In early February 2008 one of the Malatya victims’ lawyers, Orhan Kemal Cengiz, published a series of four articles entitled “The Deep State is smiling at me in the Malatya massacre case” (see below).
From the beginning of the trial, wrote Cengiz, there were signs that some people were unhappy about the strong legal team that had come to the defence of the victims’ interests:
“We first went to Malatya a few days before the first hearing. Then we realized that there had already been a local media campaign against me and the legal team. It was quite surprising to see the hostility towards us … In addition to that, when we looked into some of the details in that news we came to the conclusion that some of the information contained in these pieces could not have been gathered without intercepting our telephone conversations and electronic communication.”
The trial had started on a bad note. In addition to the indictment, there were 32 additional files prepared with the help of the police. Remarkably, only 8 of them dealt with the crime, while the rest contained information about Christians in Malatya. Umut Sahin, general secretary of the Association of Protestant Churches, later told us:
“At the beginning there was an attempt to turn the trial against the murderers of Christians into a trial against Christians. That is why these folders contained information from the victims’ computers: what articles and books they read, their bank details. But there was nothing from the computers of the murderers.”
So what can one say about the way the Malatya trial has unfolded since 2007? Already the length of the trial has proven to be encouraging for the victims’ legal team. As lawyer Erdal Dogan told ESI in October 2009:
“Initially some wanted to finish the Malatya court case as quickly as the Santoro murder case in Trabzon. The indictment was short and focused only on the 5 main suspects. But here this did not work. We succeeded in bringing many details to the attention of the court. We urged them to conduct further investigations. We have seen that the prosecutors and judges changed their attitude during the trial. This is already a success.”
In 2006 the trial into the killing of Catholic priest Andrea Santoro in Trabzon closed after nine hearings, which took place between 15 May and 14 October 2006. Santoro’s 16 year old murderer was sentenced to 10 years and 5 months behind bars. A court of appeals later confirmed the verdict. Nobody investigated the question whether somebody else might have incited a 16 year old (and provided him with a weapon) to kill a priest of a church that had already been a target for ultranationalist groups before.
Further reading on Malatya:
Here are a few recommendations for those who want to know more about the case.
First, media which regularly cover the Malatya trial in English online:
Today I will give a presentation at the Kennedy School on an issue that has become ever more interesting in recent weeks: what is happening in Turkey currently in the field of civil-military relations? For more details please go here.
Turkey’s current transformation – in particular concerning the changing role of the Armed Forces – needs to be put in a wider context, both global and European.
As I noted in the seminar here last week it is not long ago that military interventions in politics were everything but rare. In 1962 successful coups took place in Burma, Argentina and Syria; failed coups in Lebanon, Portugal, Venezuela and Turkey. The Times noted in 1960, following the first Turkish coup against an elected civilian government, that “this has been a good year for generals.”
Since the 1960s the Turkish military has been carrying out many more interventions. However, while the officer corps has remained isolated from wider changes in Europe as well as in Turkish society the international acceptance of any military intervention has declined significantly – in Europe it has now reached a point of zero tolerance.
A second interesting book focusing on Turkey is Gareth Jenkins’ Context and Circumstance: The Turkish Military and Politics. It appeared as an Adelphi Paper, published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, in 2001. While I find Gareth Jenkins writings on the Ergenekon trial unconvincing and at times misleading – more on this here later – his text on the Turkish military is a very good introduction.
Jenkins sets out the structural features and ideological motivations and historical references that have set Turkey’s civil-military relations apart from those elsewhere in Europe. As Jenkins notes at the very outset, his book wants to explain, not judge, an exceptional situation:
“the continued domination of Turkish politics by the country’s military appears to be an anomalous anachronism, even an anathema. As a result, discussions of civil-military relations often become coloured by moral judgements as military involvement in politics is seen as not only undesireable but almost an affront to a natural order. The purpose of this paper is neither to condemn not to justify the Turkish military’s involvement in politics; merely to try to understand and explain.” (p5, emphasis added)
At the heart of the Turkish exception is the ideological nature of the Armed Forces’ commitment:
“But what makes the Turkish military unique is that it sees itself as having an almost sacred duty to protect an indigenous ideology, namely Kemalism, the principles laid down by the founder of the Turkish republic, Kemal Ataturk. This ideological dimension to the military’s perception of its role has meant that its definition of security extends beyond public order and Turkey’s political or economic interests to include threats to the country’s Kemalist legacy.”
Central to the world-view of the Turkish officer is the sense that both external and internal threats have enduring roots in Turkey’s past. An important element of military education is the Nutuk speech made by Ataturk, in which Ataturk describes Turkey’s enemies during the War of Liberation (1919-1922):
“Ataturk’s Great Speech of October 1927, the Nutuk, in which he summarised the Turkish War of Liberation, has a position akin to a sacred book and his pronouncements on a vast range of subjects are cited to support arguments as if they were virtual holy writ.” (p 32)
Jenkins notes that this is true not only for the Armed Forces but pervasive in Turkish society and in its national education system:
“Turks are taught, and most believe, that their country is under continual external and internal threat, both from other countries plotting to divide or acquire Turkish territory and from internal forces seeking to change the constitutional status quo. The result is often a virtual siege mentality, riddled with impossibly intricate conspiracy theories.”
