Tayyip Erdoğan, World’s Newest Billionaire

February 25, 2014 § 13 Comments

Let me stipulate from the beginning that I have no idea whether the allegations are true that Tayyip Erdoğan conspired with his son Bilal to hide one billion dollars once Turkey’s graft probe was opened in December. Recordings of the two Erdoğans having four separate phone conversations about this topic are on Youtube [ed. note: the billion dollar figure is listed in the introduction to the Youtube clip and has been widely reported, but the taped conversation itself shows the Erdoğans talking about hiding tens of millions and not billions], and for those of you  – like me – whose Turkish is not nearly good enough to translate a bunch of garbled conversations in their entirety, a translated transcript can be found here. Erdoğan has not yet denied that the voices on the recordings are his and Bilal’s, but instead has dismissed the taped conversations as having been “montaged,” by which I assume he means that different recordings were spliced together to misrepresent what he said. Sabah and Yeni Şafak are both claiming that the recordings were doctored and that they have their own recordings of the people who edited the Erdoğan phone call. It wouldn’t surprise me if Erdoğan was hiding huge sums of money, and it also wouldn’t surprise me if he is being framed to look much worse than he actually is (although the latter would surprise me more than the former). Neither side here is particularly laudatory or above dirty tricks, and it’s a shame that this is Turkey’s new reality; a corrupt and paranoid government in a death match against a shadowy and corrupt powerful social group.

Of everything that has come out of Turkey in the past two months, this is the most explosive and has actual potential to bring down Erdoğan and the government, since these are charges that are going to be less easy to just dismiss. Assuming for the moment that there is some element of truth to the news and that Erdoğan is sitting on a pile of money that he is trying to hide, three quick takeaways come to mind.

First, one has to begin to question whether the prime minister is capable of thinking clearly. He certainly knew that his phones were tapped, as he expressly warns Bilal on the recording. Furthermore, in December 2012 it came out that Erdoğan’s home office, car, and parliamentary office were bugged, which had Gülenist fingerprints all over it. He knew that he was being listened to and he knew that the Gülenists had dirt on many of his closest allies, and yet he still allegedly called Bilal four times to discuss hiding money on the very day that the heat was the hottest. Leaving all of his other issues aside, is this someone who should be running a country? I have always assumed that the crazier statements that emanate from Erdoğan’s mouth are in the vein of him being crazy like a fox, and that he doesn’t actually believe that higher interest rates will lead to inflation or that there is such thing as an interest rate lobby or that social media is actually the worst menace to society that exists. But maybe he really does believe all of these things, in which case his judgment is fatally flawed and it explains why he would talk about hiding one billion dollars over an unsecured line when he had a very strong hunch that the people who were looking to bring him down were listening in.

Second, and this flows from the first, Erdoğan has reached the point where he is in such a cocoon that he assumes he can just do anything and say anything without real consequences. And really, why wouldn’t he? Throughout Gezi and the corruption scandal up until today, the AKP has not been in any real danger of losing a national election, and Erdoğan himself has been able to dictate what his next moves will be. He says all manner of outrageous things, micromanages municipal building projects, has Turks gassed and beaten in the streets, tries his best to sabotage his own economy by driving away foreign investment, and yet still has a large percentage of his supporters who are willing to believe every explanation and denial, no matter how ridiculous, and to go down with their captain as he sinks the Turkish ship of state. Maybe he isn’t losing his marbles, but just assumes based on recent history that he can do anything he wants and get away with it. He can siphon off a billion dollars and give it out to his family and friends, and talk about how to hide it when he knows his bitter rivals are recording him, and then not even deny that it is him talking on the recordings, and he may still not be dislodged from power. Maybe the joke is on us and not on him. Or maybe it’s not, and he is in such a state of epistemic closure and surrounded by sycophants that he has very badly misjudged the situation, which speaks volumes as well. I don’t know which of these possibilities is the right one, but none of them are good.

