Perpetual Entropy: Turkey, Gangsters, and the Failed Promises of Development

By THO Nonresident Fellow, Joseph Lombardo

In the 1970s, the late Turkish Prime Minister Bülent Ecevit addressed a crowd in the country’s East, reassuring his fellow countrymen that the political status quo was to take a bold new direction. Speaking to a largely Kurdish audience, Ecevit asserted that he would “unmask the counter-guerilla movement” which had become a growing source of domestic terrorism in the republic. Throughout the 1970s and into the 1990s, a spike in extremist right-wing groups formed to aggressively check the influence and activities of their pro-Soviet counterparts. From the Contras of Nicaragua to the Golpe Borghese in Italy, organizations like these led brutal campaigns of public terrorism across cafes and banks across the Western Bloc nations and their satellites. In Turkey, these groups went under the nomenclature of the counter-guerillas, of which the notorious Grey Wolves stood out as the most vicious. Alongside the Grey Wolves were the Turkish mafia, and the two often shared joint memberships. Another facet which is sometimes associated with the far-right is the Islamists, which imbued the Grey Wolves with a religious tinge to their ideology. This can be seen in their popular slogan, “Our bodies are Turkic, our souls are Islamic” which is echoed the guiding ideology of the Turkey’s putschists of the 1980 Coup d’Etat, known as the Turkish-Islamic Synthesis. Today, their elements and ideas still remain powerful political players in parliament as well as in the streets. What is often missing in this narrative of extremism is the failure of development.

In the world of policymakers, however, scant attention is paid which considers the role of the far-right activities as maintainers of the Turkey’s economic development. On a macro level, the United States has promoted certain forms of development that often misses the unintended consequences of social and political instability of a target country. Indeed during the Cold War, American-allied states in Europe and across the Global South faced threatening challenges not just from a looming Soviet empire, but also the far-right. NATO’s Operation Gladio and US General Alexander Haig’s Green Belt Strategy all sought to agitate nascent Islamist sympathies across the Turkic world, much of which was under the control of the Soviets. Operation Gladio was a clandestine program that trained and armed paramilitary groups in Turkey to combat the left in Turkey and Europe, in fear that the Warsaw Pact nations would invade in a moment’s notice. They conducted illicit military operations which became so notorious that in the early half of the 1990s, forced the European Parliament to open up an investigation of their activities throughout the Cold War. The Grey Wolves were thought to have a strong relationship with the program. Here, I want to stress neither their strategy nor their ideology, but the role they played in essentially “cleaning up” the growing dissidents of Turkish developmental policy. Prime Minister Ecevit was among the few voices in Turkey which not only saw them as a real threat to Turkish democracy, and understood that the development projects popular under his predecessors like the center-right administration of Süleyman Demirel, were part of the growing political tensions between left and right.

The Susurluk Scandal was arguably the most damning feature of what Ecevit and his allies saw as the collusion between the state, the far-right, and the mafia. In 1996, a car crash in a small town in northwestern Turkey called Susurluk unveiled the growing political entropy the country had found itself in, when the victims of the crash were revealed to a high-ranking Istanbul police officer, a right-wing Parliamentarian, and the head of the Grey Wolves. The connection between all three men confirmed what the far left and left-leaning Republicans had understood for decades—that fascists, the police, and the political establishment were all in league with each other.

What does this have to do with development? These growing tensions were the result of projects which started in the 1950s under the deposed Prime Minister, Adnan Menderes. Black-top roads, extended railways, and ultimately an eye for dams in the country’s river-rich Eastern provinces were slated by the administration to rectify the uneven development which had characterized the socio-economic divisions between the impoverished East and the wealthier West. As farmers from the East began to seek out their fortunes in cities like Istanbul, Izmir, and Ankara, a demographic shift occurred wherein mass unemployment, shanty towns known as gecekondu all became permanent features in the major cities of the West. Along with that, the workers’ movement, the far left and far right sparred over fealty from the masses. Menderes, who looked to the United States as a potential economic model, firmly yoked Turkey to the NATO alliance, vowing to remake the country into a “Little America”. When the US Navy’s 6th Fleet would come to dock in Istanbul, they were increasingly met by protesting left-wing students, and at one point, several had managed to throw a few of the sailors into the Bosporus. The devout members of proto-Islamist Democrat Party would leave the mosques of the city after prayers to beat down the students. In contrary to today, where hardly any right-wing Turkish party would be caught dead defending American interests, let alone a member of its military, the 1950s and into the 1960s (prior to Menderes’ deposition via lynching) saw the hopes of a nascent American program of globalized development that would vault their country into the rest of the first world. 

