Preston Feinberg contributed to this post.
Turkey is engulfed in a political struggle. On December 17, 2013, more than 50 people—including important businessmen and sons of government ministers—were arrested on charges of widespread and far-reaching corruption. Ever since, the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been fighting for its survival. It has resorted to increasingly authoritarian measures to rein in the judiciary, police and media in an attempt to quash the cases. Yet, the allegations keep on coming.
In recent weeks, the corruption scandal has moved online, with multiple recordings, allegedly of the prime minister and members of his inner circle, being shared on YouTube and Twitter, primarily by anonymous Twitter users @Haramzadeler333 and @Başçalan (“sons of thieves” and “master thief,” respectively, in Turkish). These recordings, if authentic, would suggest that Erdoğan has been directly involved in a number of illegal activities. While Erdoğan has denounced some of the leaked recordings as “montages,” he has never denied that it is his voice on the tapes. Indeed, he has since admitted to the authenticity of some of the recordings, justifying his actions as “natural.”
If authentic, the leaked recordings reveal widespread criminal activity by the Turkish government, undertaken with Erdogan’s knowledge and at his command. The scope of the tapes is huge – extending from bribery to interference in the media, judiciary, and conduct of elections across years of the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) rule – and has attracted widespread attention from Turkish and international media outlets. To understand why these recordings are so potentially damaging and causing such a stir in Turkey, it is helpful to know exactly what they contain.
Below are highlights of from some of these tapes.
In one recording, Prime Minister Erdoğan allegedly discusses with his son, Bilal, a business deal in which an amount of money, reportedly $10 million, is being offered to them by a “Mr. Sıtkı.” It has been suggested they are referring to Sıtkı Ayan, the owner of a company that received a license and tax-incentives to build new oil pipelines from Iran.
Recep Tayyip Erdoğan: Don’t take it. Whatever he has promised us, he should bring this. If he is not going to bring that, there is no need. … The others are bringing. Why can’t he bring? What do they think this business is? … But don’t worry they will fall into our lap.
One of the most sensational recordings contains several conversations, allegedly between the prime minister and his son, on the December 17, 2013, the day of the initial arrests that set off the current corruption scandal. The first call contains a discussion of how to react to the unfolding events.
Recep Tayyip Erdoğan: Are you at home, son?
Bilal Erdoğan: Yes, Dad.
RTE: …they are searching the houses of 18 people under a big corruption operation thing.
RTE: OK? Now, what I say is, you take everything you have in the house out. OK?
BE: What can I have on me, Dad? There is your money in the safe.
RTE: That’s what I am saying.
#3 Money Laundering:
Shortly afterwards, Erdoğan and his son speak again, making more detailed plans for dealing with the unfolding crisis.
RTE: … did you fully dissolve it?
BE: We have not zeroed it yet, Dad. Let me explain. We still have 30 million euros that we could not dissolve yet. Berat thought of something. There was an additional $25 million that Ahmet Çalık should receive. They say let’s give this there. When the money comes, we do [something], they say. And with the remaining money we can buy a flat in Şehrizar, he says. What do you say, Dad?
RTE: Whatever. We’ll sort it out.
BE: Should we do it like this?
RTE: OK, do it.
BE: Do you want it dissolved father, or do you want some money for yourself?
RTE: No, it cannot stay, son. You could transfer that to the other [place], with Mehmet you could transfer it there… BE: Yes, we gave it to them. We gave 20 to them.
RTE: For God’s sake. First, you should’ve transferred [it]. You could then do…
BE: We were able to give this much for now, it is already hard, it takes too much space. We are putting some of it in another place.
#4 Abuse of Power:
At the end of the recording, there is mention of another approach to the situation: getting rid of any official that was part of the investigation.
RTE: Do not talk openly.
BE: OK, Dad, but I think we are currently under surveillance.
RTE: What have I been telling you from the very beginning!
BE: But is it the bodyguard team? Who is following us, Dad?
RTE: Son, you are being tapped.
BE: But they are also monitoring visually, they say.
RTE: That may be true. Now, we did some things in İstanbul security.
#5 Media Manipulation:
Yet another recording purports to show Erdoğan telling Fatih Saraç, deputy chairman of the Ciner Media Group which owns pro-government media outlet Habertürk, to take down the speech of an opposition politician, being displayed on the channel’s news ticker. Erdogan freely admitted making the phone call during the height of the Gezi protests. RTE: I am watching TV right now in Morocco.
FS: Yes, sir?
RTE: All of Devlet Bahçeli’s speech [Nationalist Movement Party Leader] is running at the bottom of the screen…
FS: Understood, sir. Okay.
RTE: And it constantly writes in the subtitle that the main duty of President is not to negotiate, but to fix the situation other than the negotiations.
FS: Okay, Your wish is my command. Understood.
RTE: Now…You have to do…
FS: I am sir, right away.