28th May 2022


Ankara's reluctance to join sanctions against Russia

  • Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan (2nd right) meets EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen and EU Council president Charles Michel (2nd left) (Photo:
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Most Turks, according to the latest surveys of public opinion, view the Russian invasion of Ukraine as a challenge to Turkey's national security and want the government to remain neutral in this conflict.

Such a cautious position is the product of Turkey's financial ties with Russia, and its fragile economic situation.

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This interdependence explains president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's reluctance to subscribe to US and EU-backed Russia sanctions and is seeing support from Turkish society. There is, nevertheless, a darker side to this policy.

As it happened during the period when sanctions were initially levied against Iran, prior to the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2015, international pressure over Iran was regarded as a window of opportunity by politicians and bureaucrats in Turkey.

Indeed, the Iranian regime's need for survival required mechanisms that would bypass legal and transparent international processes, and many in Turkey saw an opportunity to be a key country in this process, getting rich along the way.

December of 2013 marked a threshold in the history of modern Turkey.

Public prosecutors and police chiefs linked to the Gelen movement initiated a graft probe revealing illegal ties between cabinet members and Reza Zerrab, an Iranian businessman facilitating the transfer of money from Turkish to Iranian banks. Zerrab was laundering Iran's oil and natural gas money through shell company transaction account in Halkbank, owned by the Turkish state, alongside a complex network of businesses, banks, and front companies, in a case that came to be known as "the biggest sanctions evasion scheme in recent history".

In order to ensure continued operations, he was bribing cabinet members who would help him secure the operation from the intervention of the Turkish police.

The indictment later argued that Egemen Bağış, minister for EU affairs, Muammer Gülen, minister of the interior, and Zafer Çağlayan, minister of economy, all received bribes from Zerrab.

The graft probe was a milestone on Turkey's path to autocracy.

Erdoğan, prime minister in 2013, called the indictment a "judicial coup" plotted by the Gulen movement, aimed at subverting his government. This was an unexpected confrontation considering that Erdoğan and Gülen had been political allies against the secular army's tutelage after Erdoğan's AKP came to power in 2002.

Erdoğan vs Gulen

It is safe to argue that cooperation between Erdoğan and Gulen catalysed the Gulenists to fully infiltrate Turkish state bureaucracy and function as a replacement for the secularist army and judiciary.

Nevertheless, these two factions had problems with sharing the power. Erdoğan believed that the graft probe was instrumentalised by the Gulen movement to overthrow the elected government.

In the following years, Erdoğan managed to survive on popular support he received, gradually cleansing the bureaucracy from Gulenists. Especially after the failed coup allegedly attempted by Gulenist soldiers in July 2016, Erdoğan has now established his full authority over the judiciary, leaving no autonomous institutions.

Such an autocratic turn has paved the ways for the AKP members to violate legal restrictions as long as they remain loyal to Erdoğan. Should sanctions imposed by the west on Iran continue, it should be expected, as was the case with Zerrab in 2013, that senior corrupt government members will see an opportunity to help Iran continue to do business by evading sanctions.

The extent to which corruption of this sort is prevalent can be seen from Sedat Peker, a well-known mafia leader and close ally of the Erdoğan government in the post failed-coup era, who released a widely-viewed series of confessions on YouTube.

In these, he accused Turkish cabinet members of being involved in drug smuggling, arms smuggling, gambling and corruption.

These confessions have demonstrated how judicial control over the executive body has completely disappeared in Turkey, underscoring the risk of sanctions related to the JCPOA evasion running through Ankara. Public prosecutors and judges are either corrupt, or have close ties with politicians — making it more likely than not, that such illegal activity could continue unimpeded.

This concerning picture implies that members of the government would be inclined to facilitate sanctions evasion for their own financial gain in the absence of autonomous bureaucratic institutions and an independent judiciary.

It is not surprising that we can pinpoint a correlation between the AKP ministers' cooperation with Zerrab to launder Iranian money and the military's decline in the Turkish politics. Less oversight from third party organisations traditionally more critical of the government allows corruption to run amok.

Similarly, the rise of Turkey's one man rule after the failed coup has enabled cabinet members to conduct illegal activities without concern regarding oversight by state institutions and the judiciary, so long as they maintain allegiance to Turkey's strongman.

All of this, coupled with the Turkish economy's severe decline, is why the international sanctions imposed are regarded as an opportunity for corrupt elites who perceive sanctions as a bargaining chip to make more money.

Any comprehensive sanctions regime must consider the sanctions-evasion route that runs through Ankara.

Past experience shows that ignoring this runs the risk of effectively neutralising any significant financial impact of the sanctions regime currently in place against Iran, not to mention the message it sends to other sanctioned regimes, such as Russia, alongside corrupt politicians and businessmen who see a financial opportunity in strengthening rogue regimes at the expense of Western interests.

Author bio

Burak Bilgehan Özpek is assistant professor in the Department of International Relations at the TOBB University of Economics and Technology in Ankara. His main research interests include the de facto states, conflict studies, contemporary politics of the Middle East and Turkish foreign policy. He is the co-founder of one of Turkey’s leading opposition websites and podcasts, Daktilo1984.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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