[Opinion] Erdoğan’s dance with the Grey Wolves: the rise of Turkish mafia politics

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Türkmen Terzi

As the world watches with alarm at the escalation of the Israel-Palestine conflict, which is claiming hundreds of lives, the focus in Turkey has been inward, with a YouTube video series by a Turkish mafia leader getting the most traction in a country that is regarded as one of the most powerful in the Muslim world.

Sedat Peker’s YouTube video series has been the focus of Turkish journalists and political analysts, many of whom comment that the mafia wars over the drug trade are what is currently shaping the politics of Turkey, a country that has been in the economic doldrums.

Seemingly calm but with its deep, strong currents flowing in the opposite direction, İstanbul ‘s Bosporus Strait best reflects the complexity of Turkish political behavior.

Apart from Ankara’s recent direct involvement in conflicts in Syria and Libya, Turkey embraced the “Peace at Home and Peace in the World” policy of its founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, and avoided hot conflicts in the region for a century. Yes, political life is seemingly peaceful in the country, but the Turkish state’s deep mafia involvement shows that Turkey avoided many military conflicts but has been going through endless underworld conflicts, and this mafia war is increasingly dominating its current affairs.

In his recent videos, which have attracted millions of views, Turkish mafia boss Peker exposed state-mafia relations in Turkey. Peker, who mysteriously fled Turkey last year, was briefly arrested in North Macedonia with a fake Macedonian ID and passport and was then deported to Kosovo on January 18. He reportedly now lives in Dubai.

He stated that important figures of the Turkish state, including members of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), are involved in many illegal activities including drug trafficking and murder. In his YouTube video messages, Peker continuously threatens Turkey’s most notorious mobster Alaattin Çakıcı, who is best known for posing with former police chief and interior minister Mehmet Ağar in Turkey’s popular tourist town of Bodrum. Ağar is also known as the head of Turkey’s deep state. Also in the photo were retired colonel Korkut Eken and retired lieutenant general Engin Alan.

These senior names and mafia bosses, who have strong connections to the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), aka the Grey Wolves, have been accused of some of the most horrific crimes committed against Kurds in the early 1990s. Their meeting with mafia leader Çakıcı signals that Turkish mafia bosses are coming out of the shadows and gaining power again, just as they were dominant in Turkish public life three decades ago. Peker, who until recently was regarded as Erdoğan’s representative in the mafia world, accused Ağar of conspiring against him as Ağar supports Erdoğan and has recently become an ally of Erdoğan’s son-in-law Berat Albayrak against Peker.

The MHP was founded in 1969 by Alparslan Türkeş, one of the masterminds behind a 1960 coup. The Grey Wolves fought against the leftists in Turkey during the Cold War and continue to maintain strong ties with the criminal world. Erdoğan won the presidential election on June 24, 2018 with the support of the MHP, and it is thanks to this alliance that the Grey Wolves have continued to regain considerable power and now have complete control of the underworld with the help of the Turkish state.

Peker accused Ağar’s son Tolga, an AKP member of parliament, of involvement in a drug-fueled altercation with Nusret Gökçe, who owns a chain of luxury steak houses, internationally known as Salt Bae. Peker accused Tolga of raping and killing a Kazakh student journalist, Yeldana Kaharman, two years ago, a day after she interviewed Tolga Ağar.

Peker’s allegations have sparked a fierce debate. Cemil Çiçek, former justice minister from the ruling AKP and a current member of the presidency’s higher advisory board, called on prosecutors to investigate Peker’s claims about the Ağar family. The parliamentary group deputy chair of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), Özgur Özel, accused Soylu of being the connection point between the AKP, its ally the MHP and the mafia. Ayhan Sefer Üstün, former head of the parliamentary Human Rights Committee and a founding member of former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s Future Party, said the allegations should spark a serious campaign against the “deep state” in Turkey.

Since Ağar and Albayrak have threatened Peker, Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu has also turned against his former ally Peker. Peker is now revealing all his secrets as he has fled Turkey. Peker claimed in his fourth video, which was released on May 13 and received over 4 million hits, that he had very close ties with Soylu. Peker explained that a relative, Reşat Fazlıoğlu, has been working for Soylu and organized a Twitter bot army to prevent Soylu’s resignation when the minister announced his departure in April 2020 over a short-notice coronavirus curfew. Peker mentioned that the interior minister was a witness at the wedding of Resat’s cousin Hakan Fazlıoğlu. Peker also said his relatives helped Soylu rise through the ranks of the right-wing True Path Party (DYP) and played a key role in Soylu’s political career. Peker also alleged that Soylu previously provided police security for him but that he was the one who had turned Albayrak against him. Following Peker’s video messages, Soylu said he would file a lawsuit over the allegations made by Peker and called on the mafia boss to surrender to Turkish courts.

Turkey’s strategic location makes the country a major staging area and transportation route for heroin destined for European markets, and Turkish drug lords control tens of billions of dollars of narcotics. “The Turkish Mafia and the State” written by Yücel Yesilgöz and Frank Bovenkerk as a part of the Studies of Organized Crime in 2004, mentioned that the annual turnover of the drug trade was at least $50 billion, more than the total Turkish state budget of $48 billion in 2004.

Turkish journalist Said Sefa explained that Peker received the support of Erdoğan and Soylu during the absence of powerful mafia boss Çakıcı, who was in prison and released last year under a COVID-19 amnesty that freed up to 90,000 inmates from Turkish prisons. Çakıcı is closely connected to Devlet Bahçeli, leader of the MHP, the far-right party that is in an electoral alliance with Erdoğan’s AKP. Peker consolidated his power in the underworld over a period of many years, but since Çakıcı has been released, Peker has lost his grip.

It seems the MHP backed Çakıcı, and the Grey Wolves have been gaining power since Peker fled Turkey last year and have started to control billions of dollars of the drug trade in the region. Erdoğan is holding power in the Turkish army thanks to his alliance with the ultranationalist Perinçek group, known as the Eurasia faction in the military against the pro-NATO faction. Sefa mentioned that Peker is going to release more details on the drug trade showing how Erdoğan, his family and Turkish diplomats in Europe are involved in it. It will be difficult for Erdoğan to challenge these allegations from the Grey Wolves since a majority of ordinary Turks don’t listen to educated figures, but it seems, going by Peker’s YouTube numbers, they would rather listen to the mafia bosses.

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