[OPINION] Carl Bildt’s love affair with Turkey’s dictator

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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (R) neets Sweden's former Prime Minister and Co-Chair of the European Council on Foreign Relations Carl Bildt (L) at the Presidential Complex in Ankara, Turkey on May 23, 2017. Kayhan Ozer / Anadolu Agency

Abdullah Bozkurt

The fallout from the damaging revelations made by former national security adviser Michael Flynn as part of an investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller into Russian meddling in the US elections may very well hit Sweden’s former foreign minister, Carl Bildt, who has mysteriously maintained a soft spot for Turkey’s dictator, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

It has always baffled me to see Bildt acting as an apologist for a man who has locked up over 250 journalists, a world record by any measure, and jailed over 50,000 people including judges, lawyers, teachers, doctors and union workers on dubious charges in the last year alone. It was quite a contrast to hear Erdoğan utter Bildt’s name favorably at public rallies on the campaign trail for a referendum to amass more power for his office when he was calling the German, Austrian and Dutch leadership Nazis, fascists, terrorists, enemies of Islam and crusaders, among other vile remarks. For some reason Bildt gained the trust of Europe’s autocrat, who was mentioning his name as a seal of approval and legitimacy for what he does while going crazy bashing, bullying and slamming other European leaders, from the center-right to social democrat parties, who criticized Turkey on rights violations.

Of course, like many who have watched Bildt for years, I have not been spared from hearing several rumors about him in Stockholm, such as speculation that the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), a think tank that was led by Bildt among others, is supported by the government of President Erdoğan including perhaps receiving funding, albeit indirectly. Several people whispered that Bildt may have investments, assets and corporate interests in Turkey and that the former prime minister may just be appeasing Erdoğan to keep his perks and receive some favors. At this point, this is mere speculation as there has not been any hard evidence to prove any of these rumors are true. But the chatter about this is not fading away and is actually circulated more every time he signs an op-ed piece that is seen as not very critical of Erdoğan but rather appeasing his one-man rule in a nation of 80 million.

However, the Flynn affair in the US has uncovered something quite scandalous that may create a headache for Bildt’s EFCR. The former national security adviser admitted that he made “materially false statements and omissions” to the US Justice Department about his work in 2016 for the Turkish government, according to court filings submitted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team on Dec. 1, 2017. In addition to pleading guilty in federal court to lying to the FBI about his conversations last year with Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador, Flynn also acknowledged that he made false statements in his foreign agent registration filings submitted to the Justice Department on March 7, 2017 with respect to his dealings with the Turkish government.

As Mueller’s prosecutors investigated Flynn’s contacts and dealings with Turkish government proxies further, apparently more dirt was uncovered, compelling Flynn to admit lying to FBI investigators about a $600,000 contract in August 2016, while Flynn was advising Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. He initially claimed that the contract was about improving US-Turkish business relations and that he was hired by Turkish businessman Ekim Alptekin to investigate Fethullah Gülen, Erdoğan’s chief critic on pervasive corruption in the government and the Turkish Islamist rulers’ aiding and abetting of armed jihadist groups in Syria. Flynn is now cutting a deal with prosecutors to save himself and admitting that some of his prior disclosures were in fact false.

In the statement of offenses, signed by Mueller’s senior assistant special counsels Brandon L. Van Grack and Zainab N. Ahmad, it was noted that Flynn falsely stated that he wrote on his own initiative an op-ed piece that was published in The Hill on Nov. 8, 2016 and smeared Gülen. Alptekin, who used his Dutch shell company Inovo BV to hire the services of Flynn, reviewed the article before it was published, suggesting that the article was approved by proxies of Erdoğan. Let’s remember that Flynn was delivering a speech in Cleveland at an event organized by anti-Muslim group ACT for America at just about the time the the coup attempt started to get coverage in the media, on July 15, 2016. He mentioned reports about the coup and said the Turkish military as a secular institution aimed to prevent the country from steering “toward Islamism” under Erdoğan. He did not realize this was Erdoğan’s own plot to justify mass purges of pro-NATO and pro-Western officers from the military and replace them with pro-Russian, Islamist and neo-nationalist cadres. Flynn’s hailing of the coup got applause from the audience, saying “Yeah, that is worth applauding.”

Therefore, it was surprising to see an article in The Hill by Flynn — after endorsing the removal of Erdoğan through military means –arguing for stronger engagement with Turkey’s Islamist president while rehashing decades-old slanderous claims about Erdoğan critic Gülen. The lucrative propaganda contract worth hundreds of thousands of dollars with Flynn, who has described Islam as a “cancer” and claimed that “fear of Muslims is rational,” led the retired general to simply ignore Erdoğan’s Islamist credentials. Apparently, there was much more money for Flynn where that came from according to a The Wall Street Journal story published Nov. 10. 2017. The article stated that Mueller has been probing Flynn’s secret meeting with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and Energy Minister Berat Albayrak, Erdoğan’s son-in-law, on Sept. 19, 2016 in New York where they discussed kidnapping Gülen from US soil. Former CIA director James Woolsey, who also joined the meeting later, publicly disclosed the illegal abduction plan in an exclusive interview with the Journal in March 2017. The Journal recently reported that Flynn was offered up to $15 million to help remove Gülen under such a scheme. The September 2016 meeting was arranged by Alptekin, according to a story in The New Yorker published on March 16, 2017.

