Why Turkey's Paying Attention to U.S. Attorney's Oklahoma Thunder Tweet

Tweet in support of basketball team takes on political overtones in Turkey.

A sellout crowd of 19,136 watches the tipoff during a National Basketball Association (NBA) game between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Oklahoma City Thunder at Ford Center in Oklahoma City, on March 24, 2009.

Photographer: J.P. Wilson/Bloomberg News

To understand why a tweet about the Oklahoma City Thunder's failed title run has any bearing on Turkish markets, look neither to Turkey nor to Oklahoma but deep into the heart of Pennsylvania's Poconos.

There, in a mansion in rural Saylorsburg, lives a reclusive Turkish cleric who's accused by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of plotting to bring down his government. The story of how the former allies dramatically fell out has been noisily redefining the fault-lines of Turkish politics and rocking the country's markets for almost three years, from the moment the animosity surfaced back in late 2013 in a slew of corruption allegations.

What's new is that with the words: "Although your title hunt is over, congrats to @Enes_Kanter and Oklahoma City Thunder on a great run," hot-shot U.S. attorney Preet Bharara has accidentally waded in.

Bharara's tweet will be "explosive" in Turkey, where the pro-government press is likely to seize upon it to try to make connections between the lawyer and the secretive religious movement of which Kanter — the Thunder's 6' 11'' center — is a high-profile supporter, according to Atilla Yesilada, an economist for GlobalSource Partners.

Enes Kanter is well-known inside Turkey as an alumnus of the schools funded by followers of the exiled cleric, Fethullah Gulen. Kanter's Twitter profile even contains a nod to his religious affiliation — something that may be lost on outside observers but which has become highly politicized in Turkey, where the former Erdogan ally has been rebranded as one of the country's most-wanted terrorists. Gulen's supporters, who run one of the biggest network of charter schools in the U.S. and have a big lobbying apparatus in Washington, portray him as a moderate with no interest in politics.

Bharara's comment was a response to a Kanter tweet — a picture of him with the attorney's name printed on the back of an Oklahoma Thunder Jersey captioned "Proud of your good work. Keep it up!!" Kanter, like many Turks, has been cheerleading one particular trial that the U.S. attorney is prosecuting. 

More famous for chasing crimes at Wall Street's biggest banks, Bharara became an overnight celebrity in Turkey ever since he got on the case of a gold trader close to Erdogan in March. The U.S. alleges that the gold trader, Reza Zarrab, spent years breaking sanctions, laundered hundreds of millions of dollars, and bribed some of Turkey's government ministers in the process — very similar charges to those that had played out in Turkey during the 2013 corruption scandal, and were thrown out of court after they were were criticized by Erdogan as a coup plot orchestrated by the Gulen movement.

The substance of those allegations was never proved, which in a country where perceptions of the rule of law are deteriorating has given both sides space to believe what they want. In retaliation for the graft probe, Erdogan vowed to "eradicate" Gulen's movement. Inside Turkey, that's meant the seizure of newspapers and businesses owned by Gulen's sympathizers.

For some quarters of Turkish public opinion, Bharara's supportive tweet will lend weight to the government's attempts to discredit his investigation, which has helped to knock 23 percent off the value of the state bank that was implicated in the original Turkish probe, even though it's not been named in the U.S. charges. His support of the basketball player has already sparked critical commentary in the local press, and been retweeted more than 2,000 times in 12 hours.

While anything that helps turn people against the investigation may prompt a short-term rally in sentiment, "My gut feeling is that anything that reminds foreign investors that state banks might be implicated in all this is a sell," GlobalSource's Yesilada said. 

While the tweet might stoke conspiracy theories, "the beauty and the tragedy of this is that it doesn't much matter what Turks believe," according to the economist. "With Zarrab in prison the U.S. holds all the cards, and if he takes a plea bargain they could do substantial damage to anyone who's caught up in this." 

Questions to the office of Preet Bharara were not immediately returned. 

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