Multiple reports out of Turkey in recent months have indicated that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s relatives and business and political associates have acquired properties and secured residence permits in other countries as well as transferring some of their wealth abroad, especially to offshore accounts, as part of escape and contingency plans in the event of electoral defeat on May 14.
Some of the countries identified as refuges for cronies of Erdogan who have enriched themselves through embezzlement, kickbacks, corrupt schemes and organized crime are Greece, Spain, Portugal and Montenegro, which offer residency to attract investors under so-called Golden Visa or Golden Passport programs. Some have moved their family members to the US and have been trying to secure residence permits, while others have made preparations in Qatar, ruled by Erdogan ally the al-Thani family.
To prevent the flight, the Erdogan government reportedly put a secret travel ban in place on some 1,000 people who have been working closely with the regime for years. The Turkish president fears if those people move abroad, they may be amenable to disclosing the dirty dealings they were involved in if they were to come under pressure and create a headache for him and his family. If the word gets out on such an exodus, Erdogan is worried that it may also undermine his re-election campaign and may have repercussions for his regime’s sustainability and future viability if if he wins the elections.
In recent years, many Erdogan supporters have exploited Portugal’s Golden Visa program, putting Turkey in the number three spot among all countries whose nationals sought resident visas, after China and Brazil. The statistics show that 547 Turks obtained residency between 2012 and 2023 in Portugal alone. The number does not include their family members, who were automatically eligible for residence permits.
Similarly in Greece, Turks follows the Chinese in obtaining residency through investment schemes under a similar Golden Visa program. Between 2014 and 2022, 631 Turks became residents according to the Greek Ministry of Migration and Asylum. Although most of these countries have amended their laws and regulations to restrict Golden Visa programs or made it harder for applicants to obtain, efforts to secure such visas from Turkey are reportedly continuing.
Some of the people who were revealed as having made property investments in other countries include Foreign Minister Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, who is alleged to have secret assets in the UK. He owns a luxurious apartment in Camellia House in the Vista Chelsea Bridge complex, valued at nearly 1.5 million pounds.
The revelation was made by Muhammed Yakut, a convicted felon and an organized crime figure who had worked for the Erdogan government and was closely involved with senior government officials in the past. Yakut turned against Erdogan and has started to spill the dirt on him and his associates from exile in Germany after what he described as sustaining economic losses and being wrongfully pushed out of business deals he was involved in. He said Çavuşoğlu obtained the property in the UK courtesy of Metin Güneş, another organized crime figure who also owns a flat in the same luxury compound in London. Çavuşoğlu made Güneş an honorary counsel for Haiti and provided him with diplomatic privileges in exchange for his acquisition of the apartment.
Güneş has also been providing escort women for the foreign minister at the 5-star Le Méridien hotel in Istanbul’s Etiler neighborhood, according to Yakut, who was a close friend of Güneş before the two had a falling out in recent months.
Hakan Fidan, chief of Turkish intelligence agency MIT, is another person who has his escape plan in place according to insiders in the Turkish capital. He fears he would be held to account for the dirty and clandestine work he has done for Erdogan if the government changes and reportedly sent his son Halit Fidan to the US to explore residency options. The Fidan family enriched themselves in Turkey with corrupt schemes, especially by selling products they imported from abroad to MIT in no-contest contracts under shell companies. Fidan and his son were protected from legal troubles by the Erdogan government.
Both father and son were red flagged in a Quds Force terrorism investigation that was launched in 2011 in Istanbul by public prosecutors and continued until February 2014, when Erdogan killed the probe, preventing the case from moving forward to court for indictment and trial. The evidence in the investigation revealed that the Fidans were in close contact with Hüseyin Avni Yazıcıoğlu, a known Iranian asset in Turkey who was convicted and served time for ties to the Quds Force in the past. The probe showed that Yazıcıoğlu’s son Seccat Yazıcıoğlu often talked to Halit on the phone and visited the intelligence chief’s secure house on the MIT headquarters compound many times. Police investigators were running surveillance on Yazıcıoğlu, wiretapping his phone and mapping out his network in Turkey to launch a crackdown on Quds Force cells.
Former prime minister Binali Yıldırım, a close confidant of President Erdogan, and his sons Erkam Yıldırım and Bülent Yıldırım, have multiple companies abroad, especially in Malta and the Netherlands, with a focus on the shipping industry, with some registered as offshore companies. Two of these firms in Malta — Black Eagle Marine Co. and Black Eagle Marine Co. Ltd. – were shut down in 2019 after they were exposed by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) in 2017.
How many companies and ships the family owns and controls directly or indirectly is not known. A parliamentary question in 2016 stated that the family owned 30 ships. The value of a single company the family owns in the Netherlands is estimated to be $26 billion, according to opposition lawmaker Hüsnü Bozkurt. The parliamentary questions directed to then-prime minister Yıldırım about his controversial commercial interests were left unanswered.