Here is the kicker for Swedish politician Bildt and his EFCR. Alptekin, a man sitting in the middle of this major conspiracy in the US, is listed as member of the ECFR Council. What is more, Asli Aydintasbas, his ex-wife, has been working as a senior policy fellow at the ECFR for some time. The poor analyses of Turkey that were published by the ECFR, some of which were penned by Aydintasbas, have a clear bias against Erdoğan’s vocal critic, Gülen. When the trial of the US-indicted senior executive of Turkey’s state-owned Halkbank, Mehmet Hakan Atilla, started in New York in late November in federal court with Iranian sanction buster Reza Zarrab revealing how he bribed senior government officials and bankers with the approval of Erdoğan, Aydıntaşbaş tweeted that she was concerned about the case. She had to delete her posting after a flurry of reactions on why she was concerned about corrupt politicians who took millions of dollars from a wealthy gold trader while laundering Iranian money through Turkish banks. The scheme did not benefit the Turkish economy at all but rather fattened the pockets of corrupt politicians.

In his own articles that somewhat resemble Flynn’s paid op-ed piece in The Hill, Bildt repeatedly claimed that Gülen was behind the failed coup in Turkey when there was no evidence to suggest that was the case and US officials publicly declared that the Turkish government had failed to provide any evidence to warrant Gülen’s extradition from the US on charges of coup involvement. “When I saw the coup attempt on television, the first suspect that came to my mind regarding who could have done this was Gülen. Developments since that day have clearly revealed that Gülen and the organization he leads were at the center of this attempt,” Bildt was quoted as saying by Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency, an agency that is on par with Russia Today in its anti-Western editorial line. In fact Anadolu even published an infographic on how Turkey’s purchase of S-400 Russian missiles could bring down NATO military combat aircraft as if Turkey were not a NATO ally.

Who knows, perhaps Bildt has a highly developed sixth sense. Just by looking at a TV screen, he immediately identified the masterminds of what Swedish journalist Anders Lindberg said resembled Hitler’s false flag Reichstag fire in his column published in Aftonbladet on March 15, 2017. It is like Erdoğan calling the coup a blessing from God in his first televised speech to the nation as the coup was supposedly still under way. Erdoğan used the coup bid as a pretext to railroad critics including the Kurdish political movement and the Gülen movement, shutter 180 media outlets, declare one-third of some 1,200 Turkish diplomats and almost 30 percent of all 12,000 judges and prosecutors terrorists overnight without any effective administrative or judicial probe. In the meantime, Bildt has been busy generating excuses for the Erdoğan regime.

Another name that appears on the ECFR’s Council is İbrahim Kalın, an Islamist figure and spokesperson for Turkish President Erdoğan. He and others have been running the Erdoğan troll army on social media with masked and anonymous accounts to smear Erdoğan’s critics, according to confidential wiretap records that were obtained under court authorization. Kalın is also the man who coordinated a clandestine campaign exporting Erdoğan’s political Islamist ideology abroad to mobilize Turkish and Muslim diaspora groups. I was told by a very reliable source that Kalın was the point man who was privately meeting with Mehmet Kaplan, Sweden’s former minister for housing and urban development who resigned in March 2016 amid claims of links to extremist groups when Kaplan was visiting Turkey.

The third name on the ECFR’s Council is Ahmet Davutoğlu, former foreign minister and prime minister of Turkey who was the architect of Turkish policy on Syria which armed, funded and provided logistical supplies to jihadists to topple Bashar al-Assad. Davutoğlu, who provided excuses for the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) militancy in the region, shockingly admitted in a TV interview on Oct. 12, 2015 that ISIL suspects are noted in government records but that legal action cannot be taken until the commission of a criminal act. His remarks came two days after the deadliest terror attack that has ever taken place in Turkey, which killed 107 people when two suicide bombers targeted NGOs and supporters of left-wing and pro-Kurdish parties holding a peace rally outside the Turkish capital’s main train station, just weeks ahead of the Nov. 1, 2015 snap elections. The government knew the killers and was tracking and monitoring them. Yet no action was taken to prevent the bloodshed. Adding insult to injury, nine days after this terrible attack Davutoğlu was boasting how his party’s popularity had increased in a recent poll. No wonder his government failed to pick up the suicide bombers before they blew themselves up, killing so many.

