Don’t look now, but a strategic member of NATO might be in the midst of a meltdown. Police have arrested dozens of people in a corruption probe, including relatives of Cabinet officials in Tayyip Erdogan’s government, shocking the nation and striking fear into the political elite. Police wiretapped a number of officials and claim to have discovered a web of bribery centered on an Iranian banker, and arrests are ongoing.
Erdogan has not exactly taken this lightly. In fact, he’s fired a bunch of people … who happen to be police commanders looking into the corruption:
Nor is that the end of Erdogan’s bizarre response. The Turkish Prime Minister accused “some” foreign ambassadors of provoking the situation and threatened to expel them — a threat aimed at the US ambassador to Turkey, Francis Ricciardone:
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan Saturday warned some foreign ambassadors he might expel them over “provocative actions,” amid mounting tensions over an anti-graft probe[.]
“Some ambassadors are engaged in provocative actions … Do your job,” Erdogan said in televised remarks in the Black Sea city of Samsun. “We don’t have to keep you in our country.”
Erdogan’s remarks were considered a veiled threat to US Ambassador Francis Ricciardone, after he was reported to have commented on the unfolding bribery scandal.
“Get out of this country!” headlined the Yeni Safak newspaper, with a picture of the US envoy on its front page.
Turkeish newspapers reported that Ricciardone told EU ambassadors that he warned Halkbank to cut its ties with Iran, and that because they didn’t listen, “you are watching the collapse of an empire.” Ricciardone denied saying it, a denial issued via his Twitter account — in Turkish, no less. The Turkish government later said it has no immediate plans to summon Ricciardone to the Foreign Ministry, but Erdogan needs the distraction at least for a while as his government totters.
Erdogan’s attempt to move Turkey closer diplomatically to Iran (although not in regard to Bashar al-Assad in Syria, notably) has not been a very popular move, especially in the more cosmopolitan Western region of the country. I’m no expert on Turkey (Jim Geraghty and Guy Benson have spent a lot more time there), but we spent a few days in Istanbul last month, and I was surprised when our tour guide gave us her unsolicited and deeply negative views on Erdogan and his Islamist government (especially at the very beginning of the tour). She claimed that the people can’t wait to throw him and his party out of power in next year’s elections and return to a more Kemalist, West-leaning policy of secularism. At the same time, Erdogan faces a deep political challenge from an exiled cleric living in Pennsylvania, Fethullah Gülen, who despises Iran and Saudi Arabia and wants to move Turkey away from Islamism and back to secular government, too.
A bribery scandal would come at the worst possible time — and expelling an American ambassador could provide a momentary distraction. It might also panic Turks who don’t want to slide into an Iranian orbit, especially if it comes through bribery of Erdogan’s ministers. Keep an eye on developments in Turkey.