LONDON — The Turkish government has seized about $11 billion worth of corporate assets — from small baklava chains to large publicly traded conglomerates — over suspected ties to a failed coup attempt last year.
It was systematic taking of corporate asssets with few precedents in modern economic history. Several thousand dispossessed executives have fled overseas. The less fortunate were imprisoned.
The nationwide series of confiscations that began soon after a attempt to overthrow the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on July 15 last year. Since then, more than 950 companies have been expropriated, all of them purportedly linked to Fethullah Gulen, the Muslim cleric who Turkish leaders say coordinated the putsch.
Akin Ipek, one of Turkey’s richest men, was staying in the Park Tower Hotel in London when the police raided his television network in Istanbul. The raid was national news, so Ipek opened his laptop and watched an unnerving spectacle: an attack on his multibillion-dollar empire, in real time.
It was an oddly cinematic showdown. Through a combination of shouting and persuasion, the network’s news editor convinced the officers that they should leave, then locked himself in the basement control room with a film crew.
For the next 7½ hours, until the police returned, the news editor spoke on camera and took calls. One was from Ipek, who denounced the government’s action as illegal.
“I was shocked and angry,” Ipek, 53, said in a recent interview in London. “But I thought they would leave after a couple days. There was no reason to stay.”
Actually, the government never left, and the events were the start of a personal cataclysm for Ipek. His station, Bugun TV, was taken off the air a few hours after that phone call, on Oct. 28, 2015. His entire conglomerate of 22 companies, Koza Ipek, is now owned and operated by the state.
Soon after the raid, a warrant was issued for Ipek’s arrest, stating that he laundered vast sums for what officials call the Fethullah Terrorist Organization. His assets were frozen and have gradually been seized, starting last year with his luxury cars and ending with all of his real estate and bank accounts.
Ipek’s ascent in business was made possible by the 2003 election to the prime ministership of the man who would become his nemesis, Erdogan.
Many inside and outside Turkey believe Erdogan has exploited the failed coup as a pretext to expand his power, tossing people in prison or firing them from jobs for sins as minor as keeping money in a Gulen-connected bank. More than 130,000 people have been suspended or dismissed in the past year.
An adviser to Erdogan agreed to share his thoughts about the seizures, but only if his name was kept from the story and he was referred to as a “high-ranking official.”
“It was a market-friendly thing that these companies were seized,” he said. “We cleansed the economy of criminal companies.”
“International investors aren’t asking if Turkey is safe to invest in,” he added. “Only journalists are asking.”