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
“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.