A political operative who comes from a family that runs a secret slush fund on behalf of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan landed in the number-two position at the Turkish Foreign Ministry, which has already become a focal point for clandestine operations conducted abroad by the Islamist ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).
Yasin Ekrem Serim, a 37-year-old man who has never really served in any diplomatic post, was appointed as a deputy foreign minister by President Erdoğan on October 16, 2022 after he had served in various advisory positions in the government thanks to his father, Maksut Serim, who is a chief advisor to the Turkish president.
Maksut, dubbed Erdoğan's "secret keeper," had managed a secret discretionary fund available for Erdoğan's personal use for years. The fund, earmarked in the general budget, is a tightly held secret and used to finance clandestine operations in Turkey and abroad under Erdoğan's orders. There is no auditing or accounting of how the money is spent, and the paper trail for the expenditures is destroyed after review by a three-person committee headed by Maksut.
Using his father's influence in the government, Yasin was first given an advisory position in 2010 by state minister and Turkey's chief EU negotiator Egemen Bağış. His recruitment was the subject of nepotism allegations in parliament at the time, and a written question was submitted in June 2010 as to whether his father's influence had played a role in his recruitment. Bağış did not indicate if he was hired because of his father or not but simply said Yasin's credentials qualified him for the advisory position.
Bağış was forced to resign in 2013 after an exposé that revealed he had secretly helped the Iranian regime launder money using Turkish state banks and had accepted millions of dollars in bribes from a Mullah regime operative named Reza Zarrab, but Yasin remained on the job. He later continued to work for the government in various positions in the offices of the Prime Ministry and the Presidency until 2016, when Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, Bağış's close associate, made him his personal advisor. Two years later, he was promoted to a chief of staff position at the ministry.
Except for a three-month stint in an advisory position at Turkey's Permanent Representation to the United Nations between August and October 2012, he has never really served in any diplomatic position abroad, which is quite unusual for the foreign service in Turkey. In his LinkedIn profile, he described the brief assignment as "participating [in] provisional meetings before [the] 67th opening session of [the] General Assembly and taking [in] sessions to understand [the] rules [and] procedures of the [UN] General Assembly."
He was actually in New York to obtain a certificate from a program run by New York University's Center for Global Affairs and wanted to polish his resumé with a quick study program arranged by his father. His undergraduate studies were completed at Girne American University, located in the breakaway Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (KKTC), recognized only by Turkey, which maintains tens of thousands of troops on the island.
His appointment as a deputy foreign minister is seen as a political move by Erdoğan and his henchman Çavuşoğlu, who have turned the foreign ministry into an intelligence service to pursue spying activities abroad in violation of the Vienna Convention that regulates the conduct of diplomatic and consular services. Over the years, Nordic Monitor has published numerous secret documents that revealed how Turkish embassies and consulates aggressively conduct intelligence gathering and spying work under diplomatic cover.
In line with Erdoğan's directives, the foreign ministry was also instructed to develop assets abroad in order to deploy them to further the political objectives of the ruling AKP when needed. More agents from Turkish spy agency MIT were assigned to serve overseas under consular or embassy cover. A paradigm shift to develop contingencies in order to interfere in the domestic affairs of the host governments has taken place during Erdoğan's rule in the last decade.
To transform the foreign service and force its personnel to do the president's dirty work, the Erdoğan government purged almost 30 percent of all career diplomats including high-profile ambassadors from the ministry in 2016 and 2017. Many of them were jailed on bogus charges, sending a chilling message across the board to those who are reluctant to go along with Erdoğan's worldview and his ambition to export political Islam to other countries.
Yasin's job mandate is to oversee such political operations in the foreign ministry, while the two other deputy foreign ministers continue to mainly run technical talks and take care of the routine operations of Turkish diplomacy.
Yasin grew up in an environment that nurtured the neo-Ottoman ambitions of the young Turkish Republic. Nordic Monitor published secret wiretaps in March 2020 that showed how his father was talking about the conspiracy that the Lausanne Treaty would expire soon and that Turkey would be in a position to seize underground resources in the north of Iraq. The treaty was signed in Switzerland in 1923 and demarcated the border between Turkey and Greece.
The Turkish president has on multiple occasions questioned the Lausanne Treaty, deliberately fueling such conspiracies among the Turkish people. In a speech delivered in September 2016 the he 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 a 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 Turkey. Now we are suffering the consequences," Erdoğan said.
In recent years, he has been publicly threatening Greece with an invasion of the Greek islands, saying the Turkish army would suddenly descend on the islands in the middle of the night.
Yasin is a member of the board at a neo-Ottomanist foundation called Evlad-ı Osmanlı Eğitim Kültür ve Yardımlaşma Vakfı (Ottoman Sons Education, Culture and Charity Foundation), which was established by his father on November 10, 2016 in Istanbul.
Through his father Maksut, Yasin became aware of many clandestine operations, learned about how they were organized and secretly funded. Now he will put them to use through his deputy minister position at the foreign ministry.
The relationship between his father and Erdoğan goes back to the 1990s, when then-Istanbul Mayor Erdoğan developed a friendship with Maksut, who was branch manager of state lender Vakıfbank in the city's Valide Sultan district. Erdoğan kept the accounts of some 30 municipal companies at the bank. Maksut 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 2002 with his newly launched AKP as a single party government, he brought Maksut into the government and appointed him to manage the Prime Ministry's special discretionary fund. The spending of discretionary funds has increased dramatically during Erdoğan's tenure as president. In 2022 slush fund spending reached a peak of 3.4 billion Turkish lira. In 2003 spending was only 103 million Turkish lira.
While serving as a chief advisor to Erdoğan, Maksut also holds a seat on the board of directors at Halkbank, the Turkish state lender that was indicted in the US for violating US laws and sanctions on Iran.
In recent weeks Yasin has been touring Europe, meeting with various Islamist and nationalist groups including leaders of the Union of International Democrats (UID), which operates as the Turkish president's long arm in Europe, as part of a campaign to mobilize Turks to vote for Erdoğan in the May election, which appears to be critical for Erdoğan's political survival.
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.