28 February 2014

What's Next in Turkey?

In late December, I posed this fateful question regarding the embattled Turkish Prime Minister: "is this the end for Erdogan?" At the time, I predicted that damaging information about Erdogan and his family members will almost certainly be leaked before the municipal elections in March 2014.

And I suggested that while Abdullah Gul (the President) would be on the rise (along with Deputy PM Ali Babacan), Erdogan would find it very hard to cling on to power and he might be forced to quit sometime this year.
In fact, it is widely rumored in Turkey that more dossiers are being readied and some of them will implicate Erdogan and his family members. One of the ministers who had to resigned openly called for the PM's resignation and said that all of the large construction projects were approved personally by the PM.
As you know, this has now happened.

Last week, an audio tape containing five separate conversations between the PM and his son hit the Internet. (An English language transcript can be found here.) During these conversations, you hear Erdogan instruct his son to give large piles of cash to several business associates for safekeeping. At some point, the son hesitantly tells his father that he almost got rid of everything and there is only 30 millions euros left to move. Only.

A second tape was leaked a couple of days later, in which Erdogan's son informs him of a businessman's offer to pay them only $10 million, a sum apparently much less than what was agreed upon, and Erdogan tells him not to accept the lesser figure.

I am not a moralist and by itself, a garden variety (albeit involving massive sums) grifter story would not be of interest to me. But this case is relevant because it contains telling clues about a coherent plan to unseat Erdogan.

The Original Scandal

The details are here.

I only want to make the following point: It is nearly impossible to conduct an investigation for two years involving senior members of the Cabinet without any leaks. This could only be done if the investigators were members of a tight group, none of whom interested in career rewards that some judicious whistleblowing might bring.

As I wrote at the time, this is why I rejected corruption vs a plot against the government dichotomy: it was both.

In other words, the corruption allegations were correct but the agents who brought them forward were doing it to unseat Erdogan.

Give Him Enough Rope

The aftermath of the initial blow was intriguing. Apart from giving his first ever interview to a foreign journalist, and denying the accusations, Gulen remained silent for the most part. He let Erdogan to be the sole actor on stage.

This calculation paid off nicely. Erdogan's huge overreaction and the autocratic steps he has taken were much more damaging that anything Gulen or his supporters might have said.

He started with a massive purge in the executive branch and dismissed or moved thousands of police officers and state prosecutors. Even to those who knew that Gulen supporters were occupying key positions in state institutions, this undertaking looked more like a cover up than a genuine desire to reform the system.

Erdogan then proceeded with several highly questionable laws. One scrapped the independence of the judiciary and attached the body that appoints judges and prosecutors to the Ministry of Justice. Another law strengthened government control over the Internet and social media by requiring all ISPs to maintain logs for two years and make them available to the authorities. It also allowed the blocking of Websites without court ruling.  

Finally, because Erdogan firmly believes that the only state apparatus uninfected by the Gulen virus is the Turkish Intelligence Agency (MIT), he pushed a law that removed all Parliamentary oversight of MIT's activities. The law also provides the Agency with much wider eavesdropping powers, including unfettered access to corporate IT systems. It accords immunity to its officers (and collaborators) and makes it a crime to report or leak its activities.

The overreaction and overreach was simply mindboggling.

Predictably, President Gul, a presumed sympathizer of the Gulen movement, signed these texts into law. Since he has no real veto power (he can only send them back for review and has to sign them the second time) he used these opportunities to raise his concerns. Once again, Gul was positioning himself as the statesman, while emphasizing Erdogan's dictatorial choices.

Once it looked like Erdogan won the power struggle and he was feeling invincible, those infamous recordings showed up on YouTube.

Are the Recordings Genuine?

Erdogan's predictable reaction to these serious allegations was vociferous indignation over what he claimed to be doctored tapes.

As you can imagine, I have no way of knowing one way or the other. But I can suggest a couple of pointers.

If these were collages, i.e., dialogues created with separate words taken from different speeches, it would be impossible to end up with a convincing exchange since the human ear is very sensitive to pitch changes such a method would necessarily entail.

It is also not possible to have impersonators to produce such recordings since every voice has a unique frequency imprint and it would be very easy to verify the authenticity of the speakers.

On the other hand, you could slightly edit actual conversations and rearrange some sentences in those conversations to create a much clearer causality. Here is a discussion of these points in English and here is the original research in Turkish.

If I were to venture a guess, I would opt, like I did previously, for both. That is to say, I believe that it is highly likely that the gist of the conversations is accurate but some editing might have taken place to sharpen their direction and content.

Who Could Eavesdrop on Encrypted Phones?

The day after the tapes hit YouTube, Erdogan inadvertently blurted out that "they are listening to government's encrypted phones."

In the tapes, you hear his son mentioning a secret number and Erdogan talks about encrypted phones, so we can safely presume that these conversations took place on a secure line using encrypted phones, like the one you see on the right.