Lastly, let’s drop the pretense that Turkey’s political system comes close to anything resembling a consolidated democracy, a mature democracy, or any other phrase the Turkish government wants to use. We are accustomed to seeing dictators steal from public coffers in order to line their own pockets along this order of magnitude, whether it be the Shah’s plane having difficulty taking off from Iran because it was so laden down with gold bars or Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s various seaside palaces or Teodorin Obiang buying mansions, private jets, and yachts. When a prime minister is elected three times in a country that is trying to join the EU and is a NATO member and has been widely hailed as the world’s most successful Muslim-majority democracy, you do not expect to see that prime minister – a man who grew up in a poor neighborhood of Istanbul and has never held a job outside of working in politics and does not come from family money – amassing a billion dollars on the job. As much as this is an indictment of Erdoğan, it is a far bigger indictment of the Turkish system itself, since a functioning democracy with genuinely transparent institutions would never abide such over the top corruption. No democracy is perfect, and certainly the U.S. has plenty of its own issues, but one can never envision something like this taking place under everyone’s nose for over a decade. As bad as I have been saying that things are in Turkey, it’s even worse than I thought, which makes me extremely sad and disheartened for a country that I adore.

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§ 13 Responses to Tayyip Erdoğan, World’s Newest Billionaire

  • Becca Lucas says:

    This newest development is only one more concerning twist to an already complicated situation. I do, however, want to point out that Erdogan would hardly be alone in discussing his ill-gotten gains over a line he knew was tapped (if that is indeed what happened). Not too long ago, Illinois sent our former governor, Blagojevich, to jail (and reality TV stardom) for exactly that! So, depending on your view of Illinois politics, maybe all is not as bleak as it seems…

  • Zirconium says:

    Firstly; Erdoğans were using a crypto-phone, developed by some Turkish state firm. In one sentence he says to his son that he should act and speak keeping in mind that he is being listened to “even here”, referring to the allegedly secure line. He spoke most of his sentences under his breath but this did not help his son misunderstand him and ask for clarification many times. The dialogue is authentic. There are more than one clues that it could not have been doctored. There are others (apparently his wife) interfering at least once while giving a relative’s name. Erdogan himself confessed that the traitors are tapping even the state’s crypto-phones, not realizing that he has just confirmed that his secure line has been tapped, hence the recording is authentic.

    Secondly; the amount of money laundered, disappeared or “zeroed” as they preferred to call their action was a very very high one as the son finally says a remaining amount which they could not get rid of is 30 million euros. This is what he could not transfer to other people and he offers a solution for this relatively small amount. This is a very good indicator of the total amount the family was trying to distribute to other people.

    He has lost it, completely. We are witnessing his collapse. The hushed voices betrayed panic. His demise won’t happen overnight and not tomorrow but it is happening.

  • Jay Gelbein says:

    A recent study by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs indicated that 76% of Turks have negative feelings towards Jews, and only 7 have positive feelings.
    Anti-semitism has been prevalent in Turkey from the time of the Ottoman Empire to modern day Turkey.
    Turkish political scientist Dogu Ergil stated that “Nazism, buried in Europe is being resurrected in Turkey.”
    Mein Kampf is frequently on the best seller list.
    Antisemitism is flush in all forms of Turkish media.
    Please clarify why you write that Turkey “is a country that I adore.”

    • Setenay Gel says:

      In my opinion, the statistics you gave regarding the prevalence of anti-semitism in Turkey has nothing to do with a person’s adoration of the country. You are making many false assumptions by attributing those statistics to Turkish people and Turkey in general.

