The dark side of Turkey-Azerbaijan relations

There is so much Azerbaijan inside Turkey that the slogan “Two states, one nation” now has meanings beyond cultural, ideological, and political solidarity. The new slogan could be “Two states, one regime,” where oil money, drones, construction, and deep relations are bringing us closer. For many years, a toxic river has been flowing right in front of us.

Most of us in Turkey have said at least once, “Thank God we do not have oil!” When you look at the monopoly the ruling coalition has based on construction and borrowing, you can understand this sense of gratitude even better. Unfortunately, there is no oil in Turkey, but there is money from Azeri oil. And whenever a large amount of money enters Turkey, strange incidents are sure to follow.

Sedat Peker, a wanted leader of an organized crime group, released a series of videos last week. In the first video, he said an operation against him was carried out by Mehmet Ağar, former interior minister and police chief, whom he called “the head of the deep state.” Ağar, he claimed, was under pressure from the “Pelican group” led by Erdogan’s son-in-law, Berat Albayrak. Referring to the Yalıkavak Marina in the Aegean city of Bodrum, he said Ağar had seized the property of Azeri billionaire Mubariz Mansimov and that he did it on someone else’s behalf.

The Ağar and Yalıkavak Marina connection is apparent in a photo taken in October 2020, in which Alaattin Çakıcı, Mehmet Ağar, Engin Alan, and Korkut Eken are seen together, with a view of the marina in the background. These people were the main actors in the Susurluk case, the scandal that rocked Turkey in 1996, involving the close relationship between the state and the mafia which erupted with a car crash. Mansimov was arrested and charged with being a member of the “FETÖ terror organization,” but was later released.

So, what is happening?

Here is a chaotic incident that stretches from the Susurluk case to Azeri oligarchs with billions of dollars in wealth. Whichever rope you pull, mountains of cash pour out. The Peker-Ağar battle is only the criminal side of a dreadful economic political network. Right at the center there is a honeypot surrounded by flies.

A dangerous story

The information given below is not secret or classified. Incidents have been reorganized depending on how they were revealed the public. The parallelism between the shift of the axis in Turkey’s political regime and the relationships here tells us a dangerous story.

Change in Turkish politics began to accelerate in 2007. One of the major developments during that period was the sale of Petkim, the leading Turkish petrochemical company, to Azerbaijan’s state-owned company SOCAR for 2.04 billion dollars. Petkim was not a simple privatization.

Turkey-Azerbaijan relations always have a dark side. For example, if you look at this specific part of the 1998 report on Susurluk, which began with the murder of Ömer Lütfi Topal, it sheds light on the present day: “Because of shortage in funding during the building of a guest house in Baku, it was decided that the construction would be completed as a hotel and a casino was to be built adjacent to the main structure. Emperyal took over the management. Ilham Aliyev, son of the president, carried out this project. It is said that he owed Topal 500,000 dollars due to gambling debts and that he was the secret partner of the hotel.”

Azeri billionaires

Ilham Aliyev was vice president of the State Oil Company of the Republic of Azerbaijan (SOCAR) from 1994 to 2003. After his father Haydar Aliyev fell ill, he was elected president. With the sale of Petkim, a new wave began in Turkey: The wave of Azeri billionaires. Let's quickly review the details:

The most popular name was Mansimov. He became a Turkish citizen in 2007 via the personal encouragement of President Erdoğan. In 2008, he bought a building bombed by al-Qaeda in 2003, which belonged to Demirbank, but was transferred to the Saving Deposit Insurance Fund (TMSF) after the seizure of Demirbank. That building was used by the HSBC at the time of the bombing. He bought it for 60 million dollars and turned it into a hotel. In 2011, he bought Bodrum’s Yalıkavak Marina. His companies, grouped under the umbrella of Palmali Holding, now has a fleet of dozens of ships. And this leads to SOCAR.

Let’s move on to another notable oligarch.

Telman Ismailov, the owner of Mardan Palace, which was founded in Antalya in 2009 at a cost of 1.4 billion dollars claiming to be “the most luxurious hotel in the world” and which was opened with a ceremony attended by celebrities such as Richard Gere, Sharon Stone, and Monica Belluci, was taken to court by Garanti Bank when he could not pay his debts.

Halkbank bought the hotel in 2015 for 360 million liras. Thus, the public bank began cleaning up the mess made by the bankrupt oligarch. Halkbank had loaned Ismailov 62.5 million dollars, and the land owned by the Treasury was listed as collateral for the loan. This scandal, which erupted before the Reza Sarraf scandal, was quietly covered up. The last time we saw Ismailov, who was also dealt with by Putin, was in 2019 when he and Sedat Peker were seen strolling and smiling in Montenegro. This leads us to Peker.

