thanks to his networks inside Turkey and his perceived connections to Israel and America, suspicions bolstered by his long-term residency in the Poconos.
“There is a master narrative that has been put forward after [the protests]. And that is that the AKP has the highest support ever in Turkey’s political history. It is turning Turkey into a powerful country. And there are power centers internationally and nationally that don’t want Turkey to become a powerful country,” Oktem said. “So now Turkey is cornered by these forces and has to defend itself against this onslaught in order to keep democracy alive.”
It might be easier for the government to address this narrative than the one suggested by the investigations, Oktem said. “The real issue is that the country is deeply corrupt.”
9. The forgotten theory.
Oktem added: “One possibility, of course, is that this is not about a power struggle, but an investigation by committed men of justice. Maybe not very likely, but not impossible.”