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Explaining Ergenekon: Civil Military Relations in Turkey's Post-Coup Era

Commentary, 7 August 2013
Military Personnel, Europe
For many in Turkey, the case against leading officers represents an end to the military's meddling in civilian politics. But the AKP government has failed to pursue with the same vigour, more prosaic changes to Turkish law that would help instil more civilian oversight over the Turkish armed forces.

For many in Turkey, the case against leading officers represents an end to the military's meddling in civilian politics. But the AKP government has failed to pursue with the same vigour, more prosaic changes to Turkish law that would help instil more civilian oversight over the Turkish armed forces. 

Turkish Armed ForcesIn 2007, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) won 46.6 per cent of the vote, more than double its closest competitor, the secular Republican People's Party (CHP), and became the first incumbent Turkish political party to ever increase its share of the vote. Yet, shortly after the AKP's resounding electoral win, the Chief Republican Prosecutor opened a closure case against the Party over concerns that the Party's effort to overturn Turkey's headscarf ban was a threat to Turkish secularism.

In tandem, Turkish police, operating on an anonymous tip, raided a house in an Istanbul neighbourhood and discovered explosives. The initial raid sparked others, more explosives were found, three dead bodies were dug up, and the case, now known as Ergenekon, began to take shape. Prosecutors allege that a clandestine collection of ultra-nationalists with connections to groups within Turkey's intelligence service and military - collectively referred to as 'Deep State' - would use the weapons to foment societal chaos, in order to spark a military coup.

While the AKP narrowly avoided being closed in 2008, the Ergenekon investigation continued. For many in Turkey, the case has come to represent the end of the military's meddling in civilian politics. Despite the optimism, the government has failed to pursue with the same vigour, more prosaic changes to Turkish law that would help instil more civilian oversight over the Turkish armed forces. Thus, even after the Ergenekon case, Turkey's military still remains largely outside of civilian control.

Ergenekon and Balyoz: Political With Hunts or Democratic Progress?

At the outset of the Ergenekon investigation, Turkish police arrested eighty-six individuals, including a former commander of the Turkish Air Force, the former commander of the Gendarmerie, and a retired Brigadier General. In subsequent raids, more people, including journalists, lawyers, academics, and politicians, were also arrested. In total, 275 were put on trial and, on 6 August, a special court set up to handle the case sentenced most of the defendants to prison. For those opposed to the ruling party, it is largely seen as an AKP led political with-hunt to silence the secular opposition. For others, the proceedings were a landmark turning point in Turkish history, an important symbol of the country's democratic evolution, and the symbolic end to the military's interference in politics.

The trial, therefore, has become a visible symptom of Turkey's political polarisation, rather than a platform to shed light on the country's troubled past, which, undoubtedly, includes the intelligence and military's use of shadowy groups to carry out crimes against Kurds, Turks, and ethnic and religious minorities. For example, despite the five years of investigation, the proceedings failed to shed light on the individual(s) responsible for the killing of Armenian journalist Hrant Dink in 2007, as well as the allegations about the use of the Jandarma Ýstihbarat ve Terörle Mücadele (JITEM)-an intelligence organisation and special unit in the Gendarmerie-for the extrajudicial killing of Kurds in the southeast.

Despite its shortcomings, Ergenekon, as well as the Balyoz trial, is a first in Turkey. In the past, the Turkish armed forces, and the 'deep state' groups linked to it, operated with impunity. Like the Ergenekon case, Balyoz alleges that a group of military officers hatched a coup plot in 2002 to overthrow the AKP. The plan, according to the indictment, alleges that the officers would bomb mosques, in order to provoke an Islamist uprising, and therefore create the conditions necessary for a military coup. Yet, like Ergenekon, the case was filled with questionable evidence and allegations that the key documents connecting the military officers to the plot had been forged. Thus, the sentencing of some 300 out of 365 defendants in September 2012 was overshadowed by allegations of AKP interference and persistent allegations that, like Ergenekon, the trial was a ruse to purge political opponents.

Turkey: Civil Military Relations in the Post-Coup Era

While the prospect of a military coup has certainly diminished, the Turkish military is not completely under the control of civilians. The government has, however, made some noticeable strides in this area.

For the AKP, perhaps the most important symbol of its power over the military took place in 2010, when President Abdullah Gul and Prime Minister Erdogan were able to force the retirement of numerous generals tied to both trials, over the objections of the military's Supreme Military Council. More recently, in 2013, the AKP once again was able to force the retirement of four force commanders-including Gendarmerie Commander Bekir Kalyoncu, who is named in the Ergenekon plot-even though it broke with Turkish military tradition.

The purges, however, have not been without controversy. In January 2013, Erdogan indicated his discomfort with the number of officers in jail, after it was revealed that the Navy had neither enough captains to promote nor to assume command of ships. Moreover, Erdogan has also indicated his irritation with the 2012 arrest of his Military Chief of Staff, Ýlker Basbug, on Ergenekon related charges.

Despite these problems, Lale Kemal, an expert on Turkish civil-military relations writes that 'the junta mentality within the TSK has now largely been purged,' but that other much-needed reforms have yet to be made. For example, the civilian Ministry of Defence remains weak and functions, by and large, in a subservient role to the Chief of the General Staff. Moreover, the Parliament has little oversight over the military's budget and procurement policy, which, in turn, has allowed the Chief of the General Staff to acquire a significant degree of financial autonomy. Efforts to increase civilian auditing have stalled, as have attempts to increase the Parliament's power to question military officials in public.

Institutionalising Turkish Opacity: The Failure of the Ergenekon Trial

Even at the end of these two trials, key issues relating to both military transparency and its control by civilians remain largely unresolved. The execution of the Ergenekon trial, which focused largely on the coup allegations rather than on the alleged acts of the 'deep-state', only reinforced this dynamic.

Thus, after the convictions, the alleged crimes committed by the Ergenekon network remain unresolved. Furthermore, the military-whose officers are alleged to have overseen some of these activities-remains largely outside the control of civilian auditors.

While Turkey may be more 'coup proof' than in the past, the current status quo came about via coercive measures, sweeping indictments, and forced purges, rather than institutional changes. Real change moving forward still necessitates greater reforms aimed at strengthening Turkish democratic institutions.

Author

Aaron Stein

Aaron Stein is the nonproliferation program manager at the Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies in Istanbul, where he works... read more

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