Military Resignations : Crisis or New Beginning ?

La démission de toute la haute hierarchie militaire turque, immédiatement acceptée par le premier ministre RecepTayyip Erdogan, et la nomination des successeurs par le pouvoir civil, marque une étape importante dans la transformation de la vie politique turque. Les adversaires de l’AKP, le parti islamique modéré au pouvoir craignent la fin du rôle de l’armée comme rempart de la République, tandis que d’autres obaservateurs se félicitent de l’affirmation du contrôle civil sur les chefs militaires qui ont commis plusieurs coups d’Etat depuis les années 1960. Soli Özel, professeur à l’université Kadir Has d’Istanbul, se veut optimiste, dans un commentaire écrit pour le German Marshall Fund.

Old questions cascaded from around

the world after the news broke that

Turkey’s chief of the General Staff and

three of the four force commanders

had resigned their posts. The force

commanders had only a few weeks

left in their term, but Chief of Staff

General Koşaner’s term was not due

to end until August 2013. He was duly

replaced by the commander of the

gendarmerie, Necdet Özel (no relation

of mine, by the way). Institutional

continuity was thus secured.

Abroad, this unprecedented move by

the military top brass led to concerns

about the future of Turkish democracy

given Turkey’s record of coups and

military meddling in politics. Some

wondered whether this could be the

prelude to a more radical move, such

as an attempted military takeover, as

had happened in the past. Others questioned

what such a development meant

for Turkey’s NATO membership. Yet

others saw in this development the

final step towards the so-called Islamization

of the Turkish polity or the

unchallenged rule of Turkish Prime

Minister Tayyip Erdoğan.

Contrary to such alarmism, the mood

in Turkey was mainly sanguine.

Despite efforts by some media outlets to further dramatize what was

undoubtedly an important instance in

Turkey’s political development, most

of the public saw the event for what it

was : another step in the retreat of the

Turkish military to the proper institutional

role and functions that befit

a democratic country. Nothing more,

nothing less. This latest, somewhat

dramatic episode probably sealed

the process of the demilitarization of

Turkish politics that began a decade

ago, and cleared one more hurdle on

the way to draft a new civilian constitution.

It also left no excuses to the

government as to how to tackle the

Kurdish question and put a spotlight

on its own democratic credentials.

The resignations, which were

announced after markets closed on

Friday, came three days before the

Higher Military Council meeting to

decide on the promotions, retirements,

and appointments of the officer corps.

The move indicated disagreements

about personnel decisions between the

government and the military authorities.

In the most important example,

the military wants at most to freeze the

rank of those officers who are on trial

in a variety of cases, but the government

wishes to send them to retirement.

A similar episode took place last year when the top brass,

accustomed to seeing its personnel decisions rubberstamped

by the civilian authorities, insisted on promoting

individuals who were totally unpalatable to the president

and the prime minister. At that time, the civilians mostly

had their way and blocked the ascent of General Hasan Iğsız

to the position of ground forces commander and none of

the officers on trial got promoted.

Variations of the concerns for the future of Turkish democracy

or what the military’s move meant for Turkey’s politics

actually addressed issues that belonged to a bygone era. It

has been quite some time since the Turkish military won a

political battle against the civilian government. If anything,

every move they made in the course of the past four to five

years backfired, and strengthened the civilian government

and the ruling AKP. The incessant urge for intervention in

the political process systematically eroded their prestige and

their status as the most trusted institution in the country.

The photograph from the first day of the Higher Military

Council meeting spoke louder than words ; Prime Minister

Erdoğan sat by himself at the head of the table, instead of

the prime minister and the chief of staff together as they

have done traditionally, signaling equivalence of power.

This erosion of the military’s political role was partially an

outcome of the waves of revelations about elements in the

military who have been engaged in extralegal activities,

psychological warfare against groups deemed undesirable,

political profiling, and coup plotting. These activities,

a Turkish version of the Gladio affair that continued way

beyond the Cold War, are now being prosecuted in the

so-called “Ergenekon” trial.

Unlike Italy, Belgium, and France, Turkey never faced off

with its own “Gladio” and came to terms with that record.

