Sunday, October 11, 2009

Eliot Ness and Al Capone Move to Turkey

If this column were written regularly in Turkish and I were a columnist of greater importance, I would have sworn that the man opposite me had been reading my mind. The man opposite me is, of course, the Turkish Prime Minister.

I warned our bosses more than a year ago that our group might face “corporate consequences” if we did not “behave.” We did not. And we suffered terrible corporate consequences. Last month, I expressed my concern that our boss, Aydın Doğan, might face prison if we did not behave. I compared Recep Tayyip Erdoğan vs Aydın Doğan to Vladimir Putin vs Mikhail Khodorkovsky. And a few days ago Prime Minister Erdoğan likened Doğan to Al Capone. That’s a bad sign.

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal on Oct. 5, Erdoğan played the Turkish reincarnation of Eliot Ness, the Bureau of Prohibition agent and the man who finished off Capone as he compared the $3.2 billion tax case against Doğan with the U.S. pursuit of the famous gangster on tax-evasion charges in the 1930s. Erdoğan said: “In the U.S. there are also people who have had problems with evading taxes. Al Capone comes to mind. He was very rich, but then he spent the rest of his life in jail. Nobody raised a voice when those events happened.”

Now, what should we make of that? That champion tax payer Doğan is in fact Turkey’s public enemy number one? That he is a gangster engaged in mob wars and massacres but never leaves behind evidence so that he could be brought to justice for his crimes? That the only way to nail him was to send him a crippling tax fine? That, Doğan, like Capone, could also spend the rest of his life in jail despite his wealth?

The truth is, by using the Capone analogy, Erdoğan has unwisely confessed that his problem with Doğan was about a matter “other than taxation,” but that taxation was the only way to hit Doğan. What could that “matter” be? Drug smuggling? Racketeering? Mass killings of business rivals? Torture? Bombs and subversion? It’s just too obvious, and even my cat could tell you the truth if he could speak (in fact, he tried to scratch an answer on the rug, but I should not mention his argument here lest he be carted off to pet prison).

What else does WSJ’s Erdoğan quote tell us? Why did the prime minister say that “Capone spent the rest of his life in jail and nobody raised a voice when those events happened?” Could it be because Erdoğan is annoyed by the international reaction against the tax case, including senior EU officials warning that this case will come under the press freedom heading in this year’s annual progress report?

Apparently, Erdoğan expects everyone, especially the West, to remain silent about Doğan just as everyone was silent about Capone in the 1930s. That is hardly surprising, since the first one to criticize the international chorus of complaints about the Doğan affair was, ironically, Erdoğan’s minister for the EU, Egemen Bağış. According to Messrs. Erdoğan and Bağış, it was wrong of Doğan to voice complaints “to foreigners” about the most unprecedented tax fine in Turkish fiscal history.

In Erdoğan’s ideal world, his Western friends must treat Doğan like others treated Capone in the 1930s. Naturally, in his fairy tale, Erdoğan is the good-hearted patriot Ness fighting against public enemy number one. What heroic roles Bağış and Finance Minister Mehmet Şimşek would assume is difficult to guess, given the bizarre analogy. But I heard my cat meow-laughing loudly when Şimşek said that the tax fine was “purely technical.”

I have no idea what kind of car or cars Doğan drives, but they may be seized soon too. How do I know? From mob history. Scarface Al’s bullet-proof Cadillac was seized by the U.S. Treasury Department in 1932 and was later used as President Franklin D. Roosevelt's limousine. And what happens when the likes of Capone are totally eliminated from the scene? After Capone was jailed for income tax evasion in 1932, the Chicago mob flourished, establishing itself as one of the most innovative criminal associations in the country. That should be a message for Erdoğan. In a world with increasingly easier access to information, Erdoğan may even regret having fixated on one man, since the thousands of different voices that constitute the Doğan Media Group today may flourish and become a powerful, combined voice for “the opposition” tomorrow.

Thanks to Burak Bekdil

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