The question is this: Assuming, as I do, that the bulk of the conversations is authentic (even if edited), how did they eavesdrop on encrypted phones? People who simply maintain that the Gulen supporters might have done it are missing an important point.

Unless you are the NSA, the only way you can listen in on these conversation is to get hold of the encryption key. In Turkey, encrypted phones sold to private citizens can be monitored with a court order as their encryption keys have to be made available to the Information and Communication Technologies Authority (BTK).

But the encrypted phones used by ministers are exempted from this practice and they use 256-bit AES (Advanced Encryption Standard), which is impossible to crack through blunt computing force.

In short, unless you have backdoor access or have the actual encryption key, there is no way you can monitor such conversations. That leaves two institutions, one is the NSA, the other is MIT. While I am sure the NSA listens in on all world leaders, I seriously doubt that they would willingly leak anything.

That leaves MIT, the executive branch institution most trusted by the Prime Minister.

Will People Care?

In Turkey, bribe accepting politicians are the equivalent of cheating presidents in France: they are part of a natural order of things. And indeed, opinion polls show that there is barely a move in Erdogan's popularity.

But this could change rapidly.

Let's look at this logically: If there was a plan to unseat Erdogan what do you think the next steps would be?

If I were implementing such a plan, I would continue what I have been doing, that is to say, leak allegations, give him space for his shadow boxing, let him deny the whole thing aggressively. And when he starts to feel like he is gaining the upper hand, hit him with video recordings of these alleged incidents. Does it not make sense?

Even Erdogan's staunchest supporters would desert him if they saw his family stuffing money bags into the trunk of several S-Class sedans.

I actually don't know if they have the appropriate visuals for these events but if something like that shows up on the Internet in the coming days, you can bet your last Lira that this whole things was a plan to get rid of Erdogan.

Why and Who?

The "why" is fairly easy.

In the last year, Erdogan made huge blunders in the region. He sided with Jihadis in Syria just to gain leverage against Kurds, he failed to start a peace process with Turkey's Kurds. He alienated all the Sunni powers in the region, like Saudi Arabia and Egypt (there is no Turkish diplomatic representation in Egypt and the last ambassador was declared persona non grata). And he stood by as Iran rose to prominence and Turkey lost most of its leverage.

In short, he disappointed his most important ally in a big way.

Domestically, since May, Turkish economy is in a free fall. The lira is down, the current account deficit is huge, unemployment is high and there is a net capital outflow. Not surprisingly, Middle East funds are now shunning Turkey.

I will let you guess the "who" using my black hole analogy.

What's Next?

I stand by my prediction in December.

What they want -let's call them the markets- is for Erdogan to leave and Ali Babacan to replace him as the Prime Minister. In that post, I also emphasized Abdullah Gul's impressive re-branding and his bright future.

I still think that they would be the dream team, Gul, the newly branded centrist statesman as President and Babacan, the brilliant technocrat, as Prime Minister.

Incidentally, this is what the Economist said this week:
Still, the conventional wisdom is that, unless voters feel the economic pinch, few will be bothered by their rulers’ sleaze. Should this prove wrong (and several people now expect AK to lose Ankara), Mr Erdogan’s fellow AK party members may at last decide it is time to replace him. 
Mr Gul is still touted as one possible successor. Another is Ali Babacan, the deputy prime minister, who has a spotless reputation.
If that happens, that is, if Erdogan leaves, Gul remains President and Babacan becomes the Prime Minister, expect smooth sailing in the region.

The American plan will be back on track, peace with Kurds will have a genuine shot, the Syrian conflict will finally have a reasonable framework and the Saudi-Sunni silliness will be in check.

If Erdogan refuses to go, dark clouds will get darker for Turkey and the region.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Maybe you are right that encrypted phones of the RTE could be listened by MIT in the past. This argument intensifies the claim that the all documents and recorded information of MIT passed to in the hands of Gulen movement. The same people claims that the government enact MIT law to bring these leaked information to the back.
    But I disagree with you on Abdullah Gul position. After the approval of Internet law and HSYK by Gul , it seems that Hizmet supporters have withdrewn their support from him and they tend to support Zekeriya Oz, Meral Aksener or Hasim Kilic who is the president of the consitution court. It is rumored that A.Gul also has bribery files arising from T.Telekom and his relatives. That is the reason why he has allied with the government. On the other side, Istanbul mayor canditate of main opposition Party (CHP) who is Mustafa Sarigul can be the next prime Minister according to AKP supporters claim. If Erdogan left, CHP and AKP or MHP would make coalition and Ali Babacan may continue to manage the economy. I think Abdullah Gul will be kept out. At the moment, he has given order to the “Presidency Inspection Institution” to search the claims related with both leakeges and corruptions. Most likely, its report would clean the corruption files.
    Finally as you mentioned, as Erdogan will refuse to go, dark clouds will get darker for Turkey.