Much-awaited Erdoğan-Biden encounter and the weight of domestic scandals

Today, President Erdogan will walk into a long-awaited appointment with Biden with the weight of a two month-long series of scandals involving Sedat Peker's videos. At the NATO summit in Brussels, there will be one question on Biden's mind as well as that of all the leaders that have shaken hands with President Erdogan: could his political career end before 2023?

Expectations are irrationally high for the June 14 in-person meeting in Brussels between President Erdoğan of Turkey and U.S. President Joe Biden. Ironically, the long-awaited Erdoğan-Biden summit also found its way into exiled Turkish mafia boss Sedat Peker’s recent videos. Peker is a crime machine who has recently become the anti-hero of our Turkish pop culture world via his video revelations. His allegations regarding the involvement of government officials like Interior Minister Soylu in unlawful activities have been the talk of the town. 

Until today, Peker avoided direct confrontation with President Erdoğan whom he calls "Tayyip Abi" (older brother Tayyip). However, several times he hinted that he is planning to address him in a future video. Then last week Peker declared that he has decided to postpone the video where he would be directly addressing Erdoğan until after the June 14 Erdoğan-Biden summit to avoid jeopardizing Turkey’s national interests.

Sedat Peker had to flee to the United Arab Emirates, one of Erdoğan government's sworn enemies, when his shady domestic partnerships came to an end in Turkey. It is highly symbolic that with his recent acts Peker is failing to prove his allegiance to “nationalism and localism”, a concept which has become the motto of Erdoğan's government especially in the aftermath of the attempted and failed coup of July 2016. Indeed, the ideology Peker subscribes to have often suffered from its controversial interpretation of 'independence'. 

I would rather leave the discussion on the history of 'nationalism' in Turkey to a future article and come back to the gist of Erdoğan's current problem. Peker says that his video addressing Erdoğan would be like a special sort of farewell, which -in Islamic tradition- is used to refer to one's final wish for forgiveness from someone else before a long and unpredicted journey. As hard as Peker tries to attach moral wisdom and emotions to his revelations, it becomes more obvious that he actually intends to get into a final round of a negotiation with the leader of Turkey. In doing so, Sedat Peker pretends that he has not yet started to quit scores with his respected “older brother Tayyip.” Though deep inside he knows better than anyone how deeply the stories he has told so far have bruised President Erdoğan and his government already. 

Until recently Erdoğan is thought to be ruling the Republic of Turkey with an iron fist. Peker's video revelations made it clear that if it was not for the traditional nationalists of the country, it would not be possible for Erdoğan to sustain the authoritative governance he has been aiming with the change of the system in 2017. While blowing the inside stories of some critical foreign policy files wide open, Peker has helped us to make sense of the mechanism within the ruling circles. Erdoğan's strategic choice to replace his Gülenist allies with the nationalists to remain in power brought the underground extensions of the nationalists back into the game just like 1990s Turkey. 

Sedat Peker does not hesitate to spit the details of some high level scandals, which in a functioning democracy would have led to several resignations already, because he feels betrayed and sacrificed after all these years of serving "Tayyip Abi". Furthermore, his selection and curation of the events are exceptionally emblematic. He selects the controversial bits of Erdoğan's foreign policy choices which might indeed have worldwide consequences. Peker is well aware that when the confidence of a leader of Erdoğan’s caliber is hurt, it might lead to more dire consequences at international level than at home. 

This is probably why Peker has included the Turkish system of the global cocaine trade in his revelations, the background of the Turkish-Azerbaijani fraternity, the weapons sent to Syria, and the Sezgin Baran Korkmaz file. He has already managed to get the attention of the world’s leading intelligence organizations and the global media. Unless he receives a different signal from Ankara - which seems unlikely at this point – he will continue to walk this path, regarding it as a security valve.

It would be naïve to think that Peker brought up the file of Sezgin Baran Korkmaz in his June 6 video only to harm Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu, simply because he is at odds with him. The Sezgin Baran Korkmaz file is at the heart of an international money laundering case and is one of the untouched mines of the Ankara-Washington battlefield.