“Turkish schoolchildren are taught that the 1920 Treaty of Sevres, which, though never ratified and subsequently superseded by the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, foresaw the allocation of large tracts of modern Turkey to Greece, Armenia, Italy and France (the latter two in the form of mandates), and the eventual creation of an independent Kurdish state, still represents the real intentions of the West towards Turkey.” (pp16, 17)
However, such views are particularly strongly represented among those who pursue a military career, where they form the core of the curriculum:
“The teaching of history in the military academies places considerable emphasis on the foundation of the Turkish Republic. Cadets are taught that the Ottoman Empire was eroded by a combination of foreign avarice and a paucity of patriots prepared to defend the homeland. (p 32)
In January 1999 the military academy in Ankara published a booklet calling for a second ‘War of Liberation’ against Islamic fundamentalism:
“Continual exhortations to identify with Ataturk and to see him as an immortal guiding presence effectively brings the past into the present. Indeed, cadets are explicitly taught that, although circumstances and methods may change, the external and internal threats to the country – threats which they are legally as well as morally obliged to repulse – are fundamentally the same as in Ataturk’s lifetime … international pressure to allow greater political pluralism appears reminiscent of Allied attempts to divide Turkey at Sevres.” (p 33)
Jenkins quotes General Nahgit Senoglu, the head of the Military Academies, who told the new intake of cadets in 2000:
“You will see that Turkey has the most internal and external enemies of any country in the world. You will learn about the dirty aspirations of those who hide behind values such as democracy and human rights and who want to take revenge on the republic of Ataturk.”
Such as threat perception also serves to legitimise the privileged position of the Armed Forces:
“The military’s role is further bolstered by public perceptions of the security environment, where external and internal threats are often inflated and distorted by conspiracy theories in which even Turkey’s NATO allies are secretly plotting to weaken and divide the country.1 In such a situation, it is to the military that most Turks turn […] .”(P 9)
Being educated as a military officer also includes other messages, writes Gareth Jenkins,
“From the moment that they enter the military academies officer cadets are told that they are joining an elite, […] with a sacred mission to protect Kemalism.” (p30)
Jenkins explains that the “strict military hierarchy starts in the military high schools and academies”, and even underlines that “military officials admit that the hierarchies and deference to authority in Turkish society, particularly within the family, play a significant role in enabling cadets to adapt to a military environment.” The “relative social isolation of the academies and the inculcation of a sense of being distinct from society at large inevitably combine to produce an increasing identification with their fellow cadets and the armed forces as an institution.” (p 30)
Jenkins writes that the Turkish military has “traditionally vigorously resisted any attempt by the civilian authorities to investigate allegations against serving or retired officers.” (p 29), refusing to
“cooperate with investigations into, allegations of corruption or human rights abuses involving members of the security forces, especially the gendarmerie, apparently because it believes that even an investigation would harm the image of the armed forces. For example, in spring 1997 the TGS refused to allow a parliamentary committee investigating allegations of collaboration between elements in the security apparatus and the Turkish underworld to question members of the gendarmerie. Similarly, it has refused to allow external investigations of allegations of the use of beatings, usually by NCOs or lower-ranking officers, to discipline conscripts, insisting that such cases must remain the exclusive prerogative of the military courts. (p 30)
Cook examines what he calls “authoritarian stability” in “military-dominated states”. In such systems democratic facades allowed officers to rule without having to govern. Cook notes that in Turkey for a long time “pseudodemocratic institutions give the military the respect and admiration of large majorities of the Turkish people. Although the officers are responsible for the political order, the presence of institutions resembling a democratic polity effectively shields them from any public dissatisfaction.” (p.106)
Cook quotes a Turkish officer telling Mehmet Ali Birand:
“We are opposed to anybody, no matter whether they are there by the grace of the ballot box or the votes of the National Assembly, who attempts to violate Ataturk’s principles. We have a right to act to this end in the interests of our own people, and for their protection.” (p 102)
He examines how “Turkey has been able to undertake an extraordinary and wide-ranging program to dismantle its authoritarian institutions” in recent years, a transformation he considers “extraordinary”: while changes to the structure of the National Security Council in 2001 were still cosmetic, by 2004 they significantly downgraded the formal power of the military to influence civilian decision making. So did other changes, including a constitutional amendment in 2004 that rescinded the military’s exemption from Court of Auditors’ oversight.