What is more, the family’s fleet is reportedly used for the trafficking of drugs from Latin America to Europe and the Middle East with the help of Erkam Yıldırım, according to Canadian-based Turkish journalist Said Sefa, who said he obtained information from confidential sources within the Turkish government. Erkam, himself a drug addict according to revelations made by Yakut last week, was spotted in Venezuela in December 2020 embedded within the official Turkish delegation although he had no official position in the government. It was claimed that he went to Caracas to find a new route after Columbian authorities seized 4.9 tons of drugs headed for Turkey in June 2020.
The family members have billions of dollars in wealth stashed abroad and maintain residency in foreign countries, ready to flee Turkey if Erdogan is ousted from power in the elections.
A senior figure from Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) who obtained residency abroad is Zehra Taşkesenlioğlu, who moved some of her assets to Greece, where she bought property. Taşkesenlioğlu is alleged to have pocketed millions of Turkish lira from a fraud scheme involving Borsa Istanbul, the Turkish stock exchange, in conspiracy with her brother, former Capital Markets Board (SPK) chair Ali Fuat Taşkesenlioğlu, and Serkan Taranoğlu, Erdogan’s former advisor.
Sedat Peker, a mobster who used to work with Erdogan in the past, last year revealed a network of bribery and corruption at Turkey’s stock exchange and exposed how the Taşkesenlioğlu siblings enriched themselves. Peker said the Taşkesenlioğlu family demanded a bribe of 12 million lira ($658,000) from Mine Tozlu Sineren, the owner of Marka Investment Holding, for processing her company’s request to issue new shares through increasing capital. Sineren corroborated Peker’s allegations in a live broadcast and said no action has been taken by the authorities despite her complaints.
In August 2022 Ünsal Ban, the former husband of Taşkesenlioğlu, was detained by police as he tried to escape to Greece in a speedboat. His departure from Turkey could risk exposing Erdogan’s corrupt practices, and detention was the only way to keep him in Turkey. Ban was released from detention to house arrest in February 2023.
It is not clear how much Erdogan’s attempts to stop his cronies from fleeing abroad will help. But surely the Turkish president does not want to see a repeat of the saga of Reza Zarrab, an Iranian operative who laundered Iranian state funds by bribing Turkish officials including Erdogan himself. Zarrab turned against Erdogan after his arrest by the FBI in March 2016 and pleaded guilty in 2017 following his indictment by US federal prosecutors. He testified as a government witness in federal court in New York, providing damning evidence of Erdogan’s involvement in money laundering on behalf of Iran and explaining how he tapped Turkish banks to evade sanctions on Iran with the help of the Turkish government.
The evidence that such a blacklist for 1,000 people exists was partly verified last week by Mehmet Hakan Atilla, a former deputy manager of state lender Halkbank who was convicted and served time in the US for violating US laws, specifically on Iran sanctions. Atilla was sent to Turkey on July 23, 2019 by US authorities after completing his 28-month prison sentence. He was hailed as a hero by Erdogan government officials who later appointed him as head of Borsa Istanbul as a reward for not cracking during his trial. He resigned from his position at the stock exchange on March 8, 2021.
On May 1, 2023 Atilla was detained by the police at the airport while he was heading to Turkish Cyprus for a vacation with his family. His passport was seized, and he was notified that he was prohibited from leaving the country. The travel ban, imposed the day he resigned from Borsa Istanbul, appeared to be a preemptive move by the Erdogan government to prevent him from fleeing the country in case he decides to spill the beans on the Erdogan regime. Atilla previously said the passport of his wife, who wanted to visit him while he was in prison in the US, was canceled and that a travel ban was imposed on her, a clear message that his family in Turkey would be in trouble if he testified against the bank and the Erdogan family during his trial.
The bombshell revelations made last week by Ali Yeşildağ, a former confidant of Erdogan who disclosed how the corrupt network put billions of dollars into the president’s pocket, suggests Erdogan’s fears are well-grounded. Yeşildağ recorded a series of videos and shared them with German-based investigative journalist Cevheri Güven for publication where he revealed bribes and kickbacks in government tenders he was personally involved in manipulating in cooperation with Erdogan government officials.
Yeşildağ and his two brothers — Hasan Yeşildağ and Zeki Yeşildağ – are known as money men who manage Erdogan’s secret wealth stashed in various front companies around the world. The family has been working with Erdogan since the 1990s, when Erdogan served as mayor of Istanbul and was indicted on misappropriating municipal funds. Yeşildağ was disowned by his family after he started sharing information on Erdogan’s wealth.
In the meantime, some businesspeople and politicians who are affiliated with Erdogan and have yet to obtain residency abroad are using tourist visas to take their families outside Turkey before the elections as a back-up plan. They will make a decision whether to bring their families back to Turkey based on the election results. The opposition vows to launch investigations into the corrupt practices of the Erdogan government and punish all who conspired to steal state funds and taxpayers’ money by engaging in corrupt schemes.