    • I’m not sure what needs clarification; it was a clear and unambiguous statement. To begin with, I find your outlook here to be depressingly parochial. Not everything needs to be viewed through the prism of Judaism. Even if one does want to adopt such a worldview, I urge you to spend some time in Turkey before making such blanket statements. I have never encountered any anti-Semitism or anti-Americanism directed at me while in Turkey, and have always been treated with warmth, respect, and hospitality. Furthermore, keep in mind that Turkey has a long history of sheltering Jews in times of trouble, from happily accepting them following the expulsions from Spain and Portugal to keeping them safe during the Holocaust. As for the claims that Nazism is being resurrected in Turkey, that is so patently absurd that I won’t dignify it with a response, and you should do a little research and provide some evidence for such nonsensical claims before throwing them around without a shred of justification.
      Does anti-Semitism exist in Turkey? Of course it does, from government officials to the media to average folks in the street. The same can be said in many Western European countries as well. It is a scourge that will never go away, but to suggest that Turkey is a hotbed of pogroms and frequent attacks on Jews is simply untrue. Turkey has one of the only remaining Jewish communities in Muslim-majority countries, is a member of NATO, has some of the best food and most beautiful scenery in the world, contains a wealth of history and art and architecture, and is an overwhelmingly friendly and decent place to live and travel. Go spend some time in Turkey and you will quickly find out why it is a place that I adore.

  • Setenay Gel says:

    I would definitely agree with you that more than 50% of Turkish people are anti-semitists, yet as a Turkish person with no negative feelings toward Jews, I would say that your assumption is rather unscholarly. Not because of my personal feelings of course, but because it is something that Turkey should work to improve, not something that should be used as a tool or propaganda for anti-turkism.

  • Emre says:

    We had similar thoughts throughout the riots: Does he have plans that we just don’t understand, or has he really lost it?

    Then he appointed this guy http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NDbMezzwD7o as his political adviser and we were sure.

  • Jay Gelbein says:

    I appreciate your passionate response to my comments. The fact that 76% of Turks hold negative feeings towards Jews was published by the Jerusalem Council on Public Affairs. I never mentioned “pogroms”- that came from you.
    You may find my comments “parochial” but while I respect your comments I find them naive.
    I’ve travelled the world but I prefer to go where I’m welcome.
    The mountains in Northern Teheran are beautiful but I wont go there.
    Nesim Guvenis the deputy chairman of the Association of Turkish Jews in Israel recently indicated that young Turkish Jews are leaving Turkey and heading to the USA and Europe due to the growing antisemetism. Somehow he did not mention the “warmth” that you alluded to.
    I have nothing against Turkey and the decent people who live there. But perhaps we look at things differently.
    You look at the food and scenery and properly admire it.
    My litmus test is walking down the streets of Istanbul after a Sabbath meal, looking like an observant Jew and my comfort level that I will survive that walk in one piece.
    When I have that comfort level perhaps I will “adore” that country.
    Incidentally I enjoy your blog and I hope we can respectfully agree to disagree.

    • We can always respectfully agree to disagree.

    • Engin Erturk says:

      I think that the Turkish people are not fundamentally anti-semitic. It is true that there has been a rise in anti-Americanism in Turkey recently in the political sense. This is due to a general level of frustration and disappointment by the U.S. policies in the Middle East in the wake of 9/11 felt by both the conservative and secular citizens of Turkey. Israel is seen as an extension of the U.S. and also bears the brunt of this negative feeling. This feeling generally doesn’t extend into ill-feelings towards American and Israeli visitors to Turkey; it is mostly directed at the governments of those two countries. Conspiracy theories involving these countries are abound in the social media and do not help things. This is not to say that actual anti-semitism does not exist in Turkey, it is just that it is not in the alarming degree Jay Gelbein is describing.

  • agentlabroad says:

    In the translation that I read, the recordings were “immorally” montaged, which I think is telling. This could be fox: playing to the base using trigger words to outrage his conservative, religious followers upon who he can, unfortunately, still rely.

  • tamer kalama says:

    In Turkey we have been witnessing this for over ten years, and apart from telling people, we have been unable to do anything about it. I’m very glad that it came out in the open finally. Unfortunately, a third of the country that still votes for AKP is either brainwashed in religious institutions, or totally ignorant and will vote for whoever makes the most noise, or whoever distributes them food and clothing at taxpayers’ expense. AKP Has been known to do these in massive scale. The author is quite correct in the sense that the Turkish system needs to be fixed, to prevent future elected leaders and their entourage from abusing their powers.

  • […] phone calls, Erdogan is purportedly heard telling his son to get rid millions (it is claimed up to a billion) dollars in cash before investigators can find it.  Erdogan’s protection of his own son, […]

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