In this transformation the role of the EU is decisive. Cook wonders whether there are any general lessons in this, but does not elaborate:
“It is fashionable, particularly among Arab elites, to say that democracy cannot be imposed from the outside, but the lessons of EU-Turkey relations indicate that the United States and France can play a role facilitating conditions more conducive to democratic change in Egypt and Algeria. … “
Cook rightly underlines that the Internal Service Act (1961) remains intact, including article 85 which states that the “Armed Forces shall defend the country against internal as well as external threats, if necessary by force.” This is but one sign that Turkey’s democratic revolution is not yet complete. He lists the following institutional innovations as essential:
to subordinate the General Staff to a civilian minister of defence
to empower the Council of State and other parts of the judicial branch to overrule the Supreme Military Council
to overhaul the internal service codes of the armed forces, which justify the military’s intervention in politics
to alter the curriculum at military academies and staff colleges
I would add a few additional concrete steps to this essential list, including:
to clarify the limitations of the military judicial system
to finally implement Turkey’s commitment to allow conscientious objectors to do alternative service
to undertake the full regular auditing of military expenditures in line with the 2004 constitutional amendments
I share Cook’s fascination for Turkey’s recent transformation and his assuymption that it holds a lot of interesting lessons. He concludes on an optimistic note: even in the Middle East
“countries with authoritarian political systems are not necessarily fated to manifest nondemocratic politics in perpetuity – forever is, after all, a long time … the Turkish transition highlights how external actors can nurture a political environment more conducive to peaceful, democratic change.”
This is an issue I hope to explore more with my students in the seminar on intervention in coming weeks.
The ambassadors’ response is emblematic of the sort of fears that we have come across during our research for “Noah’s Dove Returns”, a recent ESI paper on Turkish-Armenian relations. As many of our Turkish interlocutors told us, recognition of the Armenian genocide, whether in Turkey or abroad, not only threatens to undermine “Turkish prestige and honor”; it also throws into question the current Turkish-Armenian border and paves the way for compensation and restitution claims against the Turkish government.
We disagree that Turkish national prestige is at risk in this debate. The growing number of third country resolutions on the Armenian genocide since 2000 has done nothing to dent Turkey’s international standing. On the contrary: the same period has seen Turkey open accession talks with the EU, secure a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council (the first time since the 1960s), attract rapidly growing levels of foreign investments, and win widespread international praise for its domestic reforms and foreign policy initiatives. Meanwhile, the widening domestic debate on Turkey’s difficult past is boosting both Turkey’s democratic image and its chances for EU accession. A Turkey that comes to terms with its Ottoman past, evidently, stands to win – not lose – international prestige.
The question of territorial claims is another red herring in the recognition debate. Though it has been on the agenda of a vocal nationalist minority in Armenia (and in the diaspora) for decades, border revision has never been part of any Armenian government’s policy. The nationalists’ claims, based on the never-ratified Treaty of Sevres, have not managed to secure any international support. Normalization of ties between Turkey and Armenia, in any case, would put them to rest once and for all. (This, in fact, is exactly why some Armenian nationalists have had second thoughts about opening relations with Turkey.)
The third argument – that recognition, be it by countries in the EU, the US or by Turkey itself, will allow Armenians to sue the Turkish government – is also widespread. Not because it is true; but because many people believe that it involves complicated and ambiguous points of international law. This is not the case, however.
To begin with, the Armenian genocide has by now been officially recognized by 20 countries. If recognition is meant to pave the way towards restitution, these countries’ courts must surely be flooded with Armenian lawsuits? Not at all. In fact, not a single genocide-related claim has successfully been made against the Turkish government anywhere in the world – this, despite genocide resolutions having been passed in countries like France, Germany and Russia.
The European Parliament, in its 1987 resolution, even took pains to explain why. As it stressed, “neither political nor legal or material claims against present-day Turkey can be derived from the recognition of this historical event as an act of genocide.” The only international framework under which such claims could theoretically be pursued, the 1948 UN Convention on Genocide, cannot be applied retroactively. There is no serious disagreement on this point. The findings of a 2002 study on the “Events” of 1915 by the International Center for Transitional Justice are unambiguous:
In only one instance have legal claims proved successful – and even then they had no link to genocide recognition or the Turkish state. Over the past few years, a number of insurance companies have had to pay compensation to those Armenians whose relatives, having purchased insurance policies before 1915, perished in the genocide. But it was the companies themselves – and not the Turkish government – who were the defendents in these cases. The claims had nothing to do with the Turkish state. Also, despite Armenian protestations, the courts found the question of what to call the events of 1915 completely irrelevant. They were dealing not with terminology, but with individual property claims.
Even Armenian leaders have publicly acknowledged that genocide recognition has no impact whatsoever on the claims issue. It is not that Armenians have forsaken pursuing legal consequences, explained Armenian president Robert Kocharian in a 2001 interview with Mehmet Ali Birand. It’s just that these have nothing to do with whether or not Turkey or another state recognizes the genocide. “The issue is that genocide recognition does not create the legal bases to allow Armenia to present certain demands before Turkey,” said Kocharian. “I am surprised that Turkish attorneys themselves have not provided the Turkish government with such counsel and such an assessment.”
