Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has stashed some of his wealth in cash and gold in multiple walk-in vaults he had custom made for the basement of a villa in his family compound in Istanbul, two witnesses told Nordic Monitor.
According to one witness who saw the vaults after they were newly installed in the basement of the luxury villa while he was a guest at a private event held by Erdoğan some time in 2011. "I was being ushered to a place to perform an evening prayer, and we went through a basement hall where I saw room-size vaults whose doors were still covered in protective plastic sheeting," he said during a phone interview, asking that his name be withheld due to safety concerns. The witness fled Turkey to escape a crackdown on government critics but still has family members residing in Turkey.
The witness described the steel doors of the safes as similar to bank vaults that can be opened by turning a locked wheel from the outside. "I saw wheels on the doors that resembled the steering wheel of a ship," he said.
"I think maids made a mistake when they were guiding me to a place where I could pray and accidentally took me through the basement, because when the guards noticed, I was immediately rushed out of there," he added.
The first-hand account of the vaults built to hide Erdogan's much-talked-about wealth was actually corroborated with a 2013 voice recording during which he was heard instructing his son in a panic to get rid of the cash in his house amid sweeping detentions as part of investigations into corruption.
Another witness who came forward to confirm the existence of the vaults, also speaking anonymously, said the vaults were manufactured and delivered by multiple firms and that the final work was done by a businessman from Diyarbakir, a predominantly Kurdish province in southeastern Turkey. "The vaults were designed in such a way that a forklift can be operated inside in and outside of it," the second witness explained, describing the basement as having access to the driveway on which cars or trucks can be parked for loading and unloading cash transported on pallets.
The witness noted that only a handful of guards, totally loyal to Erdogan, were allowed near the villa where the safes were installed.
Erdoğan and his family moved to the villa compound located in the Kısıklı neighborhood of Istanbul's Üsküdar district in June 2009 after having resided in the nearby Emniyet neighborhood for 15 years. At the time, it was reported that he bought the villa for $1.3 million in 2005 and that the family had five villas in total in the compound. His son, son-in-law and two brothers all live in the same compound.
The villa was exposed in December 2013 graft investigations as the center of Erdogan's corrupt activities. The prosecutor's investigation found that Erdoğan, prime minister at the time, was directly involved in a scheme to buy out the Sabah media outlet with kickbacks from government contracts and tenders. He hosted several businessmen on July 21, 2013 in his villa to instruct them to make the purchase. The meeting was also attended by Berat Albayrak, the then-CEO of Çalık Holding and Erdoğan's son-in-law. A detailed investigation exposed the scheme through which Erdoğan was enriching his business associates at taxpayers' expense and getting commissions from each contract, tender and deal he helped them seal.
Erdoğan panicked when the corruption investigation was made public on December 17, 2013, while the police, on orders from the prosecutor's office, were conducting raids to make arrests and execute search warrants on the homes of the sons of three Cabinet ministers. Police found large sums of money stashed in those houses, many safe boxes and money counting machines. The three sons as well as several businessmen and bureaucrats close to Erdoğan were arrested on accusations of corruption and bribery.
An audio recording leaked in February 2014 to YouTube showed that Erdoğan also had large sums of money — as much as $1 billion — in his houses, including the villa in Kısıklı. In the recording, which was independently authenticated by experts hired by the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), Erdoğan was heard ordering his son Bilal to immediately dispose of that money for fear of a police search of his houses as well. The wiretapped phone conversation apparently took place on the same day that police raided a number of locations as part of the corruption investigations.
The government hushed up the investigations after the judges overseeing the corruption cases were replaced by new judges who ruled in 2014 for the non-prosecution of the suspects.
According to official records, Erdoğan's wealth is not that great as he kept some of his money in cash in foreign denominations in his villas or distributed it among family members and caretakers as well as hiding it in shell companies in order to keep his wealth from scrutiny. On July 10, 2001, before he took steps to establish the now ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), Erdoğan applied to the Ankara 7th Penal Court of First Instance to declare his assets for the first time — declared to be TL 430,000 at the time — modest by Turkish standards.
However, his real wealth was hidden in various schemes. Rahmi Mustafa Koç, then-chairman of Koç Holding, Turkey's largest conglomerate, told the Hurriyet daily on August 5, 2001 that Erdoğan had accumulated some $1 billion and had no financial problems in starting a new political party. Thanks to a well-financed political campaign, Erdoğan's AKP won the elections in November 2002 and formed the government. The voters had punished the established parties amid a major domestic economic and banking crisis in Turkey. Erdogan had promised to clean up the corruption in the government.
In 2006 his worth stood on paper at TL 1.3 million. At that time Erdoğan sold his 12 percent share in Emniyet Gıda A.Ş., İhsan Gıda A.Ş. and İhsan Gıda Ltd. Şti. The revenue he received from the sale was reflected in his 2007 wealth declaration, which totaled TL 1.8 million. He stated that the difference between the wealth declarations in 2006 and 2007 was caused by selling the shares as well as pension benefits and salary.
Erdoğan's 2010 wealth declaration was announced on March 1, in the wake of a dispute with Deniz Baykal, former chairman of the main opposition CHP. In that year Erdoğan's declared wealth had reached TL 2.2 million. In 2011 he declared his net worth via the website of the Office of the Prime Ministry. The figure was TL 4 million, a tenfold increase over 10 years.
In July 2014 lawyers for Erdoğan, who was nominated as the ruling party's presidential candidate on July 1, submitted a declaration of his assets to the Supreme Election Board (YSK). According to the declaration, Erdoğan owned a 2,000-square-meter plot of land in the village of Dumankaya in Rize province's Güneysu district. The land was worth TL 10,000. The declaration also stated that Erdoğan had TL 3.3 million, 25,000 euros and $199,867 in various bank accounts, and that he had a total of TL 500,000 in debt.
Estimates of Erdoğan's real wealth range as high as hundreds of billions of dollars.
There has been speculation in Ankara circles about Erdoğan's real wealth, ranging from tens of billions of dollars to even hundreds of billions. No one knows for sure. International hacking group Anonymous posted a tweet on December 29, 2020 claiming that Erdoğan had as much as $350 billion in ill-gotten funds and mocked the Turkish president by asking which banks he wanted to use to launder it.
The president was reportedly concerned when a US House of Representatives bill was introduced on October 16, 2019 as part of a proposed sanctions package against Turkey under the title of "Protect Against Conflict by Turkey Act."
US Senate version of the bill was also introduced on October 17, 2019 under the title of "Promoting American National Security and Preventing the Resurgence of ISIS Act of 2019." Both bills asked the director of national intelligence to submit to the appropriate congressional committees a report on the estimated net worth and known sources of income of Erdoğan and his family members.
The relevant part of the bill reads: "Not later than 120 days after the date of the enactment of this Act, the Secretary of State, in consultation with the Secretary of the Treasury and the Director of National Intelligence, shall submit to the appropriate congressional committees a report on the estimated net worth and known sources of income of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his family members (including spouse, children, parents, and siblings), including assets, investments, other business interests, and relevant beneficial ownership information."
Erdogan's much-rumored secret accounts in Swiss banks had already been reported by the US Embassy in Ankara in a cable to Washington. The diplomatic cable was leaked by Wikileaks in November 2010.
Abdullah Bozkurt, a Middle East Forum Writing Fellow, is a Swedish-based investigative journalist and analyst who runs the Nordic Research and Monitoring Network and is chairman of the Stockholm Center for Freedom.