Turkish Leaders Resign In Anti-Graft Probe, Erdogan Claims Conspiracy

Three government ministers in Turkey have resigned in a corruption scandal. Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has denounced the anti-graft investigation as part of an international conspiracy. For more on the political developments, Robert Siegel speaks with Turkish columnist and television commentator Astli Aydintasbas.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The current political developments in Turkey are worthy of a novelist's imagination, and probably a novelist who's willing to strain credulity. The Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, shook up his cabinet today, replacing 10 ministers. The move comes after several of his ministers resigned over a graft inquiry.

Erdogan has denounced the investigation that led to those resignations as part of an international conspiracy. And one figure Erdogan seems to hold responsible is a former supporter of his, a Turkish emigre religious leader who lives in a compound in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania.

Joining me to sort this out is Turkish newspaper columnist and commentator Asli Aydintasbas. And, Asli, how big is this anti-graft investigation in Turkey?

ASLI AYDINTASBAS: It's huge. We're talking about millions of dollars, potentially up to billions. Two-tier investigation, money laundering using a state bank and illicit gold trade with Iran. The allegation is that several ministers were paid off and some major Turkish banks were involved. The second part of the investigation is real estate construction and various people being paid off for construction permits.

SIEGEL: In the past, you've talked with us about investigations of journalists who've been suspected of plotting coups against the government. How rare is an investigation into government corruption?

AYDINTASBAS: It's very rare. One of the problems of Turkish media is it's quite open to influence by this government. And really, we never have corruption stories - almost never. Part of the reason is usually newspapers are too afraid and bureaucrats are too afraid to leak any stories. So this investigation was not started by news reports but by prosecutors.

SIEGEL: Now, this investigation has claimed some of Prime Minister Erdogan's cabinet. But even by that standard, his language about it seems to be very harsh. What's his complaint here?

AYDINTASBAS: Erdogan is using very strange language. He's basically saying this is an international conspiracy, there's agents inside, there's media, there's foreign powers, they're trying to destroy the success of one of Turkey's state banks and also the Turkish economy. But there's also another claim he's making, which is at the heart of all this power struggle, which is he says that there's a state within a state. And by that, he's referring to a group of judiciary and police officers who are followers of Fethullah Gulen.

SIEGEL: Fethullah Gulen, you have to explain now. This is an Islamist scholar, moderate Islamist - I gather a Sufi - who lives in, of all places, the Poconos.

(LAUGHTER)

AYDINTASBAS: Exactly. He had to flee Turkey at some point because he was subject to many investigations that were led by the military back in the '90s. And then he's obtained an enormous amount of power within the bureaucracy. He has huge followers. It's very interesting because he's clearly a moderate Islamist and Erdogan government has made quite a strong pact with him over the past couple of years. But today, the alliance seemed to have broken down.

SIEGEL: What you're saying is that Fethullah Gulen and Erdogan, until pretty recently, were seen as - in the very complex world that is Turkish politics - being roughly allied, being on the same side. Now there's a very public split.

AYDINTASBAS: They were very close. They were allies. And the government was very proud of the work of these very prosecutors and police that they are blaming of staging some sort of a coup today.

SIEGEL: Prime Minister Erdogan, at least until a year or two ago, was seen as a remarkably successful politician in Turkey. Is his position in jeopardy here?

AYDINTASBAS: Erdogan is an extremely competent politician. Not only that, he's got the numbers on his side. He's, by far, I think, the top vote getter - still despite the corruption scandal. He might call for early elections, it's too early to say.

SIEGEL: Asli Aydintasbas is a columnist for the Turkish newspaper, Milliyet. She spoke to us from Istanbul.

Thanks again for talking with us.

AYDINTASBAS: Thank you.

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