The American landscape for development was close to two-hundred years in the making:  the indigenous communities had already been routed and pushed onto reservations in the creation of dams and hydroelectric facilities. In comparison to Turkey’s own “West”—Eastern Anatolia—was already settled by Turkish citizens, along with established trading routes which had their roots even prior to the Ottomans. Rich, fertile valleys like the Altınova and Uluova were used to supply the rest of the East and beyond with produce and dairy products.

The problem, however, was that these communities in such areas would ultimately end up in the path of controlled flooding or cachement areas used as part of Ankara’s plan for hydroelectric development. Even as early as the 1930s, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk had envisioned what he called a “Lake of Humanity” spurred by damming these rivers for the greater economic benefit not just of Eastern Anatolia, but also Western. The US, with its Boulder Dam and the Tennessee Valley Authority, was eager to export its engineering plans and political designs, modeled as they were, after the sparsely-populated West and impoverished South. This ultimately led to the creation not only of the State Water Works but also of the Directorate General of Migration Management, tasked with relocating tens and thousands of farmers and sharecroppers in the East who “stood” in the way of the future Keban and Atatürk Dams. The result was less-than optimal:  villagers, who only had a tenuous grasp of the modernist visions of Ankara, were unceremoniously transported across Turkey and into pronvicial cities like Elazığ, where few found success in occupations other than working the land. As a result, the urban centers of the East were flooded with Alevi and Kurdish peasants. Their skills did not translate well into the local economies and the harshness and confinement of city life, and so they became destitute and impoverished. Street violence and crime became more common, which contirbuted to the popularity of the MHP, who blamed the newcomers for the rise in crime and low-level gangs. This was a phenomenon that became typical across Eastern Anatolia, as development projects spread throughout the region.

The promises of US development left the region embittered. Strike waves, sabotage, shootings, and structural discrimination at the level of school and the civil service in the East would ultimately be stamped as a de facto war between the Grey Wolves and mafia on one side, and the labor militants and the emerging Kurdistan Workers’ Pary on the other. Even the Islamists, which were an off-shoot of disaffected center-right Justice Party led by a former engineer, Süleyman Demirel, grew critical of Ankara’s path to economic prosperity, and prosed alternative plans of development along “Islamic” lines. What both the Islamist critics as well as what the left has been stating for decades, is that a vast, corrupt system of patronage has grown alongside these large-scale megaprojects from the 1960s onward.

One of the more concrete manifestations of Demirel’s unofficial system of patronage was attempting to encourage Justice Party-formation in regions that were in dire need of infrastructure and development. This form of political favoritism, in which votes equated government benefits from development projects, was no secret in Turkish political life. Demirel’s famous quip, “I give it, so what?” reflects the kind of tacit acceptance of corruption involving the state and local party apparatchiks that continues well into today. Beginning in the 1970s, however, conservative Islamists within the Justice Party grew weary not just of the corruption, but of the very path Turkish national development was headed. Necmettin Erbakan, was one such engineer and Justice Party member, who envisioned a different sort of program germinating from his own concept of Milli Görüş or the National View. The National View was a tacit acknowledgement that Turkey’s secular path both political and economically, was alienating the Anatolian Turk, or the Turkish citizen from the country’s cultural and geographic heartland. Erbakan, like Demirel, was an engineer by training, and envisioned a Turkey in which state-directed refahlık or “welfare-ism” could be guided along Islamic principles—a decisive turn away from the Western Bloc and especially the United States. Among the Justice Party’s Islamist defectors, who reorganized twice, first under the National Order Party, which was later banned during the 1971 coup d’état, and then the slightly-longer tenure of the National Salvation Party, Demirel was already seen as Amerika’nın adamı or “America’s Man.” Prior to taking office, Demirel had been an employee of Morrison-Knudsen, a now-defunct US engineering conglomerate.

Yet within the political vortex of the 1970s, a growing underworld of organized criminal activities began to surface from among the very masses both Demirel and Erbakan were attempting to absorb into right-wing party politics:  the Turkish mafia. Bekir Celenk, a small business owner who began to smuggle guns and drugs, established himself as a kingpin in Turkey and to a lesser extent, the European mainland. Along with mobster hitman, Mehmet Ali Ağca, both men had ties to the Gray Wolves and other Turkish right-wing groups in Germany, the notoriety coming to a head internationally with the failed plot to assassinate the late Pope John Paul II. Smuggling rings, however, were nothing new in Turkey. In files I’ve found in the Department of State Archives in College Park, Maryland, there is some evidence to suggest by the 1950s a black market was flourishing in Turkey, where an illict trade of construction materials was flowing back and forth between the country and its Eastern Bloc neighbors. Ankara’s position as a NATO ally may have sealed its military ventures to the West, but politically and economically, the country whose geography lay directly underneath the Soviet Union, had to a certain extent, “play ball” with the Communist East.