The next oligarch is Yusufovich Alekperov, owner of Lukoil. He entered the Turkish market in 1998, but found success in 2006. After receiving his distribution license from the Energy Market Regulatory Authority (EPDK), he became the owner of nearly 600 gas stations. Alekperov was a close friend of Aliyev's and his company carried out joint activities with SOCAR. Mansimov was carrying Lukoil's oil and filed a 2-billion-dollar arbitration lawsuit in London, arguing that no payment had been made.

Thus, everything is associated with and eventually leads to SOCAR. Let’s now look at Bora Erdin’s story in 2015 in the daily Sözcü.

‘Small ships’

As soon as Mansimov became a Turkish citizen, he leased three ‘small ships’ from Bilal Erdoğan's (son of the president) company BMZ. He also started working with Tuzla Shipyard, which Erdoğan's brother, Mustafa Erdoğan, and brother-in-law bought in 2014. Here, a network of relations appeared including Fettah Tamince, Murat Sancak, and Mehmet Fatih Baltacı, who was sentenced to 15 years for "membership in an armed terrorist organization" after the July 15 failed coup attempt. Erdoğan’s brother-in-law, Ziya İlgen, and Ömer Faruk Kalyoncu were also involved. Partnerships between Mansimov and SOCAR lasted for years, with shares constantly changing hands via two energy companies.

Kutlu Savaş, head of the Prime Ministry Inspection Board at the time, wrote in the Susurluk report: “Armed criminal organizations can easily be coped with if the state wishes to do so. The problem is the gang of white collars.”

Alaattin Aykaç and Ali Kemal Çelikten, who testified against him in Mansimov’s case, also deserve to be mentioned. Mansimov took them to court accusing them of swindling and seizing the Yalıkavak Marina by defrauding him. Aykaç was among the management team of the marina when it was taken over by Petkim. When he was sued by Mansimov, he left and became Yıldırım Demirören’s right-hand man. He is currently among the management at Demirören Holding, which has added the Azeri lottery to its portfolio.

Let’s summarize the complex relations using the evidence presented in the Mansimov case:

Since 2009, 16 companies have been established under the name of Aykaç in Malta and some other island states. Çelikten is also among the executives; He owns six of the companies. Many of SOCAR’s companies share the same address. One of them is Yalıkavak Holding Limited, the new owner of Bodrum Marina. This one belongs to someone who is very much involved in SOCAR, Anar Alizade.

The Arrow Star Trading Co. founded in Malta and owned by Çelikten has started operating also in Turkey in 2018. Its only manager is Çelikten, but in 2020 it transferred its shares to Ilham Gadim-Zada. Gadim-Zada's father is Vagif Gadimov, who was the director of SOCAR until 2002 and was assassinated. Bilal Erdoğan’s ships (those small ships) were registered under Gadim-Zada’s five shipping companies in Malta in 2016. Meanwhile, Çelikten is among the directors of SOCAR Polymer, which is based in Azerbaijan.

It is quite complicated, isn't it? This is actually the simplified version. The important thing is that they are all related to each other and point to the same address. The address of Anar Alizade. And all relations are connected to the Singapore-based RSR Holding. Now, who is Alizade?

He is a cousin of Rovnag Abdullayev, the head of SOCAR since 2005 and chairman of the Board of Directors of SOCAR Turkey Energy Inc., Petkim Petrochemical Holding Inc., and STAR Refinery Inc. since 2020. His last name was ‘Aliyev’ before he changed it. RSR Holding, which he founded in Singapore in 2007, is either the owner or partner to all the companies mentioned above. He allegedly owns all the companies which have made 48 high-income business deals with SOCAR. Alizade’s representative in Turkey is Agshin Salimov, who was appointed as Vice President of Petkim Trade last year. Its directors are Nihad Aliyev, Ali Polat, Koray Atalık and Moreno Acchiolini. They are all also associated with the companies mentioned, including those Ağar is managing.

After Petkim’s privatization, this is the simplest version of what has been going on there. Now to the real question: What exactly is the ‘big picture?’

An industry with billions of dollars is spreading in circles to other businesses and other fields. We are talking about a giant pool where not only businesspeople, but artists, athletes, and journalists are involved. Turkey was pushed into that pool in 2007. Now, whatever corrupt and rotten business which was hidden in the sewer is now oozing through the cracks of rusty pipes into the streets.

For many years, a toxic river has been flowing right in front of us. What Peker is saying is only one of the drainage pipes is feeding the river. There is so much Azerbaijan inside Turkey that the slogan “Two states, one nation” now has meanings beyond cultural, ideological, and political solidarity. The new slogan could be “Two states, one regime,” where oil money, drones, construction, and deep relations are bringing us closer. As we get closer, we seem to be dragging each other toward the same fate. 

When one reviews the state of affairs, a question remains: How can a dirty pool of billions of dollars be cleaned through elections?

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