Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's chief aide said the Treaty of Lausanne, which ended the conflict between the Ottoman Empire and the Allies and established the modern border between Turkey and Greece, had "expired," freeing Turkey up to seize rich resources including those in northern Iraq.
Maksut Serim, dubbed Erdoğan's "secret keeper," told a friend in a wiretapped phone conversation in 2013 that "this is the year the Lausanne Treaty expired and the articles of the Lausanne Treaty were shelved" and claimed that Turkey was in a position to seize underground resources including deposits in the north of Iraq. The treaty was signed in Switzerland in 1923 and drew the border lines between Turkey and Greece.
The secret wiretap, obtained by Nordic Monitor, was recorded on June 5, 2013 at 19:24 when Turkish prosecutors were investigating Serim as part of a fraud network that implicated senior government officials including Erdoğan and his family members. The court granted the wiretap authorization on May 27, 2013 in investigation file No. 2012/656.
Serim was speaking to Ahmet Ergün, a close friend of Erdoğan for decades and a member of the General Council at the Turkey Youth and Education Service Foundation (TÜRGEV), an organization for which President Erdoğan's son Bilal serves as an executive board member. In the investigation file, Ergün was accused of operating an organized crime syndicate in cooperation with Bilal and government officials, calling in favors and running illegal schemes. Ergün was indicted in 2001 and was tried on similar charges from criminal activities that extended to Erdoğan's office when he was mayor of Istanbul.
The comments suggest Erdoğan's inner circle believed the Treaty of Lausanne was no longer valid and that it harbored irredentist and neo-Ottomanist ambitions. In fact, three years later President Erdoğan himself started to repeatedly and publicly question the articles of the treaty, creating diplomatic tension with neighboring Greece.
In a speech delivered in September 2016 the Turkish president said the Treaty of Lausanne was essentially a defeat for Turkey because it "gave away" islands to Greece. "In Lausanne we gave away islands to Greece that were a just shout away. Is this victory? They tried to trick us into believing that Lausanne was a victory. Those who sat at that table did not do right by that treaty. Now we are suffering the consequences," Erdoğan said.
Serim himself established a foundation called Evlad-ı Osmanlı Eğitim Kültür ve Yardımlaşma Vakfı (Ottoman Sons Education, Culture and Charity Foundation) on November 10, 2016 in Istanbul to promote the neo-Ottoman vision. Other board members were listed as Ömer Elmas and Yasin Ekrem Serim according to the registry filed with the Istanbul 12th Court of First Instance.
Serim has for years been head of a commission responsible for the management of secret discretionary funds that were made available to then-Prime Minister Erdoğan and continue to be provided for his use as president for funding clandestine operations. The details of slush fund spending are kept secret, and only a few members of the commission including Serim are authorized to audit and review expenditures.
The relationship between Serim and Erdoğan goes back to the 1990s, when then-Istanbul Mayor Erdoğan developed a friendship with Serim, who was branch manager of state lender Vakıfbank in the city's Valide Sultan district. Erdoğan kept the accounts of some 30 municipal companies in the bank. Serim was removed from his position by the bank's management in 1997 when an investigation revealed that he had submitted a forged diploma with his employment application.
However, when Erdoğan came to power in November 2012 with his newly launched Justice and Development Party (AKP) as a single party government, he brought Serim into the government and appointed him to lead the Prime Ministry's special discretionary fund. The spending of discretionary funds has increased dramatically during Erdoğan's tenure as president. In the first 10 months of 2019, slush fund spending reached a peak of 1.8 billion Turkish lira. In 2003 spending was only 103 million Turkish lira.
Serim's name also came up when the Court of Accounts' 2013 audit report on Türksat (Turkish Satellite Communications Company) revealed how he received excess amounts of money from a state institution. Serim was a member of the managing board at the state-owned company.
Abdullah Bozkurt is a Middle East Forum Writing Fellow.