While it remains to be proven whether or not the existing trading routes by illicit groups and the Turkish mafia had any ties formally to the Demirel administration, the burgeoning cases of graft and government malfeasance under Demirel were certainly less-than private affairs. The Turkish mafia’s ties to the Gray Wolves, however, is indisputable. The far-right in Turkey and the left were always trying to recruit the socially-alienated masses of Anatolia peasants and tradesmen whose livelihoods were upended by US and European-backed engineering programs. As the ranks of the left and right began to penetrate into this ostracized demographics, a de facto civil war would erupt by the 1970s, plunging Turkey into turmoil. The Turkish military eventually stepped in, led by a putschist general, Kenan Evren, decidedly ending the ongoing street fights and assassinations between the left and the right. The 1980 coup d’etat was thought to have been paritally-orchestrated by the CIA, memorialized in such phrases like “Our boys did it!” by then-CIA station chief of Ankara, Paul Henze. As a result of the coup, the Turksih left’s presence in government, schools, and in the streets was nearly eradicated from Turkish political life. And while the far-right was also a target, it suffered nowhere near the level of persecution; in some ways offering organizations like the Gray Wolves a period of gestation. It is within this context that the term derin devlet or “deep state” arose in public life in Turkey, becoming more of a political reality than conspiracy as the details of the Susurluk incident emerged in full view. 

It is worth considering the role of the far-right and mafia in Turkey plays in the country’s historical record of development and in particular, the implications of US foreign aid and policy in the region. In many policy circles in Washington and abroad, the de-coupling of criminal enterprises and host countries ultimately obscures the relationship of development and crime. Haig’s Greenbelt Strategy, NATO’s Operation Gladio, and Paul Henze’s alleged role in the 1980 coup span nearly three decades of US policy in Turkey, among which foreign aid was at its height. This is not a coincidence. US developmental and military policy was existentially bound-up in combatting Soviet influence by any means necessary. Prime Minister Ecevit knew that projects like the Keban Dam and others were not only financially costly, but were also exacerbating previously-quieted political and social tensions in the country’s East. Unfortunately, his vow to “unmask” the far-right was left as fruit rotting at the foot of the tree.

 And this rot continues to spread in the latest scandal unveiled by Sedat Peker. Peker is a convicted mafia leader whose whereabouts point to Dubai, just out of reach from law enforcement in Ankara. In a series of YouTube fireside chats, Peker lavishes his audiences with damning claims of political malfeasance and corruption, often lampooning certain bureaucrats and politicians. Peker has mainly set his site on Turkey’s beleaguered interior minister, Süleyman Soylu, of being involved in a drug-trafficking racket as well as extortion rings. What is particularly interesting about Peker is that only a few years ago, he was a staunch, public supporter of Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party, and his list of crimes on behalf of the right are only beginning to surface. In spite of this unfolding scandal, it would be naïve to suggest that Turkey has somehow lost its faith in institutions when this collapse of faith was already decades in the making. 

As Peker’s revelations continue to spill into the public discourse in Turkey, they will be more or less met with a mixture of shock and the more tempered, cynical attitude captured in the phrase, Evet, öyle işte—“Yup, that’s how it is.” Peker, in other words, is just the obvious symptom and the attention paid to the seemingly endless scandals emanating from Ankara. It is unlikely that these will change the political atmosphere existing in Turkey. Where analysis has to start and ultimately end is the nature of development which breeds opportunities by such figures like Peker, positioned at the latest juncture of political strife and a precarious economic future.

Much like the debate carried in the aftermath of September 11th by US historian Chalmers Johnson in his work, Blowback:  The Cost and Consequence of American Empire or international relations experts John J. Mearsheim and Stephen M. Walts’ The Israeli Lobby and US Foreign Policy, policymakers should give due consideration to the historical record. While it may seem like a far stretch to factor into the equation US development policy, which includes NATO into the domestic failures of Turkey, some semblance of ownership ought to at least be acknowledged if an actual change of the relationship between the US and Turkey can proceed on a more honest footing. If Washington is genuinely honest that it safeguards and promotes democratic wellbeing the world over, and indeed the only global power to boast of such an agenda, then admission of previous oversight is nothing short of a boon to redress longstanding grievances. Otherwise, the US risks its ability to project soft power and influence, which as of late appears to be in short reserve.