Turkey’s business sector hit by scandal fallout

Source: Financial Times

Date:  December 23, 2013

By Dan Dombey in Istanbul

A bank caught up in the widening corruption scandal in Turkey denied on Monday it had broken the law, as shares in companies linked to government opponents plummeted in a sign the political fallout was affecting the country’s divided business sector.

Halkbank, a state-controlled bank whose chief executive was detained pending trial at the weekend, told the Borsa Istanbul stock exchange it complied “fully with national and international regulations in its businesses and transactions”.

Suleyman Aslan, Halkbank chief executive, has said cash at his home – police reportedly found $4.5m in shoeboxes – was for charitable donations.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, prime minister, says the corruption investigation, in which the sons of two cabinet ministers have also been detained, is part of a plot by enemies of Turkey and has threatened to “break the hands” of those responsible. He added at the weekend that Halkbank “scares Turkey’s enemies”.

The launch of the investigation is widely seen within Turkey as a result of the government’s clash with the movement of Fethullah Gulen, a preacher whose followers are particularly influential within the police and prosecution services.

In a sign of the possible economic consequences of that rift, Gulenist-linked companies plunged on Monday.

Bank Asya, an Islamic bank, fell more than 13 per cent on the previous day’s close as of Monday evening. Koza Altin, a gold group owned by prominent sympathisers of Mr Gulen, fell by more than 11 per cent despite issuing a statement emphasising that it did not depend on the government for business or tenders.

Turkish Airlines, 49 per cent-owned by the state, has also halted purchases of Gulenist newspapers, including Zaman, which claims it is Turkey’s biggest circulation paper.

The scandal has exploded at a time when Turkey’s economy was already the subject of unease because of its dependence on short-term capital flows just as the US Federal Reserve is reducing its monetary stimulus. As of Monday evening, the Turkish lira was trading at TL2.096 to the US dollar – near its all-time low.

Government supporters allege Halkbank is being targeted by Turkey’s foes for its part in racking up billions of dollars worth of gold exports to Iran, while pro-government newspapers accuse the US of being behind the investigation – accusations Washington says are wholly unfounded.

The US has sought to halt gold exports to Tehran as part of a sanctions regime aimed at pressuring the government to rein in its disputed nuclear programme.

Halkbank itself has long been in a focus of US scrutiny because of its links to Iran. US officials say that co-operation with the bank, which some see as an extension of Mr Erdogan’s government, has recently improved.

Halkbank’s own statement on Monday emphasised that there was no international or local ban on exporting gold to Iran until July this year, adding that it halted such precious metal transactions as of June. The gold exports had allowed the transfer of funds to Iran, often in return for oil and gas exports to Turkey, without doing business with sanctions-afflicted banks.

Another of the principal focuses of the probe is Reza Zarab, an Azeri-Iranian businessman who allegedly made payments to Turkish ministers and who says he legally exported billions of dollars worth of gold from Turkey. The ministers also say they have done nothing wrong.

Nevertheless, concern about the corruption claims, the government’s subsequent removal of dozens of police officers from the investigation and impact on the economy has been expressed by all three of Turkey’s leading business organisations, Tusiad, Musiad and Tuskon, which are respectively seen as close to Turkey’s old secular elite, Mr Erdogan’s Islamist rooted AK party and the Gulenists.

Turkish businessmen and foreign diplomats have already suggested that some foreign direct investment in Turkey was put on hold after Mr Erdogan’s crackdown on last summer’s mass protests against his rule, because of concerns about political risk and unpredictability.

 

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