All this is not to say that restitution or compensation by the Turkish state is impossible. Armenians could, in theory, file claims against the Turkish government – but only in Turkish courts, and only if Turkey adopts a binding legal act allowing them to do so. The jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights in the area of property restitution confirms this. As the ECHR has ruled, “For a claim to be capable of being considered an ‘asset’ […] the claimant must establish that it has a sufficient basis in national law, for example where there is settled case-law of the domestic courts confirming it, or whether there is a final court judgement in the claimant’s favour.”
All of these cases, across a number of different jurisdictions, point to the same conclusion. There is no connection whatsoever between genocide recognition on the one hand and property restitution or compensation claims on the other. There is, in other words, no slippery slope leading from a non-binding US Congressional resolution to a successful lawsuit against the Turkish state to – as some of our interlocutors in Ankara seem to believe – the confiscation of THY planes at American airports. Turkish decision makers and opinion leaders should make it clear that such fears are a red herring. Dodging this conclusion – and giving unsubstantiated rumours free rein – threatens to make serious and honest discussion of Turkey’s Armenia policy even more difficult than they already are.
Three days ago I wrote about a series of strange and shocking events – murders, rumours of military coups and political conspiracies – that have made headlines in Turkey in the past three years. I listed these events as they came to my mind and as if they were unrelated. This impression of randomness could be seriously misleading, however.
In fact, reading Turkish newspapers and newly published books these days one enters the world of a multilayered thiller – Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose or Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code come to mind – in which every ominous event appears to be linked to the next. It is a world of secret patterns that are only revealed at the very end: a hidden plot that connects the murder of an Italian priest in a church in the Black Sea town of Trabzon in 2006, the attempted murder of a former PKK member in a mainly Kurdish city on the border with Iraq in 2005, the assassination of a high judge in a courtroom in the centre of Ankara in 2006 and the cold-blooded execution of Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink in the busy centre of modern Istanbul in 2007. Istanbul prosecutors currently seek to prove in an ongoing investigation that there is in fact a link between all these (and many more) crimes: a network of radical nationalist conspirators operating under the name Ergenekon. This in turn is linked to what Turks call derin devlet: the deep state.
What is Ergenekon? And what is derin devlet? Let us proceed cautiously from what is known before arriving at what is only suspected. In matters of conspiracies, it is best to treat carefully lest one gets lost in a fantasy world of multiple echoes and strange shadows.
First, devlet. When I arrived in Turkey a few years ago I was struck how often Turkish analysts would make a distinction between “the government” and “the state” in sentences such as “the state will not allow the government to do this” (for instance, use its sufficient parliamentary majority to elect a new president). I did not appreciate at the time the definition of devlet in the excellent book on Turkey (Crescent and Star, 2001) by former NYT correspondent Stephen Kinzer:
“The dictionary says it means “state”, but it also means something much uglier. Devlet is an omnipotent entity that stands above every citizen and every institution. Loyalty to it is held to be every Turk’s most fundamental obligation, and questioning it is considered treasonous. No one ever defines what devlet means; everyone is supposed to know. Its guardians are a self-perpetuating elite – the generals, police chiefs, prosecutors, judges, political bosses and press barons who decide what devlet demands of the citizenry. This elite has written many laws to help it do what it perceives as its duty, and when necessary it acts outside the law.” (p. 26)
The institutional foundation of devlet was (and is) the Turkish constitution of 1982. It was drafted under the supervision of the Turkish military that had taken power following a coup in 1980. The very first sentence of the preamble of the constitution spells out its underlying philosophy:
“In line with the concept of nationalism and the reforms and principles introduced by the founder of the Republic of Turkey, Atatürk, the immortal leader and the unrivalled hero, this Constitution, which affirms the eternal existence of the Turkish nation and motherland and the indivisible unity of the Turkish state …”
A few paragraphs further down the constitution spells out what this means:
“… no protection shall be accorded to an activity contrary to Turkish national interests, the principle of the indivisibility of the existence of Turkey with its state and territory, Turkish historical and moral values or the nationalism, principles, reforms and modernism of Atatürk …”
Ankara – Ataturk Mausoleum
There were many other provisions, in the constitution and in other laws, that buttressed the military’s vision of the national interest in post-coup Turkey: the military-controlled National Security Council, acting as a shadow government, the Higher Education Board controlling universities, laws on political parties (that made it easy to dissolve them) and on associations and foundations (to control these). The outside world was viewed as full of enemies, plotting to bring Turkey down and always looking for and finding domestic traitors to work with. As Stephen Kinzer wrote in 2001:
“Writers, journalists and politicians who critizice the status quo are packed off to prison for what they say and write. Calls for religious freedom are considered subversive attacks on the secular order. Expressions of ethnic or cultural identity are banned for fear that they will trigger separatist movements and ultimately rip the country apart.” (p.12)
This repression was not hidden, however: it was the public face of the state. In fact, the architects of this system and its guardians were unapologetic about the necessity to protect devlet by limiting individual rights and democracy.
What, by contrast, is derin devlet? It is those elements of the state which went even further than the repressive laws already put in place to fight the enemies of devlet with illegal methods.
