Turkey has been in an exhausting cycle for quite some time: just when you think the country has hit the rock bottom, something extraordinary comes up and proves that there is always capacity for things to get much worse. Last week, it was proven again by a scandal tape. Now this kind of tapes have become a very usual part of Turkish politics, but it’s the first time that we encounter with something this big and this nasty.
The eleven minutes long tape purportedly revealing five phone calls between Tayyip Erdoğan and his son Bilal went viral last week. (By the way, weirdly, the video was blocked for a time due to a copyright claim by a Montreal based company called Canipre Inc.) In the tape, PM Erdoğan tells his son to ‘zero’ the money stock in his home in wake of the December 17 graft probe. He also wants his son to have a meeting with other family members -the conversation suggests that they, too, are involved in the whole thing and have some amounts of cash at their homes- to figure out how to ‘melt the money’. In the fourth call, Bilal says “We (handled it) mostly” and adds “But there’s still 30 million euros that we could not yet dissolve”. And in the last call, the PM tells him that he is being listened and warns him not to talk openly.
On January 17, in relation to the graft probe the PM said “I will say this very clearly: If any of my children is involved in such corruption, I will disown him”. But from the conversation one understands it to be true that Bilal is not the mastermind and is just doing the tasks the PM gives, thus serving as a tool to his father. And not a very smart one, considering that in one call he didn’t know whether it’s him who called his father or it’s his father who called him.
Are the recordings real?
Erdoğan furiously dismissed the tape as fake calling it “a vile attack”. He said “They published a play that they have montaged and dubbed themselves”. Reportedly, AKP produced “proofs” that the tape was fake. Pro-government Haber7 reported that AKP sent the tape to USA to “one of the most advanced studios in the world” and the studio confirmed that the whole thing was doctored “word by word”. Haber7 reported also that “a worldwide famous criminal lab in New York” confirmed the same conclusion. But apparently neither the advanced studio, nor the worldwide famous criminal lab has a name. Though later, they published a report that was written by Robin Lai, owner of Jou Production and an employee of John Marshall Media. He signed the document with only his own firm’s name but Haber7 put a business card of JMM on top of the document, misleading the readers into thinking that it was from JMM. JMM’s CEO John Marshall Cheary strongly denied that they ever gave an opinion on the recordings in question, adding ‘To those news agencies that reprinted this obvious forgery: Shame on you” on his Facebook note. After Cheary’s condemnation, pro-AKP Haber7 changed its article, removed JMM’s card and gave credit only to Jou Production and its owner. But Lai said that the interview and statement were obtained from him via deceptive and underhanded methods. ‘Statements and document reported in the Turkish media attributed to me are not to be trusted in the context in which they are being reported’ he told in his Facebook post.
The opposite argument seems to have way more solid expert opinions: An American cyber analytics firm that analyzed the audio at the request of McClatchyDC and has a name –Guarded Risk– found the recordings to be authentic. ‘If it’s fake, it’s of a sophistication that I haven’t seen,’ said Joshua Marpet, a cyber-analyst and the managing principal of Guarded Risk. Also, two Turkish audio engineers, Atilla Özdemiroğlu and Erdem Helvacıoğlu, who analyzed the recording confirmed it to be genuine.
On the other hand, the PM doesn’t really seem to bother trying to get exculpated or even offer a satisfying explanation. Although opposition deputies urged him to have a test by TÜBİTAK (The Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey) to reveal whether it’s really his voice or not, he has done nothing so far to present any kind of proof that the tape is fake.
The ‘f-type organization’ or the ‘parallel state’
During Ergenekon and Balyoz cases Turkey saw many irregularities and illegalities: cooking evidence, illegal wiretappings, leaking tapes to the media, way too long detention times and so on. (To know more, check out Pınar Doğan and Dani Rodrik’s blog.) Of course, while all the soldiers, journalists, officers who are critical of AKP were becoming victims of these, Erdoğan and his party watched it in joy. The victims and their supporters believed that it was the Gülenists in the police force and judiciary -then allies of the government- who were responsible of these brutal practices of injustice. It was first Adil Serdar Saçan, a former security directorate and later a convict of Ergenekon case, who coined the term “f-type organization” referring to Fethullah Gülen’s loyalists within the police organization. Then Hanefi Avcı who was also a security directorate, wrote a book revealing the existence of a Gülenist structure in the police organization with documents. Avcı that was once close to the Gülen Movement, is a known right wing person. Yet after writing the book, he got convicted for being a member of a far left terrorist organization and was given 15 years in jail.
Despite compelling evidence from various sources, existence of “f-type organization” was mostly treated as a crazy Kemalist conspiracy theory by AKP and its supporters. Moreover, pro-government and pro-Gülen media didn’t see any problems with broadcasting illegally-obtained tapes for hours including some private conversations. The military, Kemalists, some others in opposition were cruelly humiliated by fierce smear campaigns, some of which even led to suicides. Now it looks like that some of those injustices came back to haunt Erdoğan. As the Frankenstein that Erdoğan created and allowed to nest within the state, turned on him; he had to embrace the theory he wasn’t so eager to accept. But instead of “f-type organization”, he called Gülenists in the police organization and judiciary “parallel state”.
The PM believes that December 17 graft probe was not a corruption probe but a coup attempt by the “parallel state” seeking to unseat him. Now he is so angry with the Gülen Movement that he even used the words “viruses” and “assassins” -a medieval terrorist cult in Seljuk Empire- in relation to them.
