Accessibility links

Breaking News

Turkey Says Farewell To The Generals

Chief of Staff General Isik Kosaner (left) stands next to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan at a wreath-laying ceremony with members of the Supreme Military Council in Ankara last year.
Chief of Staff General Isik Kosaner (left) stands next to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan at a wreath-laying ceremony with members of the Supreme Military Council in Ankara last year.
There was a time when to be a senior commander in Turkey's military was to be above all else in a state forged and shaped, after all, by a soldier, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

But no longer. If Ataturk is still exalted -- at least officially -- the stock of his modern-day comrades-in-arms has fallen dramatically.

The impotence of the army -- an institution that once made and broke Turkish governments -- was amply demonstrated on July 29 when its four top commanders, including the chief of staff, General Isik Kosaner, resigned in protest at the detention of 250 fellow officers accused of plotting to topple the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Kosaner, who quit along with the heads of the ground, naval, and air forces, expressed his feelings of powerlessness in his resignation statement. "It has become impossible for me to continue in this high office because I am unable to fulfill my responsibility to protect the rights of my personnel as the chief of general staff," he said.

At the heart of Kosaner's anguish is the continued presence of 173 serving and 77 retired military personnel in jail, mostly on charges of trying to overthrow Erdogan's socially conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP) government in a coup, known as Operation Sledgehammer.

The AKP and its supporters hail the detentions -- and the recent mass resignations -- as essential steps in consolidating democracy in a country that saw four governments removed by the military between 1960 and 1997.

Pro-secular demonstrators protest against the government front of the Istanbul police headquarters in Istanbul.

Mensur Akgun, a political analyst at Istanbul's Kultur University and a commentator sympathetic to the AKP, argues that the military has brought its present predicament on itself by assuming it retained a right to interfere in politics as before.

"The military made enormous mistakes and they were not hiding what they were intending to do," Akgun says, "and there have been several court cases in Turkey questioning the coup attempts and all other possible adventures that some military personnel were obviously designing and this has created public opposition towards the military's further involvement in politics."

Military As Scapegoat?

Yet this presumption of the military's guilt -- and with it, a belief that Turkey is democratizing -- is hotly disputed.

Despite around 700 arrests, no one has yet been convicted of charges arising either from Operation Sledgehammer or Ergenekon, a separate alleged coup conspiracy in which a seemingly unlikely assortment of journalists, labor leaders, lawyers, leftists, and hard-line nationalists -- along with serving and retired army officers -- are accused of involvement.

Indeed, the lack of convictions arising from Ergenekon seems particularly striking more than four years after investigators first revealed the alleged plot's existence and nearly three years after the opening of the trial in a blaze of publicity.

The army has acknowledged the existence of a blueprint for Sledgehammer -- which apparently envisaged a coup following bomb blasts in Istanbul and the shooting down of a Turkish warplane to provoke a confrontation with Greece -- but insists they were part of a war-game exercise.

Critics say the investigations are based on trumped-up charges and fabricated evidence. Gareth Jenkins, an Istanbul-based specialist on security affairs, says the police -- often said to be packed with AKP supporters -- planted evidence on army officers, infuriating the top brass.

"The courts had to release a young lieutenant last month after he proved that the police had planted incriminating evidence in his house and the main way he did it was because the evidence was supposed to incriminate somebody else," Jenkins says.

"But of course, no measures were taken against the police who had been planting the evidence and this is really why you have such frustration within the military high command," he adds. "You've got this increasing authoritarianism and Turkey, unfortunately, is heading far away from democracy at the moment."

Power Plays

That view is echoed by the main opposition party, the Republican People's Party (CHP), founded by Ataturk. Emine Ulker Tarhan, the vice president of the party's parliamentary group, told journalists in Ankara on July 30 that "the AKP considers any opposition to its power as terror or illegal." She added, "This mentality dominates the current government and places all opposition in the country as legitimate targets of the security apparatus."

The real goal, says the government's detractors, is to weaken and intimidate the AKP's opponents while increasing the power of Erdogan. The prime minister, a former Islamist who plans to change Turkey's constitution, is widely believed to be seeking to adopt a "presidential system" in which he would become head of state.

Is Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan eliminating all opposition?

Erdogan has vowed to seek "consensus" in his bid to transform a constitution that he has branded undemocratic because it was drawn up under the auspices of the military following a 1980 coup. But suspicions persist that he plans a judicial shake-up that would pack the courts -- once seen, along with the army, as bastions of secularism -- with pro-AKP judges. In theory, that could make it easier to secure convictions in the coup plot trials.

Jenkins dismisses the AKP's insistence that its goal is simply to remove the army from politics. The military's political influence has been waning for years, he says, and has been virtually nonexistent since 2007, when the government faced down an attempt by the top brass to block Abdullah Gul's nomination as president because of his Islamist past.

But while Jenkins says that era has ended, "what's still happening with supporters of the government, they are taking revenge on the military as an institution for things that happened a decade and sometimes 30 or 40 years ago and trying to portray all that as a necessary means of democratizing the country."

The offensive against the military, he says, should not be seen in isolation. "I think you always have to set this in its broader context where you have got a very intimidated press, where you have got tax fines against newspapers which criticize the government, and put it in that context -- rather than the context of getting the military out of politics. What's happening to the military is another symptom of the general increase in authoritarianism that's occurred in Turkey."

But Akgun believes the army still retains the potential to interfere in Turkish politics -- a prospect for which AKP policies, including a new constitution, provide the necessary antidote.

"We are not perfect in terms of freedom of expression and in terms of long periods in custody. There are several deficiencies and if we can get rid of all these deficiencies and we have to have a much more democratic constitution than now," Akgun says, "and if we can settle the Kurdish problem and settle our problems with our neighbors, then the military's role will be decreased -- that's to say [its] political role in the country will automatically be decreased."

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

If you are in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine and hold a Russian passport or are a stateless person residing permanently in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine, please note that you could face fines or imprisonment for sharing, liking, commenting on, or saving our content, or for contacting us.

To find out more, click here.