Again, some things are known about how this worked. There were hundreds of mystery killings in South East Anatolia in particular during the 1990s. A particularly radical group such as (Turkish, no link to the Lebanese organisation) Hizbullah was one of the instruments used. This became clear when hideouts used by Hizbullah, containing bodies of people kidnapped and turtored, were found across Turkey. As Kinzer put it, “the true lesson was even more sinister. Hizbullah had not been a band of outlaws but an arm of the Turkish state. Security agencies in southeastern provinces had made common cause with these terrorists. … Hizbullah thugs were turned loose to kidnap and kill their enemies in the knowledge that the police would not investigate them.” (p. 100)
Then there was the famous car accident in Susurluk in 1996: the people who died in the car crash, sitting in the same Mercedes, included a top-ranking police commander, who had been involved in counter-guerilla operations against the PKK; Abdullah Catli, one of the most famous gangsters in Turkey; and a pro-government Kurdish clan chief and parliamentarian. Evidence emerged that linked Catli to numerous crimes since the 1970s, and that showed that he had in fact been recruited by government security agents as an assassin.
However, even such discoveries did not change the culture of impunity in the security apparatus. Politicians who dared to confront the security apparatus did not get far in the late 90s, and nor did prosecutors. A parliamentary investigation, which led to a thick report in 1997, was prevented to question some key suspects, who could have shed light on events and links between state institutions and the underworld. One of these suspects who were not investigated further was Veli Kucuk, who had been a high level military officer in South East Anatolia allegedly in charge of a special and secret military unit and who had last spoken to Catli before the accident. Kucuk is today once again a central figure in the current Ergenekon investigation and was arrested in January 2008.
In fact, much has changed in Turkey since 2001: torture is no longer tolerated, the formal role of the military has been reduced, the Penal code and laws on associations have been reformed. Many more changes are expected and required, should Turkey’s EU accession process continue successfully. There have also been many changes to the constitution, and following the election victory of the AKP in the summer of 2007 work started on drafting a new constitution – with a new preamble – to turn away from the tradition of devlet embodied in the 1982 document.
And yet other things have not changed. There are still those within the system who believe that there is an immutable concept of nationalism that has to be protected, if need be by illegal instruments, against its enemies. Fast forward to 2006, 2007 and 2008 and it becomes clear that the challenge posed by both the surviving authoritarian state tradition and the threat of deep state structures remains serious. This was never more clear than this week in March
After 10 days of travel and research in Bulgaria and Brussels the plane from Sofia arrives back in Istanbul early on Saturday morning.
It is a glorious early spring day, warm and sunny. At 9 in the morning, as the taxi goes from the airport in the west of the city along the Byzantine walls towards the Golden Horn this metropolis is at its most attractive. There is little traffic, only some early pedestrians in the parks that stretch long the Marmara Sea. We cross the Galata bridge and continue along one of the most beautiful stretches of coast anywhere in Europe: from Ortakoy, underneath the first Bosporus bridge, to the affluent “village” of Bebek and further to the huge Ottoman fortress of Rumeli Hisari. We pass the fortress, turn left, and I am at home.
Mecidiye Mosque, Ortakoy (Istanbul)
There is a game I have been playing for the last years upon every return to Istanbul after a trip abroad: to discover what has changed in the city this time. In fact, I do not remember ever having lived in a place – not post-war Sarajevo in 1996, not post-communist Chernivtsi in Ukraine in 1993, not transition Sofia in 1994 – where the feeling of witnessing constant change in the immediate physical environment has been as acute as in Istanbul today.
Today it is new, red road signs have been put up in all of Rumeli Hisari (and, I notice later, elsewhere in the city) during the past 10 days: quite elegant signs that indicate not only the names of streets that I have walked for years without knowing what they were called, but also the specific quarter (in this case Rumeli Hisari mahallesi) and the municipality (Sariyer). The signs have come accompanied by new red numbers pasted onto every house. Having struggled to find my way around the centre of Sofia, looking for non-existant street signs, only a day before makes me appreciate this change.
And it is not the only one that has transformed my mahalle: the reconstruction of the facade of a prominent old house in the main street leading up the hill from the Bosporus has also been completed. The enlargement of the pedestrian promenade along the water has also advanced. And these are just the changes I notice immediately upon arriving. It is this reality of small but continuous changes that conveys the sense of being in the most dynamic city in one of the most dynamic countries in Europe: a vitality and restlessness that does not cease to fascinate (one could make a long list of the large number of changes just in Rumeli Hisari in the past year).
Unfortunately, excitement and surprises in Turkey are today not restricted to urban improvement. There is a second aspect of life here that is no less constant: witnessing the twists and turns in an unending and often merciless power struggle that lies beneath the astonishing social and economic developments visible on the surface. It is almost a certainty that after a few days of absence reading a daily paper or visiting a Turkish website brings one face to face with the latest existential social crisis, atrocity, political turmoil or bitter confrontation, facts that often shock and surprise even the most seasoned observers of local politics.
