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Turkish Corruption Investigation Throws Government Into Crisis

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (right) has had a trying year.
A Turkish police investigation into an alleged multimillion-dollar gold-buying scheme involving Iran is creating a major political crisis for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The complicated affair has seen Erdogan this week accuse police officials of launching a "dirty operation" against his government as they have targeted the sons of three cabinet members along with some 80 other businesspeople and bureaucrats in the bribery and fraud investigation.

At the same time, Erdogan has hinted that those who launched the investigation belong to an organization seeking to tarnish his government and "become a state within a state."

Erdogan has not named the organization but used references that make it clear to Turkish listeners that he is accusing the followers of Fethullah Gulen, an influential Muslim cleric who lives in the United States.

Barcin Yinanc, who reports on politics for "Hurriyet Daily News" in Istanbul, says that "this is not the first time" that Erdogan has accused Gulen's followers -- who have acquired influential positions within the judiciary and police force -- of having their own agenda.

'Clean Hands' Dirtied

The battle over the corruption investigation pits police investigators and some prosecutors directly against members of Erdogan's inner circle of ministers.

As the investigators have searched the homes of suspects, they have leaked to the press details of what they find. Some of the most sensational reported discoveries were shoe boxes stuffed with $4.5 million in cash in the home of the chief executive of state-run Halkbank and a money-counting machine and piles of cash in the bedroom of one government minister's son.

Press reports say that the investigation focuses on corruption related to payments by Turkey for imported Iranian oil and natural gas being converted from cash into gold that is delivered to Iran via Dubai.

Who within the Turkish government might be involved in the money laundering and whether the Iranian government is also involved is not known, but a key suspect in the corruption case is an Iranian businessman in Turkey, Reza Zarrab, who is married to a Turkish pop star and who has extensive contacts in both countries.

Turkey imports Iranian energy resources despite international sanctions on Iran because it says it needs the oil and gas for its economy. Ankara officially pays for the imports with Turkish lira, since sanctions prevent it from paying in dollars or euros. However, news reports say that Iranians are then using those lira, held in Halkbank accounts, to buy gold in Turkey, and couriers then carry bullion worth millions of dollars in hand luggage to Dubai, where it can be sold for foreign currency or shipped to Iran.

The case has implications beyond Turkey and Iran because U.S. officials have sought to prevent Turkish gold exports from providing a financial lifeline to Tehran, which has been largely frozen out of the global banking system by Western sanctions over its nuclear program. The gold-buying scheme also would contravene U.S. sanctions on Tehran that forbid the export of precious metals to Iran.

Dueling Islamists

In response to the widening scandal, the government has hit back hard by removing six senior police officials from their jobs, including Istanbul police chief Huseyin Capkin on December 19. Erdogan has also announced he will personally appoint two prosecutors to help oversee the investigation, creating press speculation that he may seek to suppress it altogether.

Fethullah Gulen (left) and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan were once allies.
Fethullah Gulen (left) and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan were once allies.

The corruption investigation is proving particularly embarrassing to Erdogan because his Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2003 with a "clean hands" campaign that was widely embraced by voters. The current investigation is the first on such a scale to challenge that image and comes just months before Turkey's local and presidential elections next year.

Yinanc says that the battle over the investigation now signals a definitive break between Erdogan loyalists and the followers of Gulen, who once found common ground in countering the secularist ideology introduced by Turkey's founding father, Mustafa Kemal Atatturk, and cooperated to help bring the religiously conservative AKP to power.

"The two joined forces in the past to fight the common enemy, which was the old order based on the staunchly Kemalist and secularist military and judicial elite," Yinanc says. "Now, the two have started to fight over governance style. So, basically it is about the sharing of power and who is going to have a say over certain issues."

Both Gulen's followers and Erdogan's loyalists share a political agenda based on Islamic and pro-business values. But while Erdogan dominates the AKP party, Gulen's followers are devotees of the cleric's teachings and view themselves as a community.

Some of Gulen's teachings directly clash with Erdogan's current policies. While Gulen urges Muslims to conduct interfaith dialogue with the "People of the Book" -- that is, Jews and Christians -- Turkey's once warm relations with Israel have chilled under Erdogan's administration. At the same time, Erdogan's government has tried to shut down private test-preparation centers in Turkey, which the Gulen movement uses to recruit new members and raise finances.

Gulen has lived in the United States since 1999, after leaving Turkey to seek medical treatment. His departure came as it was widely anticipated he would soon be tried in Turkey for seeming to encourage his followers to await a favorable moment to transform the country into an Islamic state.

Authoritarian Style

The crisis over the corruption investigation, and apparent showdown with Gulen's followers, is the latest in a series of challenges Erdogan has faced this year.

James Ker-Lindsay, a Turkey expert at the London School of Economics and Political Science, says first secularists and now members of Erdogan's own Islamic constituency are challenging him over what they see as his authoritarian leadership style.

"The secularist demonstrations which took place in late May [and through] June were very much against what was perceived to be a very autocratic, growing Islamist tendency from Erdogan. What we are seeing at the moment is something which comes from a more religious angle," Ker-Lindsay says. "So, it is others who have a more Islamic outlook who are also very worried about the way that Erdogan is going."

Erdogan's commanding style has been much on display this week as he has dubbed the corruption investigation an abuse of power. His tough counterattack echoes a strategy he has already successfully used to send top generals to jail on charges of plotting coups, pushing the military out of politics.

Whether the same strategy will work again or whether the corruption investigation will prove too big to suppress will be the question preoccupying Turkey for weeks ahead. The final answer will only come when Turks head to the polls next year.