Is Turkey run by gangsters? - Prof Ryan Gingeras

The video confessions of an exiled Turkish mafia boss and the furore they have excited are signs that mafia politics have returned to Turkey, Dr. Ryan Gingeras wrote in an article for War on the Rocks on Monday. 

According to Gingeras, an expert on Turkey’s history and relationships with organised crime, the controversies launched by mobster Sedat Peker and his accusations against Turkish officials should be no surprise, even as they constitute “an absurd series of events” that make warnings on the awakening of dormant mafia structures “appear prophetic”.

The influence of the mafia on Turkish politics goes at least as far back as the 1970s, Gingeras said, and Peker has been involved in much of this history.

The 49 year old exiled mafia boss’s rap sheet goes back to the 1990s, and he has numerous convictions over the years. However, Peker has also managed to avoid prosecution in several high-profile cases as well, Gingeras said.

Covering for crime bosses is a deep-rooted tradition in the country, and “as early as the 1930s, American counter-narcotics officers encountered instances when state police and officials gave sanctuary to major heroin traffickers,” he wrote.

Turkey’s “original drug kingpins”, Gingeras added, “such as İhsan Sekban and Hüseyin Eminoğlu, were never indicted on trafficking charges. And only rarely did their names appear in newspapers.”

Peker has also presented himself as a loyal supporter of Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and as a diehard Turkish nationalist.

Following the surfacing of Peker’s photos with Erdoğan, in 2015, Peker said he would “bathe in the blood” of signatories of a petition calling for peace in the Kurdish conflict that had recently been rekindled.

“Since then, Peker has escaped legal accountability for this and other acts of incitement against government opponents. The implications of the court’s inaction appeared clear. Sedat Peker was being protected from on high,” Gingeras said.

Now that he is a government critic, Peker has offered lurid tales of rape, drug trafficking and murder that all implicate high ranking former and current members of the Turkish government.

Among the “outrageous” claims Peker made is a feud between interior minister Süleyman Soylu and Berat Albayrak, Erdoğan’s son-in-law and former finance minister.

“Soylu appeared for hours on a popular talk show, arguing that Peker’s videos constitute a grand plot against the country,” the analyst said. “Erdoğan, for the most part, has remained relatively mute through the scandal.”

Gingeras noted that Peker has produced little in the way of direct evidence to support his claims, but the state is unlikely to be open about any possible ties. 

“Whatever the alignment of interests between gangsters and the Erdoğan government are, both parties are eager for them to remain less than transparent,” he wrote. 

Gingeras also wrote that Erdoğan, while relatively silent on Peker’s claims even as he backs his ministers, has a chance to muddle through this scandal as well. To make his point, Gingeras pointed to survey data that found many voters for his Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its coalition partner, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), are unaware of Peker’s videos in the first place. 

Precedent is also important to take into account here. Gingeras referred to the December 17-25, 2013 corruption scandal that implicated sons of Erdoğan’s ministers in an Iran sanctions-busting scheme that involved kickbacks to Turkish officials. Erdoğan himself was implicated in a leaked recording from an anonymous source, but the whole affair was buried with Erdoğan “purging the investigators and casting the scandal as a conspiracy masterminded by Fetullah Gülen and a host of international actors,” the analyst said.

Erdoğan also accuses Fethullah Gülen, the Muslim preacher who lives in self-imposed exile in the United States, of having masterminded a military coup against Erdoğan’s government in 2016 that ultimately failed.

Gingeras cautioned that in the absence of transparency and a lack of state institutions with the willingness to seek the truth, Peker’s voice was amplified by the Turkey’s history of mafia-politics and the suspicions it has fostered.

“For many listeners, Peker’s accusations confirm what they already suspect is the truth, no matter how little evidence he offers,” wrote Gingeras. 

The question then is, for some, “just how different Erdoğan’s mafia state is from past corrupt governments”, he said. Opposition figures have suggested that “Turkey, under Erdoğan, has crossed into a new frontier as a de facto narco-state akin to Nicolas Maduro’s Venezuela”, he added.

The analyst asked, “So is Turkey run by gangsters? Was it always?”

“It is often difficult to find a clean historical rift between Turkey’s underworld and the political establishment,” Gingeras said. “But this is by no means a uniquely Turkish condition.” According to the analyst, Peker’s revelations can be better analysed as “a symptom of a different historic tradition: the lack of official transparency”.

“When the Turkish state cannot be trusted to police itself, citizens and observers alike are left to rely on the word of a gangster,” he said.