Ankara’s reluctance to adhere to sanctions against Russia

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Most Turks, according to the latest opinion pollsview the Russian invasion of Ukraine as a challenge to Turkey’s national security and want the government to remain neutral in this conflict.

Such a cautious stance is the product of Turkey’s financial ties with Russia and its fragile economic situation.

This interdependence explains President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s speech reluctance to endorse Russian sanctions backed by US and EU and sees the support of Turkish society. There is, however, a darker side to this policy.

As happened during the period when the sanctions were initially imposed on Iran, before the signing of the agreement Joint Global Action Plan (JCPOA) in 2015, international pressure on Iran was seen as a window of opportunity by politicians and bureaucrats in Turkey.

Indeed, the Iranian regime’s need for survival required mechanisms that would bypass legal and transparent international processes, and many in Turkey saw an opportunity to be a key country in this process, enriching themselves along the way.

December 2013 marked a turning point in the history of modern Turkey.

Prosecutors and police chiefs linked to the Gelen movement have launched a corruption investigation revealing illegal links between cabinet members and Reza Zerrab, an Iranian businessman facilitating the transfer of money from Turkish banks to Iranian banks. Zerrab was laundering oil and natural gas money from Iran through a shell company transaction account in Halkbank, owned by the Turkish statealongside a complex web of corporations, banks and front companies, in a deal known as “the biggest sanctions-busting scheme in recent history”.

In order to ensure the continuation of the operations, he bribed members of the cabinet who would help him to secure the operation against the intervention of the Turkish police.

The indictment went on to argue that Egemen Bağış, Minister for European Affairs, Muammer Gülen, Minister of Interior, and Zafer Çağlayan, Minister of Economy, all received bribes from Zerrab. .

The corruption investigation was a milestone on Turkey’s path to autocracy.

Erdoğan, prime minister in 2013, called the indictment a “judicial coup” plotted by the Gulen movement, aimed at overthrowing his government. It was an unexpected confrontation given that Erdoğan and Gülen had been political allies against secular military tutelage after Erdoğan’s AKP came to power in 2002.

Erdoğan versus Gülen

It is safe to say that the cooperation between Erdoğan and Gulen catalyzed the Gulenists to completely infiltrate the Turkish state bureaucracy and function as a replacement for the secular military and judiciary.

Nevertheless, these two factions had problems with power sharing. Erdoğan believed that the corruption investigation had been instrumentalized by the Gulen movement to overthrow the elected government.

In the following years, Erdoğan managed to survive thanks to the popular support he received, gradually cleaning up the Gulenist bureaucracy. Especially after the failed coup allegedly tempted by Gülenist soldiers in July 2016, Erdoğan has now established his full authority over the judiciary, leaving no autonomous institution.

Such an autocratic turn paved the way for AKP members to violate legal restrictions as long as they remain loyal to Erdoğan. If the sanctions imposed by the West on Iran continue, it is to be expected, as was the case with Zerrab in 2013, that the top officials of the corrupt government will see an opportunity to help Iran to continue to do business while avoiding sanctions.

The extent to which corruption of this type is widespread can be seen from Sedat Beijinga well-known mafia boss and close ally of the Erdoğan government at the time of the failed coup, who released a widely viewed series of confessions on YouTube.

In these, he accused members of the Turkish cabinet of being involved in drug trafficking, arms trafficking, gambling and corruption.

These confessions demonstrated the extent to which judicial control over the executive has completely disappeared in Turkey, highlighting the risk of sanctions linked to the escape of the JCPOA which passes through Ankara. Prosecutors and judges are either corrupt or have close ties to politicians, making it more likely than not that such illegal activities can continue unhindered.

This disturbing picture implies that members of government would be inclined to facilitate circumvention of sanctions for their own financial gain in the absence of autonomous bureaucratic institutions and an independent judiciary.

It is not surprising that we can identify a correlation between the cooperation of AKP ministers with Zerrab to launder Iranian money and the decline of the military in Turkish politics. Less oversight from third-party organizations traditionally more critical of government allows corruption to run wild.

Similarly, the rise of one-man power in Turkey after the failed coup allowed cabinet members to carry out illegal activities without concern for surveillance by state institutions and the judiciary, both that they maintain their allegiance to the strongman of Turkey.

All this, coupled with The serious decline of the Turkish economythis is why the international sanctions imposed are seen as an opportunity for corrupt elites who perceive the sanctions as a bargaining chip to make more money.

Any comprehensive sanctions regime must take into account the sanctions bypass route through Ankara.

Past experience shows that ignoring this risks effectively neutralizing any significant financial impact of the sanctions regime currently in place against Iran, not to mention the message it sends to other sanctioned regimes, such as Russia, alongside of corrupt politicians and businessmen who see a financial opportunity in strengthening rogue regimes at the expense of Western interests.

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