On 1 November, the sole Turkish board member of the Rosatom-built Akkuyu nuclear power plant project, Cuneyd Zapsu (see our Personality of the Week), resigned in protest. Following his exit, Zapsu filed a legal action against the Russian SOE and its Turkish partner IC ICTAS, citing “severe misallocation of funds” and warning that the project’s recent development runs “against national interests.” Zapsu had served as then Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s foreign policy advisor for most of the 2000s. His abrupt exit from Akkuyu signals a deeper rift within the president’s inner circle.
The Akkuyu nuclear power plant, located in the southern coastal city of Adana, was first proposed in the 1970s. Its construction contract was initially awarded to Swedish firm ASEA Atomics. The project stalled in the following decades amid disputes with NATO and pressure from Washington over Ankara’s nuclear ambitions. In 2010, Ankara concluded that the project would not be advanced through a partnership with a firm headquartered in another NATO country or a close US ally like Japan because of its strategic implications. Therefore, the project was awarded to Rosatom, ironically Ankara’s last choice. Afterward, the Turkish Atomic Energy Agency (TAEK) requested that the project be modeled after the Kalininskaya nuclear power plant in the Tver Oblast, albeit in compliance with safety requirements imposed by Ankara.
The project has run into several technical problems, including environmental impact-related issues that have sparked protests by the surrounding communities. Many are concerned with the cooling system; Akkuyu was devised based on Kalininskaya’s blueprints, which are configured to inject large amounts of water from a nearby lake with very low average year-round temperatures. But Akkuyu’s design plans to inject water from the adjacent Mediterranean with higher year-round temperatures – insufficient for cooling the reactors – and from an area that serves as a local fishing hub. Given the uncertainties and protests, a local court has repeatedly suspended the plant’s construction over the past four years. Moreover, IC ICTAS has suffered chronic financial difficulties amid the lira’s depreciation, further delaying completion of the power plant.
In July 2022, Russia provided a $20bn loan for the project – a significant gesture of goodwill but certainly aimed at softening Ankara’s stance toward Moscow over the war in Ukraine. In return, Erdogan announced that he would order the project’s environmental impact report to be waived, clearing the way for its completion. In our view, the loan and promise to discard environmental concerns have divided Erdogan’s inner circle, leading to a series of events that culminated with Zapsu’s resignation from the project’s board.
Energy and Natural Resources Minister Fatih Donmez has criticized Erdogan’s decision to waive the
environmental impact report, calling it “unthinkable.” In a rare show of support for opposition parties, Vice President Fuat Oktay backed Donmez’s statement, arguing that “issues like nuclear energy cannot be decided in haste; points raised by the opposition have to be discussed.” In stark contrast, presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin, who usually sides with the pro-US camp within the government, responded to a question about Akkuyu in a pro-Russian fashion, declaring, “There is a new regional order that Russians seek to establish. Responding to these proposals, we are saying why not?”
Horizon has previously reported on the Russia-related divisions currently unfolding in Ankara over several prominent energy issues (please see our 21 October Latest Analysis). In particular, there is a deepening schism between those who favor the European energy hub proposal and those who advocate for the rival Russian plan.
Following his resignation, Zapsu gave a series of interviews that provided an inside view of the Akkuyu project’s troubles. First, Zapsu revealed that the Russian side would not share information related to the planned anti-aircraft radar system – installed to protect the power plant against aerial attacks – with the Turkish military, and it would be exclusively operated by Russian military advisors. Second, he accused Rosatom officials of concealing critical documents related to the planned reactors’ cooling mechanisms from Turkish energy officials. Lastly, mirroring the fears of US Treasury Department officials, Zapsu alleged that documents accounting for Russia’s $20bn “courtesy loan” were missing and warned that it could be a ploy to launder money on behalf of sanctioned Russian oligarchs. Given Zapsu’s public comments and the unfolding conflict within Erdogan’s inner circle, it is unclear how the president will respond. Horizon will continue to monitor this critical development in the coming weeks.
personality of the week
Businessman and former Foreign Policy Advisor to Erdogan. Born in 1956 in Istanbul, Zapsu is of Kurdish origin; he comes from a local tribe of Kurdish warlords who fought with Mustafa Kemal Ataturk during the War of National Liberation. His father, Pertev Zapsu, was one of the founders of Turkey’s first opposition parties (the Democrat Party) after the switch to multi-party democracy in 1946. Zapsu graduated from Istanbul University’s Department of Management in 1978 and completed his graduate studies in economics at the Ludwig Maximillian University of Munich. Afterward, worked as a manager at his father’s textile manufacturing company in Germany.
In 1985, Zapsu returned to Turkey and established a thriving agricultural trade and fertilizer company, laying the foundation for his next venture: BIM Markets, a chain of supermarkets. In 1986, he joined the powerful Turkish Industrialist and Business Association (TUSIAD), expanding his influence and heading several of the organization’s regional working groups.
In the 1990s, he followed politics closely and identified Erdogan – then a district organizer for the Welfare Party – as a potential national leader, establishing personal ties with him. Using Erdogan’s political and business networks in northeastern Turkey, Zapsu began to export hazelnuts, quickly boosting production and developing export infrastructure. In two years, Turkey ranked as the top hazelnut exporter in the world, with BIM the primary hazelnut exporter to European markets.
In 2001, Zapsu became one of the founding members of the Justice and Development Party (AKP). At the time, his membership was viewed with suspicion given that he was a secular, pro-Western and liberal figure who had no relationship with Islamism. Many in the AKP viewed him as a secular Trojan horse, aiming to restrain Erdogan and push him toward pro-Western objectives. Internal party criticism forced Erdogan to distance himself from Zapsu, but the latter remained Erdogan’s top foreign policy advisor from 2001-2009 and a member of the AKP’s Central Steering Committee in charge of foreign policy.
In 2009, he left the AKP to manage his private sector interests while serving as Erdogan’s “shadow business envoy” in prominent international organizations. He is a governing member of the Turkish international trade lobby – the Foreign Relations Council (DEIK) – as well as the World Economic Forum (WEF) and Turkish-American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham). His participation in the Akkuyu nuclear power plant project was viewed with suspicion by the Russian board members given his close ties to Erdogan.