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Power and Corruption in Erdogan’s Turkey: Context and Consequences

Corruption has become an instrument of policy and rule in the hands of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP), undermining decades of U.S.-Turkish cooperation in the realms of international law enforcement and counter-terrorism. Against this backdrop, the Bipartisan Policy Center has begun a new series examining the causes and consequences of corruption in Turkey and the impact on U.S. interests in the Middle East and the world. 

The case of Reza Zarrab and his co-conspirators, who all stand accused of violating U.S. sanctions law, has profound implications for the future of Turkish-American relations. Any conviction or plea agreement reached will represent official confirmation that the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan willfully engaged in systemic corruption for political and economic gain as part of a policy that also undermined NATO alliance goals.

Even if federal prosecutors were to abandon the case, there are multiple signs that suggest that Washington’s ability to cooperate with Turkey on certain security matters has been fundamentally compromised. Increasingly, Ankara seems intent on fostering conditions that, either inadvertently or by design, harm the broader regional security architecture that the United States and Turkey once worked together to build.

One may look at the Zarrab case as symptomatic of a much larger crisis, one greater than any attempt to impose sanctions on Iran. There are several trends in modern Turkey that suggest that corruption, particularly in matters of economy and commerce, has become an instrument of policy and rule in the hands of Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP).

This increasingly corrupt system of government comes after decades of joint U.S.-Turkish efforts to form a strong, working relationship on issues related to cooperative international law enforcement. The consequences of this breakdown are diverse and potentially severe. Turkey’s increasingly subversive posturing on international law and security poses a direct threat to U.S. efforts to combat transnational crime and terrorism on multiple fronts.

View the interactive that seeks to explain the complicated structure of Zarrab’s smuggling enterprise, showing how it operated and why it required the corrupt buy-in of high-level Turkish officials. 

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