Instead of cleaning the system from the institutional

remnants and the mentality of Gladio, once the Cold War

was over, the Turkish military used the Kurdish insurrection

led by the PKK as well as the concocted threat of

“Islamist regression” as the excuse to maintain the system

and structures of a “national security state.” As such, they

resisted any and all efforts to open up the political system

during the 1990s. The weakness and incompetence of the

political leaders of that period, along with former President

Demirel’s betrayal of his civilian responsibilities, helped

them in this intransigent stance. Under such a system, the

military would always have the upper hand, control the

political process, and would present itself as the custodian

of the secular republican order, if need be at the expense of

the people’s democratic will.

At the turn of the 21st century, given Turkey’s socioeconomic

developments and a political transformation

that was greatly aided by the EU accession process, such a

system could not continue. Nor could the military retain

the privilege of having the last say in matters political and

at the same time continue in its position as insubordinate to

civilian authorities. In an age when the accountability of all

institutions is of primary importance, the military could not

be above the law and scrutiny either.

In that sense, it was both ironic and very telling that

General Koşaner cited his inability to protect “the legal

rights of my personnel” in his very dignified farewell

message. Koşaner, who refrained from making public statements

during his term and tried to regroup his institution,

was referring to the detention of hundreds of acting and

retired officers (including generals), some on truly scandalously

flimsy evidence in the Ergenekon and especially in the

related Sledgehammer cases.

These trials are progressing at snail’s pace, thereby turning

detentions to virtual sentences without a guilty verdict.

The inadequacy of the indictments, the insufficiency of

the evidence, and the growing suspicion that a political

vendetta is taking place under the guise of a judicial

proceeding are also undermining the legitimacy of this all

important case.

“It is impossible to accept that these detentions are based on

any universal laws, justice, or rules of conscience,” Koşaner

wrote displaying a most welcome sensitivity for the rule of

law and judicial procedure. He was perhaps cognizant of his

own institution’s contribution to the debasing of the rule of

law and the violation of individuals’ rights and reputations

through decades. The fact remains, however, that General

Özel, first of his class throughout his career and reputed to

be apolitical, cannot fall far behind the line his predecessor

has drawn on the fate of the officers on trial. To accept their

retirement before they had been found guilty in a court of

law, as the prime minister demands might erode his own

authority at the very beginning of his term. The resolution

of this issue is the most important agenda item of this year’s

Higher Military Council.

At a different level of analysis, what we are witnessing is the

restructuring of the Turkish military according to the needs

and realities of a more modern, economically globalizing,

and urban Turkey. The days of the national security state

and the inwardly oriented, ideological army that sustains it

are over. The next Turkish military will have to be a more

professional body that will remain ideologically neutral

and politically impartial, as befits a rising “trading state,”

as Kemal Kirişci calls it, and be more in tune with the new

international security environments.

In the course of the last 100 years, there had been three

major restructuring of the Turkish military when a large

chunk of the officer corps had been eliminated. The first in

1913, organized by the Union and Progress Party, rejuvenated

the military and structured in line with the Prussian

system. That army, which fought the independence war and

helped found the Republic, assumed a nation-building role.

The second big restructuring came in 1961 when the coup

makers of 1960 sent 7,200 officers to retirement (90 percent

of the generals) and the newly shaped military reconfigured

the state as a “national security state” along Cold War lines

and appointed itself as that state’s ideological and administrative

custodian. That structure and role have long outlived

their usefulness and are no longer appropriate for a Turkey

that is rapidly modernizing, urbanizing, and integrating

into the global economy.

So the elimination of a large number of officers, some guilty

as charged and others caught in the web of revanchism or

prosecutorial zeal, is a function of the third restructuring.

The army of the future therefore will be lighter, more in

tune with the international security environment and

probably will transform itself into a professional, mainly

apolitical corps. The crises along the way are the birth pangs

of a new institutional logic and structure. It must always be

borne in mind that all such restructuring has taken place

with the tacit or overt support of international players. This

time around, the single most important missing dimension

that hardly anyone mentions is the absence of international,

particularly U.S. support, for a military-led restructuring or

a military-dominant political system in Turkey.

Therefore it should be appropriate to see the symbolically

potent resignation of the top commanders as the final stage

of the demilitarization and civilianization of the Turkish

polity. Henceforth the supremacy of the civilian authority

will not be questioned and the new constitution that will

be drafted by the current parliament will reflect this new

balance of power. Whether the civilian forces in Turkey will

manage to deepen the democratic credentials of the polity is

the more pressing question today.