He blames them also for a recent mass wiretapping scandal. On February 25, he said “They are listening to the government’s encrypted phones; that’s how low they have sunk.” This statement, of course, raises an important question: was the PM’s son using an encrypted cell-phone? If so, that would definitely explain why the PM and his son are speaking so freely in the recording without feeling to need to use a more subtle language. Apparently, these devices are so fancy things that only six NATO countries can produce them. Turkey’s one of them and these phones, as website of TÜBİTAK that produces the devices states here, are for use of Turkish Armed Forces, President, Prime Minister and some other top state officials. If Bilal Erdoğan uses one, that’s another scandal in the scandal. An opposition deputy also asked whether Bilal Erdoğan has an encrypted cell-phone. Yet the question, like many others that were asked before, remains unanswered. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Science, Industry and Technology launched an investigation on five employees of TÜBİTAK who are, apparently, suspected of being Gülenist moles. Minister Fikri Işık said “TÜBİTAK, unfortunately, is one of the institutions that the ‘parallel structure’ wants to infiltrate.”
Open war: Erdoğan vs Gülen
The PM thinks it is open war and thus, extraordinary measures are warranted. After the graft probe was launched, he saw no problems in sacrificing four cabinet ministers. But when it was edging near him, the purges began. Hundreds of high ranking police officers were relocated at midnight. Prosecutors, including those who launched the corruption probe, were also removed from their posts.
Erdoğan is using also legislative power in full to deal with Gülenists in state organs. Now two newly passed laws and a proposed legislation are regarded to be huge blows to separation of powers, rule of law and individual freedoms in the country. The first law greatly increases Justice Minister’s power over High Council of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK). The main opposition CHP filed an appeal to the Constitutional Court, stating “it (the new law) makes judicial control over administrative moves nearly impossible.” The second is the internet bill that was recently passed into law by President Abdullah Gül. The law authorizes the president of TİB (Telecommunications Directorate) to block websites for a privacy violation without a court permission and forces internet providers to keep records of users’ activities for two years and make them available to authorities. However, some changes were made at the request of the President. Now the TİB was made to have to take its blocking decisions to court within twenty four hours. The court would either approve or cancel such decisions within forty eight hours. Meanwhile, the blocking decisions of the TİB would be in effect. And thirdly, a proposed legislation that would give immense additional powers to the National Intelligence Organization (MİT) was approved by Internal Affairs Commission and is planned to be voted on after local elections. The bill will enable the MİT to get unrestricted access to records of state institutions and also private companies without a court order. It means that if demanded by the MİT, private firms will have to reveal their trade secrets to the MİT personnel.
The secret service seems to be a particularly important player in the government’s battle against the Gülen Movement. Much before the corruption investigation, in 2012, a probe was launched into Hakan Fidan, the chief of the MİT, is thought by the government to be an operation of the “parallel state”. In response, the government had passed a law making any probes into the MİT personnel impossible without the PM’s permission. Critics argue that soon the MİT will be pretty much above the law. So, in short, ironically, Erdoğan is empowering the MİT against the police organization that he once used to empower to encounter the military’s influence.
The people’s mood
In a normal functioning democracy, even ten percent of this tape’s content is reason enough for resignation. Whereas in Turkey now, nobody truly expects the PM to resign. AKP’s base thinks that all this is a coup attempt by the ‘parallel state’ and ‘the strong will’ Erdoğan should not and will not give in to it. And most of the rest just think that a PM who is shameless enough to turn into a blatant dictatorial thief cannot feel ashamed enough to resign.
Social media is full of brilliant jokes and gags mocking Erdoğan and his son. There’s even a website called “zero the money” that features a game in which users try to melt $1 billion in a minute. But in all this, there is also a defeatist attitude, a hopelessness to get rid of the filth that each day Turks discover to be worse than they thought it was. Such jokes are very much like the Soviet Russia jokes that Ronald Reagan used to tell. And just like them, perhaps they are a way to cope with the indignities that people are hopeless to change.
Erdoğan seems to be ready to risk anything -freedoms, rule of law, separation of powers and stability- to keep his seat and not to answer for strongly-substantiated corruption charges. The consequences are not only political, it is a fact that the corruption probe, Erdoğan’s attitude towards it and his civil war with Gülenists within the state affected the Turkish economy negatively. Turkish Central Bank’s interest rate hike is also expected to diminish growth rate this year and the move was not very successful in stopping the decrease in Lira’s value. So justice has long been forgotten by Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party, not before long development may share the same fate.
Naturally, like many Turkish citizens, I am full of rage. But out of respect for presumption of innocence, I tried and am trying to choose my words carefully. For that’s what the law requires – the law that is often bent or ignored for wicked political purposes here. So what should we do, if the law that is supposed to protect citizens has become the shield and toy of the corrupted? What do you do when the law isn’t used to punish the corrupted but is used to censor and suppress those who are after corruption? In short, what happens when the word “law” doesn’t have any shred of meaning left? I guess what happens then is a more intense level of instability and uncertainty, violent social explosions, economic collapse; guns, smokes and corpses… In sum, what happens then is Ukraine! I am not saying we are there and I wholeheartedly hope and believe we never will get there but that seems to be the direction we are headed. Speedily.