Thursday, January 22, 2009

Uncovering the Deep State in Turkey

Many of us tend to look at Turkey as a progressive state that exemplifies what a society can become in the Middle East and Central Asia. Pakistan in some ways has modeled itself after Turkey. But there has always been an underside to Turkey in the sense that the military was a stabilizing force in Turkey's affairs. But recent inquiries into an apparent attempted coup by "progressives" is uncovering the work of the "Deep State," which is here defined as "a shadowy zone where state interests intersect with lawless and corrupt elements of the bureaucracy, military and the security establishment." So there may be "a criminal apparatus within the state." That such an inquiry is taking place reveals how truly progressive Turkey is, however -- who would imagine it taking place in Egypt or Syria or Jordan or Saudi Arabia? EurasiaNet published this article today. [Click on the title for a link.]

Civil Society:
Yigal Schleifer: 1/22/09

An investigation into an alleged plot by secularist ultranationalists to overthrow the Turkish government has deepened with the recent arrest of senior military officers and the discovery of several weapons caches. At the same time, there is growing concern that the probe could lead to increased tension between the government and Turkey's powerful military, as well as that the investigation -- aimed at tackling long-standing anti-democratic forces in Turkish politics -- is becoming dangerously politicized.

"You have to take [the investigation] very seriously and you have to be afraid of it," says Andrew Finkel, a columnist with the English-language newspaper Today's Zaman.

"This is an attempt to dismantle the unelected authority in the Turkish state, which has been responsible for militarism and a whole raft of serious anti-democratic practices. And, it seems like what is also happening is that the government is literally disarming its opponents."

"This is a search for justice and it's a search for power, and it doesn't mean you can't do one without the other," he adds.

In an effort to ease the tension, Turkish President Abdullah Gul gathered on January 21 with top officials from the executive, legislative and judiciary branches for a lunch meeting. After the meeting, Gul released a statement calling for the country's institutions to pay close attention to legal procedure in the case. "A rigorous attachment to the supremacy of law and its basic principles and maximum attention to procedural laws will make Turkey stronger and will consolidate the public's trust," the statement said.

The investigation into the coup plot, commonly known as "Ergenekon," has already resulted in the arrest of some 130 people, among them retired four-star generals and prominent politicians, journalists and academics. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. According to an indictment, the plotters were hoping to bring down the Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) by sowing enough chaos, through terror attacks and high-level assassinations, that the military would be forced to intervene.

In recent weeks, following sketches found in the homes of some of the suspects, police have uncovered two weapons caches buried on the outskirts of Ankara. Among the weapons were hand grenades, plastic explosives and ammunition.

For many Turks, the investigation and the arrests -- particularly of high-level military personnel -- offer a chance to expose and unravel some of the work of the "Deep State," a phrase used to describe a shadowy zone where state interests intersect with lawless and corrupt elements of the bureaucracy, military and the security establishment.

"I think this is a historic case. This is a good chance for Turkish political system to put a stop to military interventions and to clean its ranks of these illegal affiliations between state authorities and gangsters and mafia types," says Sahin Alpay, a professor of political science at Istanbul's Bahcesehir University.

But the case, launched in June 2007 after grenades were found in the Istanbul home of a retired military officer, is also creating new tensions between the AKP and the military, which sees itself as the ultimate guardian of Turkey's secular tradition and which has forced out of power four governments in the past.

The recent arrest of three retired generals and nine active officers led to the armed forces chief General Ilker Basbug to call on Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan for a surprise meeting. The military also recently released a statement warning Turkey's media not to "declare people and institutions guilty without trial."

"From now on, responsible authorities and good-sensed media must fulfill their duties and take necessary measures, instead of using only rhetoric," the statement added.

Other parts of Turkey's secularist establishment, including the judiciary, are also crying foul, asserting that the government is using the Ergenekon investigation to take revenge against its political opponents. "We are witnessing a confrontation against the Republic's core values," Deniz Baykal, leader of main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) said at a press conference earlier in January.

Meanwhile, Turkey's Judges and Prosecutors Association (YARSAV) and the Istanbul bar association have also strongly criticized the way investigation is being handled. "We are concerned about the rule of law (in Turkey), as these people [suspects] were detained . . . in a way that could be assessed as revenge," Muammer Aydin, head of the Istanbul Bar, recently said.

But criticism of the case has not been limited to hard-line secularists. The large number of arrests, which include some of the AKP's most vocal critics, and the dubious nature of the some of the evidence in the investigation, has some observers asking if the Ergenekon case has become tainted by politics.

Says Gareth Jenkins, a military analyst based in Istanbul: "[The Ergenekon investigation] started as a kernel of truth, but the AKP has seized on this as an opportunity to undermine the military and its secularist opponents. . . . With every step of the way it has become more politicized and anti-democratic."

"If the prosecution continues as we seen it, we can have an extremely dangerous situation," Jenkins adds. "You now have extreme distrust between the government and the military. What we don't want is a situation where the military believes the government is out to get it."

Government officials have rejected claims that the probe has gone off track, saying its critics are simply not accustomed to seeing the rule of law extend to what had previously been untouchable figures.

Still, observers say that the enormity and importance of the case requires the government to move carefully. "There really needs to be a scrupulous investigation. Everything has to be done by the book and in the right way," says Emma Sinclair-Webb, a Turkey researcher at Human Rights Watch.

"On the other hand, you can't just caricature this whole process as simply being about a power struggle," she says. "It's just too important of a chance for Turkey to grapple with a very dark history and get rid of a criminal apparatus within the state."

Editor's Note: Yigal Schleifer is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul.

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