Teetering in Turkey

How big of a mess is confronting Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s prime minister? By purest chance—I was on vacation—I was given a front-row seat to the disaster on Saturday night when police attacked thousands of unarmed Istanbul demonstrators attempting to assemble in Taksim Square. The authorities certainly had come prepared for a full-scale attack on those few thousands brave enough to protest. The numbers of such public dissenters are rapidly diminishing, but not, it would appear, either their motives or the degree of the dissent itself.

By 7:30 p.m., you could pretty much tell what the police had in mind when they pulled gas masks over their faces—this without any hint of violence on the part of the demonstrators—and tried to prevent all bystanders from snapping a picture of those masks (without much luck, as the accompanying photo by my journalist son might suggest). These measures were followed by regular volleys from police using water cannons; then hail storms of rubber bullets. Two journalists from opposition news outlets were arrested, I was told by one of the protesters. I have no idea how many were injured. It wasn’t reported, no surprise.

For details I had to rely almost exclusively on my own private sources, because the fate of these demonstrators was given very little international coverage, and basically no investigative Turkish coverage at all. In fact, none at all that I saw on Turkish television. At this moment more than 90 Turkish journalists languish in jail, so you can understand the reluctance of certain media outlets to report on such events. In an earlier demonstration over the summer, according to Amnesty International, five protestors were reported killed (my sources claim six dead, however) and 8,000 injured. (For more on Erdogan’s war on press freedoms, see “The Silence of Surrender,” November/December 2013.)

There are signs, certainly, that Erdogan and his Cabinet ministers are facing a certain amount of rough weather. Two weeks back the head of the state-controlled financial giant Halkbank was discovered to have $4.5 million tucked away in a lot of shoeboxes. The son of the interior minister, meanwhile, had so much ready cash on hand—$750,000—that he needed (as a raid on his home proved) a counting machine. None of this should have come as a surprise. Erdogan himself, whose party is known amusingly as the Justice and Development Party (AKP), has amassed tens of millions of dollars over the years, and his greed certainly did not go unnoticed at home: by 2008 he faced 13 separate corruption cases. Then, somehow or another, these cases evaporated.

But not the suspicions either of his compatriots or outsiders. As a 2004 diplomatic cable (revealed by WikiLeaks) indicated: “We have heard from two contacts that Erdogan has eight accounts in Swiss banks; his explanations that his wealth comes from the wedding presents guests gave his son and that a Turkish businessman is paying the educational expenses of all four Erdogan children in the US purely altruistically are lame.” The response from the unhappy prime minister: Eric Edelman, the former US ambassador to Turkey, who had made those remarks, had “slandered” him. Naturally, the prime minister threatened a lawsuit.

I say naturally because for a national leader Erdogan is almost touchingly sensitive. His response to the corruption probe: it’s the result of “local and foreign actors” anxious to stir up trouble. “Whoever dares to harm, stir up, or set traps in this country, we will come to break those hands,” Erdogan said on Sunday in a speech to party supporters. “They are setting wicked and dark traps in our country, using their local pawns to disrupt Turkey’s unity and integrity,” he added.

Guess which wicked countries he’s referring to?

As a result of those belated probes, three of Erdogan’s Cabinet members found it necessary to resign last week. However one of their number, the environment minister, did point out that since most of the construction projects under investigation were approved by his boss, he believed “the esteemed prime minister should also resign.”

Don’t hold your breath.

Photo Credit: Sam Seifman


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