Corruption Plot Thickens – 19/12/13

Not since Gezi have Turks been so glued to their news screens, feverishly waiting on every tweet, every “Flash!” update. Today the sordid rumours have continued, a prime example being that one minister received a 105 million lira bribe from an Iranian gold-smuggling tycoon dogged by financial felony charges. An Istanbul mayor was allegedly bribed to allow dangerous and totally illegal construction at the source of the Marmaray tunnel, the new submarine link between the European and Asian sides of the city. Unofficial sources claim scandalous evidence for a whole host of corruption charges: taped phone conversations between ministers and family members, photos of untoward meetings and never-ending hordes of cash hidden in shoe boxes and safes.

Yet the government is impressively scornful of charges both official and unofficial. The EU minister, Egemen Bağış, has said that he is “relaxed” about allegations. The speaker of Parliament flatly denies receiving any request to lift the immunity of four top cabinet ministers supposedly linked to this corruption case, despite reports to the contrary. With magnificent unconcern for public opinion, the sacking of key figures in the investigation continues apace: in addition to the 32 police officers sacked and replaced yesterday, now the Istanbul police chief himself is gone. Meanwhile, the three cabinet ministers’ sons arrested on Tuesday have apparently been moved from uncomfortable prison cells to the new police chiefs’ personal quarters. Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag has delivered a heart-warming defence of the AKP as a “big family” (which says it all) and is filing an official complaint about the “violation of confidentiality” involved in the investigation – I take this to mean the photos so far leaked to the press. Finally, the High Commission of Radio and Television has issued a terse warning to journalists not to publish mere allegations.

Anger and hilarity have characterized the public’s reactions to these developments, reminding me vividly of Gezi: today in Izmir, for example, members of the Confederation of Public Sector Trade Unions placed shoe boxes in front of a central branch of Halk Bank, the state bank supposedly involved in illegal transactions with Iran via its General Manager, who was arrested on Tuesday. (Shoe boxes, remember, were the hiding place for millions of Turkish lira which may or may not have been seized from the the General Manager’s house.) Social media is awash with puns on the names of key figures (Fetullah) Gülen, (Interior Minister) Güler and (President) Gül. (Gülmek means to laugh and the puns run along the lines of “he who laughs last laughs loudest”). Photos of ministers on their mobile phones have been decorated with bribe-related speech bubbles – it’s as if the editorial team of Private Eye have gone to town with the very richest material imaginable.

But behind the jokes and word play, everyone is wondering how important these revelations will prove to be. Gezi seemed like a huge turning point at the time, but in reality most of the population lost interest in the months that followed and seemingly forgave any wrongdoing the government seemed to have committed. Will the same be true of this scandal? Will it be shrugged off as an unknown “dirty operation” by jealous foreign powers, as Erdogan has painted it? Will the investigation be terminally stalled by strategic dismissals and Parliamentary blocks? Everyone wants to know just how much this has tarnished the government’s reputation thus far, and how many more leaks might come out in the next few days. A corruption scandal on this scale might have the potential to be far bigger than Gezi, which was quickly dismissed as a decadent middle class strop by state-supporting media. Then again, it might not make that much impact in a country in which most European-scale money-related scandals wouldn’t even make the news.

What’s that you say? A British MP put his second home’s heating bill on government expenses? Big deal. Try 4.5 million Euros for a government tender, and then, maybe, I’ll be impressed.

There is an expression in Turkish: Çaliyor ama çalışiyor – “he steals but he works”. In other words, he’s corrupt but he does his job. My AKP-supporting tailor explained his view of the recent scandal to me today: “Yes they’re corrupt but all the others are corrupt too. These are the best of the corrupt.”

For further reading on lack of government accountability and auditing whitewash, see this excellent article in Al Monitor: