The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) announced yesterday that it will sell its 10 percent stake in the Istanbul stock exchange after Turkey named as its CEO a Turkish banker convicted in U.S. court for his role in a multi-billion dollar scheme to evade Washington’s sanctions on Iran. Ankara’s move to reward a sanctions buster further strengthens the argument that Turkey has become a permissive jurisdiction for illicit finance.
Turkey’s sovereign wealth fund offered today to buy EBRD’s shares, which would increase the fund’s stake in the stock exchange to over 90 percent. EBRD’s exit will mean the departure of Borsa Istanbul’s only major foreign stakeholder at a critical moment in Turkey’s relations with its western allies. Ankara’s military operation in northeast Syria targeting the Syrian Democratic Forces – Washington’s key partner in the fight against the Islamic State – has drawn sweeping condemnation from the international community.
Five days after Ankara launched its Syria incursion, the U.S. Treasury Department imposed sanctions on three Turkish officials and Turkey’s ministries of energy and defense. That same week, the Southern District of New York filed an indictment charging Halkbank, a Turkish public lender, for its role in the multi-billion dollar gas-for-gold scheme to evade U.S. sanctions against Iran. Halkbank’s deputy general manager, Mehmet Hakan Atilla, in 2018 received a sentence of 32 months for his role in the affair. At the time of Atilla’s sentencing, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan condemned the trial as a political attack on his government.
Atilla returned to Turkey in July after serving his U.S. sentence. Last week, just days after U.S. federal prosecutors indicted Halkbank, Turkish Finance and Treasury Minister Berat Albayrak, who is also Erdogan’s son-in-law, named Atilla as CEO of the Istanbul stock exchange.
Atilla’s promotion is part of a string of appointments that showcase Erdogan’s policy of rehabilitating Iran sanctions busters and rewarding corrupt officials who further his personal ambitions. In September, Erdogan appointed former Minister for European Union Affairs Egemen Bagis as Turkey’s ambassador to Prague. Bagis had resigned from the ministry after a 2013 corruption scandal implicated him in accepting bribes related to the gas-for-gold scheme run through Halkbank.
Members of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) who dare criticize his policy of rehabilitating sanctions evaders continue to draw the Turkish president’s wrath. After publicly pronouncing strong opposition to Bagis’s ambassadorial appointment and other party policies, a senior AKP lawmaker, Mustafa Yeneroglu, resigned from the party yesterday after Erdogan commanded him to step down.
Another minister implicated in taking bribes as part of the Halkbank scheme, Zafer Caglayan, who served as minister of Economy in 2013 before resigning due to corruption allegations, has returned to political life as an AKP delegate from the Turkish city of Mersin. Caglayan is best known for accepting bribes of cash and jewelry worth tens of millions of dollars.
Erdogan’s rehabilitation of sanctions evaders continues to hurt Turkey’s image, economy, and investment climate. Ankara’s apparent disregard for U.S. sanctions, including those targeting Iran, Russia, and Venezuela, does not bode well for Washington or other NATO allies. Yet so far, President Donald Trump has shielded Erdogan from U.S. sanctions, the most recent of which he lifted after only nine days. In contrast, a biting sanctions bill focused on Turkey passed the House 403 to 16 on Tuesday. Like Congress, Trump should communicate to his Turkish counterpart that his policy of evading sanctions and rewarding sanctions busters could have dire consequences.
Aykan Erdemir is a former member of the Turkish parliament and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he also contributes to FDD’s Center on Economic and Financial Power (CEFP). Follow him on Twitter @aykan_erdemir. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CEFP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.