A historical scandal that threatens Erdogan’s AKP
Erdogan Bayraktar, a former Turkish environment and urban planning minister, last week disclosed new details about an issue that had looked closed for years.
His name was mentioned in a bribery scandal that broke out on Dec. 17, 2013. A judiciary procedure was initiated against four Cabinet ministers and the transcripts of their wiretapped conversations were leaked on social media. The ministers were accused of receiving bribes from a rogue Turkish-Iranian operator, Reza Zarrab, to launder about $20 billion owed by Turkey to Iran for the purchase of oil. Ostensibly, the money-laundering was aimed at avoiding US sanctions on Iran.
Zarrab was arrested in the US in 2016 and eventually decided to cooperate with the judiciary. He thus disclosed every detail of the scandal and confessed that he paid about $160 million to then-Trade Minister Zafer Caglayan to facilitate the money-laundering operations.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was prime minister at the time, dismissed almost half of the Cabinet, but Bayraktar pre-empted his dismissal and announced his resignation, stating that all wrongdoings attributed to him were committed under Erdogan’s instructions and that the prime minister should resign as well.
Using all his means, Erdogan blocked the legal action against the accused ministers, purging, dismissing or punishing the public prosecutors and judges who were implicated one way or another in this court case.
In his statement last week, Bayraktar voiced his disillusionment over Erdogan’s attitude by saying that the now-president did not make any distinction between him and the other three ministers who were accused of receiving large bribes. “He put me in the same sack with the other thieves,” he said.
Such a disclosure could change several paradigms in a country governed by the rule of law.
Some analysts see Bayraktar’s disclosures as a sign of dissent in the ranks of Turkey’s ruling party
Bayraktar said all accusations contained in his injunction were true, “from A to Z.” Despite this, he claimed that, unlike the three other bribed ministers, his case was special because his conduct amounted to “misuse of public duty” rather than bribery.
Bayraktar’s disclosures opened a new debate. A minister has openly accused his three colleagues of bribery. The offense had already been confessed to by the main culprit, Zarrab, as well as Mehmet Hakan Atilla — the deputy director-general of the Turkish state-owned Halkbank, which was implicated in the money-laundering scandal — who has been jailed in the US. So there was nothing new from this standpoint.
Bayraktar must have waited so long to make this statement because the law governing such offenses has a time limit of seven years, so he is now free from prosecution.
At the beginning of Zarrab’s bribery operation, the Turkish authorities made a misjudgment by considering that the US sanctions were a problem between the US and Iran. So they turned a deaf ear to the warnings of the American banking experts. They even made minor adjustments to the gold trading regulations to facilitate the export of gold to Iran.
Bayraktar’s disclosures also shed new light on the Turkish government’s claims that the wiretaps and their transcripts were fake. Since he reconfirms that everything contained in the injunction about him is true, the accusations about the three other ministers must also be true.
At the time, the opposition parties regarded this affair as a conflict that would weaken both Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party and the Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, who lives in self-imposed exile in the US because he was regarded as the mastermind exposing all this dirty linen. As a result, the opposition parties preferred to watch the conflict unfold without initiating any parliamentary or legal action.
Another missed opportunity for Turkey was to use this $20 billion for legitimate trade with Iran. In the US sanctions on Tehran, there were exemptions that would have allowed this money to be used for humanitarian purposes, such as to buy food or medicines. Turkey could have used this window of opportunity to sell to Iran items that fell within the scope of these humanitarian exemptions.
Some analysts see Bayraktar’s disclosures as a sign of dissension in the ranks of Turkey’s ruling party. They believe there is a widespread malaise in the party and that the number of dissenters may increase as such wrongdoings proliferate.
There is a media ban in Turkey on news about the 2013 disclosures, which is still in force, so it is not easy to fathom the exact size of the malaise. But Erdogan is a skillful politician. He will use all means to stop the pressure from getting out of control, and he will either ignore the problems or find a way to negotiate them.
• Yasar Yakis is a former foreign minister of Turkey and founding member of the ruling AK Party. Twitter: @yakis_yasar