To illustrate what I mean let me list only a few of the recent crises that have appeared like lighthing on a clear sky in recent years: the apprehension of two military men, caught planting a bomb in a bookshop in the town of Semdinli in late 2005. The murder of an Italian Catholic priest in his church in Trabzon. Protests preventing the holding of a conference discussing Armenians in the late Ottoman Empire in Istanbul. The assassination of a judge at the State Council in Ankara. The murder of Turkish Armenian journalist Hrant Dink in the centre of Istanbul. The killing of a group of missionaries in Malatya. A speech by (former) president Sezer warning that Turkey has never been in greater danger from turning fundamentalist. A dire warning by the Chief of Staff to the same effect. The removal of a prosecutor (in Van) who indicated that higher levels in the military might have been involved in the bombing in Semdinli. A violent demonstration in Diyarbakir, ending with young people killed in the streets by security forces. A terrorist attack by the PKK. Another terrorist attack. Media frenzy over an impending invasion of Northern Iraq. Airstrikes. An actual invasion of Northern Iraq. A frontpage story in March 2007, published in an Istanbul weekly (Nokta) how leading military officers were planning coups in 2004. The closing of that same weekly, never to reopen, a few days later, following pressure from the prosecutors. The opening of a trail against its editor. The threat of military intervention delivered through an email (the e-memorandum crisis) in April 2007. Mass demonstrations against the government. The sentencing of an academic who dared to question some aspect of the life of Ataturk. Trials of writers and journalists. The trial of Orhan Pamuk. The dissolution of a town council in South East Anatolia for using “languages other than Turkish” when providing services to citizens. The indictment of a Kurdish local politician. More indictments. A move to prohibit the DTP (Kurdish party) represented in the Grand National Assembly. The discover of a plot to kill the prime minister and his advisors in Ankara. The discovery of a large number of handgrandes in a house on the Asian side of Istanbul in summer 2007.
And finally, to top everything, the arrest of dozens of individuals who form an underground terrorist right-wing network in January 2008 and who appear to be linked to a large number of the incidents just listed … As I write this list I realise that I can easily do so from memory, without any real effort. I certainly have forgotten a range of smaller “existential crises”.
Every time one leaves Istanbul for a few days one thus returns to find the city that appears a bit richer, a bit more beautiful and yet also a city where the wildest political fiction is regularly surpassed by the reality of Turkey’s dark power struggles. Turkey is a bad country for those who do not want to believe in conspiracy theories. So this is a typical Bosporus weekend: walking along the water, drinking tea, looking at the rays of sun dancing on the small waves, enjoying a sense of peace and harmony, beauty and promise. And then turning to the papers and experiencing the opposite reaction: bewilderment.
Just consider the amazing turn politics took this weekend. On Friday evening (14 March) the Chief Public Prosecutor of the Supreme Court of Appeals, Abdurrahman Yalcinkaya, applied to the Constitutional Court to close the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), suggesting that it poses a threat to the secular order of the country. He calls for a ban on 71 of its leading members, including President Abdullah Gul and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, from politics for five years! Can this be true?
Most reactions in Turkey condemned the closure request. The daily Radikal titled on 15 March 2008: “It’s enough, anything else”, Taraf daily wrote: Put the Prosecutor on trail. On 17 March 2008 Sahin Alpay commented in Today’s Zaman: “The status quo fights back.” The Industrialist’s Association TUSIAD also criticised the motion: “In respect of Turkish democracy this trial is unacceptable.”
Instead of offering you my own analysis, let me quote a few of the local papers to share the full flavour of the local debate.
“Left shocked by the lawsuit filed by the chief prosecutor of the Supreme Court of Appeals against the powerful ruling party late Friday, pundits in Ankara have already begun to ponder how this judicial coup attempt will end. According to the Turkish Constitution, there is no timeframe for the Constitutional Court to decide on a party closure file. But, in 1997, it took only eight months for the court to close the Welfare Party, the predecessor of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP). This shows that there is not much time for the political engineers in the capital to direct developments to their advantage.
But what is more important then the timeframe is the member composition of the Constitutional Court, which has closed 40 different political parties since its foundation in 1961. Fikret Bila, daily Milliyet’s columnist, underlined this reality in his column yesterday but also drew attention to the fact that the parties were banned because of either acting against the unitary regime of the Republic or being a focal point of anti-secular activities. The ban of two political parties has been asked for: The AKP and the Democratic Society Party (DTP), Bila said, pointing out that the predecessors of these two parties were also closed down by the top court on the same charges.
Another point is that the general composition of the top court has not changed in the last 10 years. Political observers argued that the majority of judges in the Constitutional Court were appointed by former President Ahmet Necdet Sezer, a staunch secularist who was elected as president when he was the head of the top court in 2000. Out of 11 judges, at least seven of them would vote for the closure of the AKP, these observers claimed. Apart from these predictions, the court’s ruling last year to annul the presidential elections in Parliament with the votes of nine judges shows that life will no longer be easy for the AKP. But the court will signal its possible ruling on the closure of the AKP through another decision on the annulment of the recently approved constitutional amendments package that lifts the headscarf ban in universities, a move that sparked harsh accusation against the government from the judiciary and the military. Observers in the capital argued that if the court annuls the constitutional amendment on the basis of secularism principle of the Republic that will also send a strong warning to the ruling party.
