ISTANBUL — Turkish premier Recep Tayyip Erdogan ratcheted up his rhetoric over a growing corruption scandal in the country on Saturday — this time, even dragging in the United States.
Erdogan has responded to a corruption probe that prosecutors launched this week — which has implicated businessmen close to Erdogan, the sons of three of his ministers, and dozens of others — by painting the crisis as part of a foreign-backed plot. While Erdogan has been vague in his accusations, his supporters in the government and media have been quick to fill in the details, with sympathetic newspapers filling their pages with articles alleging international conspiracies.
In pushing this argument, Erdogan is widely understood to be referring primarily to the man who has become perhaps the most potent political rival he has faced in his decade-plus in power: Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish cleric who heads a powerful global Islamic movement from self-exile in the U.S. Gulen’s movement is believed to wield considerable influence inside Turkey, including in the country’s justice system.
But increasingly, Erdogan and his backers have suggested the involvement of foreign governments in the probe, which focuses on allegations of bribery, zoning-law violations and gold smuggling, and has also drawn in the chief executive of a state-run bank. Alleged leaked evidence from the investigations makes the case for wide-ranging corruption in the country that reaches deep into Erdogan’s conservative government.
Erdogan has termed this “a very dirty operation,” dismissing police officials across the country in apparent retaliation. On Saturday, he delivered an angry address as news emerged of charges against the bank chief and others — doing little to deny the corruption allegations and instead pointing the finger for the investigations at unnamed foreign ambassadors.
“These recent days, very strangely, ambassadors get involved in some provocative acts,” he said. “I am calling on them from here: ‘Do your job. If you leave your area of duty, this could extend into our government’s area of jurisdiction. We do not have to keep you in our country.’”
Though Erdogan didn’t name him directly, journalists and analysts in Turkey were quick to cite veteran U.S. ambassador Francis Ricciardone as the target of his remarks. Ricciardone was the subject of accusations from pro-government newspapers on Saturday, which claimed that he’d been plotting to undermine the state bank implicated in the scandal, HalkBank, due to U.S. concern that it was helping Iran to skirt international sanctions.
One newspaper, Yeni Safak, ran a photo of Ricciardone on its front page with the headline, “Get Out of the Country.”
Another splashed his photo above the fold along with photos of American and Israeli flags, suggesting Israel had been involved in the alleged conspiracy as well.
The accusations prompted a response from the U.S. embassy in Ankara on Twitter, which a spokesperson said were its only comments at the time. “The U.S. had nothing to do with the ongoing corruption operation,” the comments said. “Nobody should jeopardize the U.S.-Turkey relations with unfounded allegations.”
“The claims in the news are totally untrue and slanderous,” the comments added.
Kerem Oktem, a scholar at Oxford University who writes on modern Turkey, read Erdogan’s anti-U.S. tirade as a sign of desperation. “When you have lost the chance to save your skin with local politics you go for an external enemy. And the U.S. is the best target,” Oktem said. “It seems that Erdogan is fighting back with a vengeance — and at the price of putting Turkey-U.S. relations at great risk.”
As to the corruption charges themselves, Erdogan touched on them dismissively in Saturday’s speech, mentioning that the nation’s economy had surged during his tenure. “How could you increase the national income in a country where there’s corruption?” he asked.