Turkey Sees Foes at Work in Gold Mines, Cafes and ‘Smurf Village’

Turkey Sees Foes at Work in Gold Mines, Cafes and ‘Smurf Village’

- in Business
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Turkey’s war on its “enemies” in business — and the evolution of Mr. Ipek from revered industrialist to public villain — illuminates much about the tumultuous events that have so jolted the country in recent years.

Mr. Ipek stands accused of being part of a treasonous deep state run by Mr. Gulen, a reclusive 76-year-old who fled Turkey in 1999 and now lives in the Poconos of Pennsylvania.

For decades, Mr. Gulen has preached a theology rooted in Islam and focused on peace, science and democracy. The movement he leads is called Hizmet — service, in English — and is best known outside of Turkey for building schools across the country and the rest of the world, including 120 charter schools in the United States. Delegations of American politicians have flown to Turkey on trips paid for by Hizmet.

To Mr. Gulen’s detractors, his good works have all been all a cunning charade, propaganda camouflaging a vast moneymaking enterprise that sought to overthrow the government. He and his followers indoctrinated youngsters at Hizmet schools in Turkey, then encouraged them to find positions in the government, particularly the justice system — as police officers, prosecutors and judges.

For allies in the corporate realm, Gulenists in the government provided invaluable aid. Licenses were approved, permits issued, rivals thwarted. Entrepreneurs in Mr. Gulen’s favor knew that the levers of the state could make them wealthy, and one of his most successful protégés, if the Turkish government is correct, was Mr. Ipek.

Employees of Mr. Ipek’s newspapers and television stations were confronted by the police as they tried to get to their offices in Istanbul on Oct. 28, 2015.

Credit
Mehmet Ali Poyraz/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Soon after the raid, a warrant was issued for Mr. Ipek’s arrest, stating that he laundered vast sums for what officials call the Fethullah Terrorist Organization. His assets were frozen and have gradually been seized, starting last year with his luxury cars and ending with all of his real estate and bank accounts. Prosecutors announced in June that they would seek a 77-year prison sentence for Mr. Ipek, though he has no plans to return to Turkey.

Now settled in London, Mr. Ipek spends his days trying to clear his name and somehow reclaim his life. No, he says, he is not a financial backer of Mr. Gulen or a beneficiary of favors from his followers. And no, he says, he didn’t flee Turkey with billions of dollars, as the government has charged. He says his current net worth is less than $10 million.

“I have not committed one single crime in my life, not a traffic penalty,” he fumed, during hours of interviews.

It isn’t easy to sort fact from fabrication in the government’s case, and parts of Mr. Ipek’s account of his own life sound nearly as far-fetched. Truth is a slippery, elusive concept in today’s Turkey, a place where the definitions of basic words, like “ally” and “traitor,” keep changing.

At least one allegation against Mr. Ipek is demonstrably absurd. A judge misconstrued a reference to “smurfs,” a term of art for people who launder tiny amounts of money, in a report by a government investigator. Taking the allusion literally, the judge, in his ruling, wrote that Mr. Ipek and a group of others conspired in “Smurf Village” in Ankara.

“For two years I’ve been trying to prove there is no Smurf Village in Ankara,” Mr. Ipek nearly shouted, “because some idiot mentioned Smurfs in a report.”

‘An Exceptional Person’

A fit-looking 53-year-old, Mr. Ipek speaks English learned, in part, as an undergraduate in Britain. A black belt in taekwondo and formerly an exercise addict, he has given up workouts since moving to London and has a pack-a-day cigarette habit. He shaved off the mustache he long wore in Turkey, an act with political overtones given that mustaches are de rigueur in Mr. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, shortened to A.K.P. in Turkey.

“They copied me,” he said of the A.K.P.’s mustachioed members. “After they saw my mustache, they got jealous and started growing their own.”

He paused a moment, smiled, then added, “That is a joke.”

On some level, it’s not. Mr. Ipek has an ego just healthy enough to believe that he could be a facial-hair trendsetter. He described a luxury hotel he built as “the world’s best hotel” and the oil he discovered in a southeast province as “the best oil in Turkey.” He called Koza Ipek a “perfect company.”

“I’m an exceptional person,” he said, matter of factly.

He is also warm and surprisingly unbowed, given the circumstances. He leads a somewhat monastic life compared with his recent years in Turkey, when he flew on the company’s jet. He doesn’t travel anymore, though he lives comfortably enough in a house owned by his company in central London.

If anyone aided him on his path to riches, he says, it was his father, Ali Ipek, not Mr. Gulen. The elder Mr. Ipek ran a successful greeting card business, with 500 employees and contracts with Hallmark and others. Akin Ipek took over the company when his father died in 1997 and eventually looked for new opportunities with bigger upsides. He bought a silver mine, then a gold mine.

Fethullah Gulen, who has been accused of plotting to overthrow the government in Ankara, at his home in Saylorsburg, Pa., in 2013.

Credit
Selahattin Sevi/Zaman, via Associated Press

It seems like an improbable jump. But when you point that out to Mr. Ipek, he is unfazed. “It was something I could afford,” he said, referring to his first acquisition. “There are a lot of small mines in Turkey. It cost $1 million.”

He went into the media business in 2005, buying the Bugun newspaper. It was a natural step, he said, because environmentalists had raised objections to some of his mining operations and he wanted to get out his side of the story.