In the event of the AKP’s closure, the ruling party will not only lose its chairman and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan but also 41 seats in Parliament. The current government will collapse in the absence of its prime minister. But the AKP’s remaining 299 deputies could still form a new party, elect a chairman and of course the new prime minister of the country. Many observers argued that the party would face an in-house race for the party’s leadership but the new prime minister will be someone selected by Erdoğan himself. There are already names being mentioned in the capital for the leadership of the party such as Deputy Prime Minister Cemil Çiçek, Justice Minister Mehmet Ali Şahin, Foreign Minister Ali Babacan, Interior Minister Beşir Atalay, Parliament Speaker Köksal Toptan. Abdüllatif Şener who refused to participate in the July 22 general elections from the AKP ranks, is also seen a potential leader of the new party but Şener cannot be prime minister as he is not a lawmaker. Another possibility is that the country could face snap general elections as a result of the AKP’s closure depending on how long the file remains in court. The country will hold local elections next year in March, where general elections could also be held if the AKP’s possible successor decides to do so. The votes of 276 deputies suffice for calling a general election. Let them close us, we would get 50 percent of votes, Şahin told reporters in Antalya over the weekend. But there are more optimists among the AKP members. This time we’ll receive 70 percent of votes, said Bülent Arınç, an AKP heavyweight.”
“We aren’t accustomed to having solely an “indictment,” written by the chief prosecutor of the Supreme Court of Appeals, without a process — a process of a military intervention, prepared and executed by masters of psychological warfare. In 1960, after the army takeover, the military rulers brought all the politicians who had served the country in the proceeding 10 years before a specially designed tribunal, whose handpicked members tried them for misdemeanors. President Celal Bayar was accused of embezzling a gift horse. No kidding. The panel of judges later found that the horse had been delivered to a zoo together with a hound, also the gift of an Afghan king. The chairman of the panel waved a piece of ladies’ underwear in the face of Prime Minister Adnan Menderes, accusing him of secret liaisons, but it was later discovered that the underwear had been planted by a friendly hand. Prime Minister Menderes was also accused by the same tribunal of fathering a child out of wedlock. In 1980, after the army intervened, the new military rulers opened up court cases against politicians and their parties. Soon afterwards they closed all the parties and banned the politicians from politics. Almost all the politicians were brought before special tribunals, and their miserable spectacle they presented during these trials gave away the reality that they had been subjected to harsh torture and mistreatment.
Mere indictment by a chief prosecutor for the closure of a political party is a new phenomenon in Turkish politics. No direct military intervention, no taking politicians prisoner, no sending political leaders to exile, not even any forcing of a government from power… Only an indictment written by the chief prosecutor… The chief prosecutor has obviously spent a lot of time on preparing the text of the indictment. The 162-page text is made up of accusations against Justice and Development Party (AK Party) politicians, including President Abdullah Gül, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and former Parliament Speaker Bülent Arınç. The chief prosecutor collected all the utterances of AK Party politicians — the utterances he felt were against the secular foundation of the state — going back to the time they were members of the now-banned Welfare Party (RP).”
3. A comment by Sahin Alpay:
“chief prosecutor has asked the Constitutional Court to ban the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) for allegedly having become a center of activities threatening the secular regime. This move is surely a severe attack against democracy, the rule of law and stability in Turkey. It is a shame for the country. The accusations leveled against the AK Party are wholly unjustified and have no legal basis, only an ideological one. It seems that the self-appointed bureaucratic guardians of the state want to punish the AK Party for not only daring to elect Abdullah Gül, whose wife wears the headscarf, as president, but also for trying to lift the headscarf ban at university, which has long been the symbol of authoritarian secularism. One can only hope that the Constitutional Court rejects this provocation against democracy and that Parliament finally moves to adopt the necessary constitutional and legal amendments to bring regulations concerning political parties in line with liberal democratic norms.
The chief prosecutor had previously asked the Constitutional Court to ban the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP) and now he is moving against the AK Party government, which received 47 percent of the national vote in last summer’s general election. These moves by the chief prosecutor indicate that the bureaucratic establishment in Turkey wants to uphold state policies adopted in the 1920s and 1930s under an authoritarian single-party regime. Those policies, drawn in line with the notion of modernity that prevailed in the founding period of the republic, essentially assigned the state the duty of secularizing society. This amounted to isolating society from the influence of Islam, which was regarded as the main source of the country’s backwardness. Identity policies adopted at the time were aimed at the forced assimilation of minority cultures into the majority culture.”