Bildt has been among the few who hold no public office yet receive a red-carpet treatment in Turkey during visits to Ankara. When he goes to Turkey, he gets an audience with President Erdoğan. He knows Erdoğan is a corrupt man; yet, he prefers to deal with him anyway. His EFCR is the only European think tank that I know of that parrots the talking points uttered by Turkish leaders and repeats the official narrative of the Turkish government on the failed coup that was nothing but a false flag designed to set up the opposition for mass persecution and justify an unprecedented witch-hunt. The federal case in New York has effectively acquitted the Gülen movement of slanderous charges of a so-called parallel state leveled by the Turkish president to defame the critical group. The police investigators and members of the judiciary did their job within the mandate of the law to uncover a massive graft network run by Erdoğan and his associates. When that probe was made public in December 2013, Erdoğan falsely accused the movement of instigating a coup. Since then, for anything that went wrong with the governance of the country, Gülen was scapegoated by Erdoğan, who has never taken responsibility for any of the shortcomings of his rule other than to shift blame to others including but not limited to Gülen, the US, the EU and NATO.

Let me wrap it up this long article with an interesting anecdote about Bildt and how he has come to love Erdoğan. On Oct. 10, 2013 Bildt, then foreign minister, went to Ankara to meet with Erdoğan before he was scheduled to attend a two-day panel discussion in Turkey’s western resort city of Bodrum, where he was to participate in a debate about government in the new media age. During the friendly chitchat in Erdoğan’s office, Bildt said he was taking a regular passenger flight to travel to Bodrum. However, Erdoğan insisted that Bildt take a government plane and asked Egemen Bağış, then minister for EU affairs and chief negotiator of Turkey in accession talks with the European Union, to take him to Bodrum. Bağış, who usually goes along with Erdoğan’s wishes with no questions asked, was unwilling to join Bildt. He tried to make up an excuse, saying that he had business to attend to in Istanbul, but he was scolded by Erdoğan, who loudly ordered him to do what he asked. As a result, Bağış had to tag along, albeit unwillingly.

When wiretaps from the graft investigations that showed disgraced minister Bağış took one and a half million US dollars in cash bribes from Zarrab in exchange for favors were made public, it became clear why Bağış did not want to go to Bodrum with Bildt. According to a phone wiretap dated Oct. 9, 2013 at 21:06, Zarrab called Abdullah Happani, his right-hand man, to prepare $500,000 in cash stashed in a chocolate box and deliver it to Bağış at his house located in Istanbul’s Istinye district. Bağış’s original plan was to accept the cash in person as he had done on two occasions before, totaling $1 million. But his plan was abruptly changed when Erdoğan ordered him to be in the meeting with Bildt and insisted him on going to Bodrum with the Swedish foreign minister.

The next day, on Oct.10, 2013, when Zarrab sent his man to Egemen’s house to deliver the bribe, Bağış called Zarrab from Ankara at 19:35, apologizing that he could not be home, He told the gold trader that he was abruptly called to Ankara by his boss and had to go to Bodrum for a meeting. He asked Zarrab to tell his courier to drop the cash in the chocolate box to his housemaid named Maria Cazanji, a Moldovan national who had been working for Bağış since 2008. Two minutes after talking to Bağış, Zarrab calls the courier and says to give the box to Maria as instructed by the Turkish minister. When these details were revealed to the public and the phone calls posted on YouTube, perhaps Bildt understood the real reasons behind Bağış’s reluctance to go to Bodrum.

This is not the first time Bildt was offered use of a Turkish government plane, of course. I was one of the embedded journalists who joined Bağış’s visit to Bosnia to attend the EU-Western Balkans conference on June 2, 2010 in Sarajevo. Although it was not on the schedule, we picked up Bildt and his team on the way from Bosnia to Turkey, where the Swedish foreign minister was scheduled to attend several events including the reopening of the renovated Swedish palace in Istanbul, which houses the Consulate General of Sweden. I actually did interview Bildt on the plane and published his comments in the Zaman newspaper, which was seized by the Erdoğan government in March 2016 to muzzle the daily’s critical coverage of government corruption. Zaman, the largest circulating daily in Turkey, was later shut down by the government in July 2016.

After the exposé in December 2013, top-notch investigators such as the police, prosecutors and judges who uncovered this graft network were punished as Erdoğan hushed up the case by dismissing them all and later put them in jail on false charges of coup plotting and belonging to a hoax terror group called FETÖ. Turkey’s top journalists were jailed or exiled because they wrote about this corruption and the Erdoğan government’s links to jihadist groups in Syria. The ongoing US federal case in New York confirmed the fact that police chiefs, prosecutors and judges simply did their job and that there was no secretive or nefarious agenda behind it. Erdoğan and his cronies not only broke several Turkish laws but also violated US sanctions deliberately and systematically despite advance warnings from US Treasury officials.

It is unfortunate to see Bildt, a man who has built a good international legacy in diplomacy, wasting what is left of his credentials on a corrupt politician and international pariah like Erdoğan.

 

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