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What’s behind the government corruption scandal in Turkey

December 27, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Once regarded as the model for successful Muslim democracy, Turkey is now facing corruption allegations that go right to the heart of the government. Chief foreign correspondent Margaret Warner joins Judy Woodruff to discuss how Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan is attempting to fight back.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And Margaret joins me now.

Margaret, a lot of different strands to this story. Tell us more about what is behind all this.

 MARGARET WARNER: Well, Judy, the Western narrative about Turkey for over a decade has been that it is a battle between the secular, the old secular forces backed by the military and the Islamists, the religiously conservative parties.

Well, the Islamists won. And now what you have is really a battle within that victorious coalition in which Erdogan, who had taken the AKP out of the shadows, made it the dominant party in this country, a booming economy, a reputation for clean governance, turned Turkey into this model Muslim democratic state, is suddenly facing these corruption allegations that go right at the heart of not only people close to him, but, according to the Turkish press, potentially his son.

And he is fighting back, as we just saw.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And how so? How is he doing that?

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MARGARET WARNER: Well, he’s basically doing what he did during the Gezi protests this summer, which is, instead of taking the substance of the charges or criticisms or complaints seriously, he’s going on the attack.

So not only has he tried to meddle in the sort of prosecutor ranks and so on by reassigning police chiefs and prosecutors, but he is blaming it on outside forces, the U.S., by implication, Israel, and now this homegrown force, the Gulen movement, another Islamist movement.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And so the Gulen movement, give us — give us a sense what that is?

MARGARET WARNER: That is a very mysterious organization, Judy.

First of all, curiously, it’s headed by a man we just saw in the tape named Fethullah Gulen, who lives here in Pennsylvania because he was hounded by the Turkish…


JUDY WOODRUFF: Lives in the United States?


MARGARET WARNER: For 15 years. And even though he’s been cleared of any charges, he hasn’t gone back.

Ideologically, it is basically a brand of Sufi Islam that has been described to me as wanting to marry sort of Islam in modernity. But, in practice, it’s also a network of businessmen, people in the bureaucracy, people in civil society, big education component.

And they all kind of work together. It is also secret. You don’t register as a Gulenist. And so they are — they for a long time were Erdogan’s allies against the military. But in the last year or two, they have come to feel that Erdogan has become an authoritarian democrat, is one term they use, and is running kind of roughshod over — sort of let power go to his head.

And so they — are there Gulenists in the ranks of the prosecutors and the police? Probably so. But that video didn’t lie. This money was discovered. And the public — I talked to people from Gulenists to secularists. And they all found these allegations, you know, disturbing and persuasive.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We know that corruption allegations have been around for a long time in Turkey. So what’s different about — why is this happening right now?

MARGARET WARNER: That’s a really good question, because you’re right. Even under the old secularists, the thought was that the wealthy families, there was a lot of self-dealing there.

In the last 10 years, as the economy has just boomed, a lot of new people have also gotten very wealthy. And you have all these high-rises. You go to Istanbul — you were just there.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I was just there.

MARGARET WARNER: It is just unbelievable the development that’s going on.

And it’s tapping into resentment, just as the Gezi Park demonstrations did, that there is some chicanery going on, so that officials look the other way in return for money, and they overlook zoning regulations. There’s also other charges involving money laundering and Iranians and Russians.

And so I talked to one person who said he thought this was a good sign that the public now dares to take on the leader of this democracy and say, you know, no, you aren’t Hugo Chavez. You can’t just continue ripping down neighborhoods and building what your cronies want to build without consulting the citizenry.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you mentioned Erdogan blaming outsiders, including the United States. That has been part of what he’s been talking…


MARGARET WARNER: And that was pretty shocking to many people.

He caused Frank Ricciardone, who is the ambassador, one of the most respected ambassadors in the Foreign Service, of being behind this corruption probe. Now, it is true that Treasury has been looking at this particular bank and suspecting it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The U.S. Treasury.


MARGARET WARNER: Yes, U.S. Treasury Department, and suspected it of being involved in sort of elicit trading with Iran.

But the idea — nobody I talk to thinks there is any substance to this. And yet Erdogan threatened through the Turkish media to have him declared persona non grata and kick him out. That has sort of gone away. Secretary Kerry talked to the foreign minister.

But it is a surprising development. At the beginning of this administration, Erdogan and President Obama were on the phone all the time. The U.S. saw them as the stable ally in a volatile neighborhood. And now there have already been splits on some issues, but it makes it harder to partner on Syria or Iran or Israeli-Palestinian issues.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So some of these people have been arrested. The investigations continue. What happens next?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, the real question that people are asking is, is Erdogan in danger here?

Nobody I spoke with thinks any — there is any party that is a rival to the AKP. There are elections next year. It is still the most popular party. It has huge support in the rural areas.

But people who know say, watch two things. One, do crowds of protesters get out and stay in the streets for weeks and weeks and weeks and put pressure on? And, two, what happens within Erdogan’s ruling party? Do you start to see figures defect and put pressure on him to step aside in favor of someone like President Gul?

Erdogan has done nothing to defuse the situation. And right now those two prospects look unlikely. But if he does nothing to defuse the situation, but it continues to sort of stonewall and go on the sort of aggressive…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Which is what he has been doing.

MARGARET WARNER: Then, you know, anything could happen.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Margaret Warner, watching yet another country in turmoil in that part of the world, thank you.