4. A comment by Bulent Kenes (columnist with Bugun and Today’s Zaman):
“Expecting this much from those who resorted to a midnight e-memorandum, those who provoked a certain segment of society to take to the streets while heaping all sorts of insults on the other segment, those who invented the problem of the “367 requirement” — at the cost of contravening the law — just to keep Sezer as president and those who tried to prevent the general elections by attempting to engage the country in a war in 2007 cannot be considered unreasonable. However, we are only human, and we are innately predisposed to looking at future possibilities optimistically, and we thought that this segment, however enraged it may be, would not dare to draw the country into a political turmoil and chaos it could not handle, thinking that they were on the same ship as us. But today what we understand from their efforts to have the ruling party shut down is that we have been a bit too optimistic.”
5. A comment by Yavuz Baydar (columnist with Sabah and Today’s Zaman):
“If the case is accepted, we shall have unprecedented case in world politics: The parties chosen by more than half of the voters will have faced an annulment of their political will, by the judiciary — the AK Party and Democratic Society Party (DTP), the latter earlier charged with separatist terror. Indictments question the legitimacy of some 360 seats of a total of 550 in Parliament. In other words, Turkey’s democracy is being led into a huge crisis with an unknown outcome.
In such a case the AK Party could, and should, take the lead: First, it should convene Parliament immediately and seek a consensus of urgent and comprehensive constitutional reform with revision also of the Political Parties Law. Second, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Foreign Minister Ali Babacan should immediately visit Brussels and meet with major EU leaders in order to declare a national plan for democratic reform and a clear-cut road map for the rest of the year. It should immediately amend Turkish Penal Code (TCK) Article 301 to show its commitment to the democratic project in accordance with the EU. It is up to Erdoğan to convince the wide democratic opinion of Turkey that the AK Party will return to policies of change on a broader basis.
The AK Party’s only chance to save democracy is to again widen its circle of domestic alliance, re-embracing alienated non-AK Party segments for further reform and pressure Turkey’s friends in the EU to raise the level of support for a stable future. From today serious things are at stake, and hidden efforts will have a backlash.”
“The 21st century tactic is to stage coups via not the military but the judiciary. As I noted in my piece dated Jan. 24 and titled “The Empire Strikes Back (Via Juristocracy),” now the bureaucratic empire in Ankara attacks the representatives of the people with legal decisions, not armed battalions. If you talk to them, they will proudly tell you that they are saving Turkey from Islamic fundamentalism. You have to be a secular fundamentalist – or hopelessly uninformed – to believe that. The AKP has proved to be a party committed to the democratization and liberalization of Turkey, a process which, naturally, includes the broadening of religious freedom But that democratization and liberalization is the very thing that the empire fears from. If you look at the “evidence” that the chief prosecutor presented to the Constitutional Court to blame the AKP, you will see how fake all this “Islamic fundamentalism” rhetoric is. The anti-secular “crimes” of AKP include:
Making a constitutional amendment in order to allow university students to wear the headscarf. (Maddeningly enough, this bill was accepted in Parliament with the votes of not just the AKP’s deputies but also those of the Nationalist Movement Party [MHP], and the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society party.)
Supplying free bus services for the student of the religious “imam-hatip” schools, which are nothing but state-sponsored modern high schools that teach some Islamic classes in addition to the standard secular education.
Naming a park in Ankara after the deceased leader of a Sufi order.
Not allowing the public display of a bikini advertisement.
Employing headscarved doctors in public hospitals.
Allowing one of the local administrators to issue a paper which has the criminal sentence, “May God have mercy on the souls of our colleagues who have passed away.” (The simple fact that he dared to mention God [“Allah” in Arabic and Turkish] in an official setting was considered as a crime.)
Yes, this is absolutely crazy. It is like defining the Republican Party in the United States as an “anti-secular threat” and asking for its closure based on facts such as that it has pro-life (anti-abortion) tendencies and that President Bush publicly said that his favorite philosopher is Jesus Christ. The heart of the matter is that Turkey’s self-styled secularism is a fiercely anti-religious ideology akin to that of Marxist-Leninist tyrannies. And the AKP has been trying to turn Turkey into a democracy. That’s the party’s real “crime.””
7. Finally, a comment by a former Turkish ambassador to Germany and deputy leader of the major opposition CHP, Onur Öymen :
“The AKP’s members cannot expunge their guilt by blaming the judiciary for their actions. Everyone needs to respect the judicial process from now on. Parties need to respect the law.”
The opposition CHP noted that decisions by the courts “have to be respected”. Deniz Baykal, the CHP chairperson said: “the indictment is a legal one. It was not prepared with political aims and hostility; and it does not reflect emotional reactions. It was prepared objectively and within the borders of laws and responsibility.”
Alina Mungiu-Pippidi, one of Romania’s leading social scientists and founder of the Romanian Academic Society has moved to teach at the Hertie School of Governance (HSoG) in Berlin where she invites me to give a presentation on Turkey’s potential for accession to the EU. Social and economic developments, the recent (legal) revolution of women’s rights, the German debate about Turkey and the role of the military were some of many areas I tried to cover.
This will be followed by another public presentation next week in Berlin on the issue of women in Turkey (in German). For more information on this event go here.