‘Deterioration in terms of corruption has been evident in our reports’

Multiple bribery allegations surfacing over the past week involving senior Turkish and Turkish Cypriot officials have shaken the northern part of Cyprus and raised important concerns about the prevalence of corruption.

The first, which may indicate connections between politicians and mafia, involves former Turkish Vice President Fuat Oktay. Voice recordings published by Turkish investigative journalist in exile Cevheri Guven suggest that Oktay received $50 million (about €45 million) in bribes from the wife of gunned-down Turkish Cypriot mafia boss Halil Falyali.

According to the audio published on YouTube, Turkish Cypriot leader Ersin Tatar acted as a mediator along with a Turkish journalist Alihan Pehlivan in organising and coordinating the bribery.

The voice in the damning audio allegedly belongs to Falyali’s former accountant and close associate Cemil Onal, who is heard saying the bribe was paid “in exchange for not confiscating the Falyali family’s assets in Turkey and to end all investigations against them.”

Onal was recently arrested in the Netherlands in connection with Falyali’s murder and is currently in a Dutch prison, where he allegedly made the recordings. Guven claims that Oktay was replaced as Turkish vice president because word about the bribery got out.

Oktay, who at the time was also the Turkish minister responsible for Cyprus affairs, Tatar and Pehlivan have denied the allegations while Falyali’s wife Ozge has remained silent.

feature esra turkish cypriot leader ersin tatar

Turkish Cypriots leader Ersin Tatar

Hotelier, betting and casino tycoon Falyali was gunned down in February 2022 in a gangland-style execution involving Kalashnikovs and A47s while being driven home. His funeral was attended by high-ranking Turkish Cypriot politicians including Tatar.

Falyali, who was known as the main sponsor of the campaigns of Tatar’s National Unity Party UBP, faced criminal charges in the United States for money laundering. A 2015 US court affidavit said he rans“a large-scale drug and weapons trafficking organisation” in northern Cyprus and was “known to be associated with Turkish organised crime”.

In the same YouTube broadcast, Guven said Turkey has turned the northern part of Cyprus into a “crime heaven” and therefore, does not want a solution on the island or international recognition of the breakaway Turkish Cypriot state.

He also said this is why Oktay and other Turkish politicians intervened in the elections for the Turkish Cypriot leader in the north in 2020 in favour of Tatar.

“They clambered on [north] Cyprus, they literally staged a coup d’etat in the elections,” he asserted. “They got the man they wanted elected so that this… network of crime becomes stronger in [north] Cyprus; so that [north] Cyprus turns into a crime heaven for them; and so that they can fill their pockets… It has come to such a point that they don’t want [north] Cyprus to be recognised by the world or a solution there. They have themselves a grey area that is not recognised by anyone… and turned [it] into a crime heaven.”

Turkey’s interference in the 2020 elections was documented in an investigative report, which revealed shocking details of threats, pressures and blackmail against the incumbent leader Mustafa Akinci, as well as other candidates and journalists.

In a further bribery revelation in less than a week, a Turkish Cypriot businessman alleged on a live TV show that officials of the ruling right-wing coalition demanded a bribe in exchange for granting him a loan from the Development Bank.

Businessman Redif Nurel said Fikri Ataoglu, who is responsible for the tourism dossier in the north, and Hasan Tosunoglu, the then-chairman of the Development Bank demanded a bribe of 2.5 million Turkish Lira (about €77,000).

Nurel said he refused to pay the bribe and therefore never got his loan request approved.

Nurel also said that foreigners can “buy” Turkish Cypriot citizenship for 30,000 GPB (about €35,000).

Ataoglu and Tosunoglu filed a complaint with the police over the allegations.

These revelations “do not surprise me at all,” said Turkish Cypriot academic Sertac Sonan, who, with his colleague Omer Gokcekus, has been conducting annual studies on corruption in the north.

“The deterioration in terms of corruption has been evident in our reports,” Sonan told the Cyprus Mail. And it has got worse in the last three years, he said.

According to Sonan and Gokcekus’ latest study published in March and based on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) methodology, the corruption perception score for the north for 2022, is 27 out of 100 (where zero indicates very high corruption and 100 no corruption). The north’s score was 40 when the academics first conducted the study in 2019.

“I am afraid there is a worsening trend,” added Sonan. These developments “demonstrate that we, as a society, are headed downhill.”

The score of 27 is far below the average score of 43 in 180 countries and places the north in the 140th position on the index along with Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan and Cameroon. The 2022 corruption perception score of Turkey is 36, placing it in 101st position, while that of the Republic of Cyprus is 52, placing it at 51.

According to the 2022 study, 40 per cent of the business executives interviewed resorted to bribery in the past year. Seventy-two per cent of the 350 interviewed said bribery and corruption was ‘very common’. Bribery was found to be most rampant among the ‘prime minister’ and ‘ministers’.

“Turkish Cypriots have gone through bad times but in terms of good governance, I don’t think we have seen worse,” Sonan said.

He added that the worsening trend over the past years has a lot to do with the current Turkish Cypriot right-wing coalition, which has very close ties with Ankara, seeing themselves as “irreplaceable.”

“They believe they will never be held accountable,” the academic said. “And this makes them more daring in putting their own personal interests in front of those of society.”