Sedat Peker claimed that “Interior Minister Soylu summoned Sezgin Baran Korkmaz to the ministry, warned him about an investigation against him, and advised him to go abroad as soon as possible.”

The peculiarity concerning the events around Sezgin Baran Korkmaz (SBK) is not limited to the claim voiced by Sedat Peker. Recent history is full of examples of officials stepping in at critical moments to protect SBK. It was the Istanbul Deputy Chief Public Prosecutor Hasan Yılmaz who stepped in to lift the injunction issued on September 30, 2020 to confiscate SBK’s property. Shortly after, he was appointed Deputy Minister of Justice. Many of Turkey's media outlets who label themselves "oppositional," saw this appointment as a reward to Hasan Yılmaz because he wrote the sham indictment of Osman Kavala, the jailed businessperson and philanthropist.

However, what I heard was different. It was rumored that this was a move to remove Hasan Yılmaz from his role as an active prosecutor due to the SBK move that enraged Erdoğan's circle at Beştepe. It is worth noting that during those days when Hasan Yılmaz felt powerful to call the shots and try lifting the injunction against SBK, Erdoğan's son-in-law Berat Albayrak was still one of the most powerful people in Erdoğan's government. And Hasan Yılmaz was known to be Berat Albayrak's man in judiciary.  

There were many rumors that SBK, known for his cunningness, did not associate with only one clique within the state, but had acquired ‘allies’ in several institutions. Thus, the Soylu-SBK story of Sedat Peker did not sound inconceivable to anyone familiar with the dynamics. On the other hand, the fact that foes Berat Albayrak and Süleyman Soylu were both looking out for SBK, albeit with different political agendas, is a perfect example of how business has gone completely off the rails in Ankara. One  often wonders how much President Erdoğan knows about of the true nature of the game of thrones that has been going on around him.  

In the last week of 2020, 19 executives of SBK Holding and its subsidiaries, including Korkmaz, were detained as part of the investigation conducted by the Office of Istanbul Public Prosecutor. SBK was abroad when the verdict was issued. When the news hit the headlines, he joined live broadcasts and said he would be back any time now; but he has not been back for six months. It is widely speculated that SBK has been in Switzerland since then. The Kingston brothers, who used SBK's firms in Turkey to launder money, are facing up to 417 years in prison at the Utah Federal Court on charges of defrauding the U.S. Treasury of 511 million dollars. Moreover, the Kingston brothers admitted at court that they sent at least 134 million of the 511 million dollars they obtained illegally through Washakie Renewable Energy, to SBK’s companies in Turkey and Luxembourg. Despite this ongoing case, it is still a mystery how SBK is free to walk around Europe. The addressees of this question are not in Ankara, but in Washington.

Meanwhile, SBK’s lawyers have argued that Turkey's Financial Crimes Investigation Board (MASAK) prepared two contradictory reports, released only one and a half months apart. Retrospectively it became clear that the first report indeed helped SBK to get off the hook for a while. 

I have come across a valuable piece of information while investigating Peker's revelations about the SBK saga. I learned that the National Intelligence Organization (MİT) has been conducting a separate investigation about SBK and his associates. Rumor says that Interior Minister Soylu tipped SBK about MİT's investigation, which he did not have the authority to interfere with, when he summoned him to the ministry back in December. Furthermore, it is speculated that MİT's perseverance to keep investigating SBK’s domestic and international activities has led to backlash and the institution is under political pressure to shelve the report. I could not find out whether President Erdoğan had seen this MİT report. Unfortunately I could not get anyone confirm whether President Erdoğan had seen the MİT report on SBK. 

It seems like the SBK file has room to lead to more scandals that have yet to see the light of day.

On June 14, President Erdogan will walk into a long-awaited appointment with Biden with the weight of a two month-long series of scandals involving Sedat Peker's videos. At the NATO summit in Brussels, there will be one question on Biden's mind as well as that of all the leaders that have shaken hands with President Erdogan: could his political career end before 2023? They would, of course, want to base all long-term negotiations with Turkey around the answer to this question.