“In mining, you need to explain what you are doing, you need to be transparent,” he said. “I thought that instead of spending money on P.R., I would buy a newspaper.”

In 2008, he purchased Kanalturk, his first TV network. As a rising media baron, he was contacted and sometimes summoned by Mr. Erdogan. Twice he asked Mr. Ipek to buy other newspapers, deals that didn’t work out.

“He didn’t mind, he wasn’t angry,” Mr. Ipek recalls. “I liked him very much. I saw him as a very reasonable, very logical person. He was trying to do what was right for the country — trying to join the European Union, talking about human rights.”

In less than 15 years, Mr. Ipek had gone from a greeting card wholesaler to a billionaire tapped for favors by the country’s most powerful leader. It was a dizzyingly fast ride, one he says was engineered by a “100 percent self-made man.”

A Toxic Liability

But there is another version of Mr. Ipek’s life, a counternarrative from people who knew him or followed his career. It starts with an irony: Mr. Ipek’s ascent was made possible by the 2003 election to the prime ministership of the man who would become his nemesis, Mr. Erdogan.

Until then, Turkey had for decades been controlled by a secular elite backed by the military, collectively known as Kemalists. Suddenly, a conservative Muslim was the prime minister, and he badly needed to replace Kemalists with bureaucrats, judges and police officers loyal to the new administration

Mr. Erdogan struck an alliance with Mr. Gulen — then regarded not as a rival but as a conservative Muslim with highly educated acolytes. Gulenists slowly began to take jobs in the government. In effect, a new deep state replaced the old one.

Businessmen in the good graces of the Erdogan-Gulen entente were marked for greatness. Turkey was entering its expansionary era, and those with the right connections prospered. Mr. Ipek appears to have been one of the period’s biggest winners, starting with the 2005 purchase of the Ovacik gold mine.

The mine had been closed by a court decision in 2004, a rare success for Turkey’s environmentalists, who denounced what they considered an excessive use of cyanide in the extraction process. To the chagrin of residents and activists, the mine was reopened not long after Mr. Ipek collected signatures from nearly a dozen ministries, which he did at what one news report called “jet speed.”

A few weeks later, locals and environmental activists were physically attacked by Koza Ipek miners during a protest march. Videotape showed Mr. Ipek at the scene of the assault, and former Koza employees said that he had helped orchestrate the violence. He denies that. A lawsuit against the company went nowhere.

“Although we filed a complaint right after the attack,” said Arif Cangi, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, “prosecutors waited for four and a half years to open the case, and they still haven’t made a decision.”

Only the anointed few, observers say, had this kind of regulatory and legal assistance from the state. And an ambitious executive needed a close relationship with Mr. Gulen, along with a willingness to help underwrite his movement, estimated to be worth at least $15 billion at its peak.

“What I heard from people in business that I know is, ‘Never get in a fight with a Gulenist company,’” said James F. Jeffrey, a former American ambassador to Turkey. “‘They’ll get the case in front of Gulenist judges and you’ll lose no matter what the facts are.’”

Being associated with Mr. Gulen eventually became a toxic liability. By 2009, Mr. Erdogan began to suspect that Mr. Gulen wanted to return and run the country.

Initially, the strongest evidence came from leaked sermons, including one in which Mr. Gulen urged his followers to “move in the veins of the system, without anyone noticing your existence, until you reach all the power centers.” Once ensconced, he went on, wait “until you have brought to your side all the power of the constitutional institutions in Turkey.”

Those closest to Mr. Gulen say these exhortations, and his conniving, were no surprise.

“He is a wolf dressed as Little Red Riding Hood,” said Huseyin Gulerce, a former editor in chief of Zaman, the country’s most prominent Gulenist newspaper. “He is obsessed with the idea that he is going to rule the world.”

Suspicions about Mr. Gulen hardened fatefully when a clique of Gulenist police officers, prosecutors and judges began a series of corruption investigations targeting Erdogan loyalists, culminating in late 2013 with accusations of corruption against Mr. Erdogan’s son. After that, the two forces were openly clashing.

It was soon clear that businessmen had to choose a side. One school of thought has it that when hostilities began, Mr. Ipek’s fortunes were too interlaced with Mr. Gulen’s for him to break free.

“I think of Akin Ipek as one of Gulen’s biggest victims,” Mr. Gulerce said. “He is to be pitied. Gulen used him.”

Mr. Ipek says that’s preposterous. He says that he opened the Ovacik mine through determination and the merits of his arguments. While he acknowledges that he visited Mr. Gulen in the Poconos “fix or six times, maybe,” he forswears any emotional or financial link to the man.

Time and again, he contended that the Gulenists never constituted a deep state. Few who study Turkey believe that, other than Gulenists. And his claim to be merely an admirer of Mr. Gulen’s was undermined in late 2015 when Mr. Gulen was heard in one of his sermons, regularly uploaded to a website, describing Mr. Ipek as “an angel” and one of 1,000 men in Turkey who will enter heaven with no questions asked.

Of course, even if Mr. Ipek was one of Mr. Gulen’s truest believers, taking companies with scant due process would seem to violate most countries’ legal norms. Many inside and outside Turkey believe that Mr. Erdogan has exploited the failed coup as a pretext to expand his power, tossing people in prison or firing them from jobs for sins as minor as keeping money in a Gulen-connected bank. More than 130,000 people have been suspended or dismissed in the past year, and dozens of hospitals have been closed, along with 1,200 schools and 15 universities.

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