Events

Dynamisms and Disfunctions of Turkey's Civil-Military Relations After Ergenekon: Why Do They Matter?

October 05, 2009 // 2:00pm3:15pm

Dr. Umit Cizre discussed the role of the Turkish Armed Forces (TAF) in the political context of Turkey's current democratic development. She noted that Turkey's renewed self-confidence affected Ankara's approach to fundamental domestic problems as well as its ambition to become a prominent regional actor. These efforts reinforced notions of Turkey's strategic regional role held by the United States and European partners.

Cizre proposed that the premium placed on Turkey's role as a stabilizing force frequently stemmed from a perspective which favored the elements of its status quo, such as its military strength, its 'successful' balance of religion and secularism, or its geo-strategic location. This perspective mirrored a specific ideological vision of international relations built on Turkish exceptionalism which mandated that universal standards of freedom and democracy should not be upheld to the fullest at the expense of the "secular" state. She argued that the common perception and the vision of Turkey as a model of secular Muslim democracy are based on a lack of understanding of Turkish domestic politics, of the reality in Ankara, in Turkish society and in the region. A more realistic, critical view of Turkey, she stated, should be based on the quality of the country's political principles and its stability, rather than the elements of the status quo. None of these elements (strength, balance of religion and secularism, or geostrategic location), she argued, either alone or in combination, had been able to achieve stability within Turkey over the last two decades.

Cizre touched on the political climate in Turkey during the 1990's in which the country witnessed ten coalition governments steeped in corruption, a military intervention, and a decline in moderate political discourse. This decade also saw the rise of attempts by the military to shift issues of Kurdish nationalism and Islamic identity into concerns of national security to be addressed by military measures, rather than democratic processes. The last decade had witnessed even more contentious developments in the civil-military relationship, particularly the military coup attempt on the current ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) as well as the rise of radical nationalism.

The exertion of military power in civilian decision-making had pitted a politically autonomous and secular military against a popularly elected Islamic government. From the secular perspective the confrontation was about the protection of the secular principles of the republic against a perceived "Islamization project." Against this backdrop, ambiguities in the civilian and military discourse helped generate more creative policies for Turkey, such as the opening on the Kurdish issue. These opportunities were made possible with the emergence of the Ergenekon incident, which included arrests and ongoing trials of generals, active duty officers, former politicians, journalists and academics on charges of provoking the military to intervene and depose the current government. While the Ergenekon case resulted in greater recognition of the military in Turkish politics, it had also afforded the AKP the ability to exploit the ambiguities in its own ideology to restructure the civil-military relationship. Cizre also emphasized that the Ergenekon case was symbolic of the long-standing disagreement between the military and the democratic government in Turkish politics. A second significant aspect of the Ergenekon case was the explicit and repeated emphasis in the coup plans on the need to communicate with key media agencies, university chancellors, and business owners. The TAF's effort to reach out to various unorganized parts of society was evidence of a new social strategy in the military's exercise of power. Taken together, the alleged coup plots and TAF's attempt to act more like a political party, has led significant sectors of society to question the extent of Turkish democracy.

Finally, Cizre argued, Turkey's secularist principle was remarkably undefined and there was great vagueness in what secularism upholds in terms of what a secular state should be. Similarly, the AKP's identity is left deliberately fuzzy. The AKP separates its identity from the Islamic precedent, but, Cizre notes, it cannot sever its ties. The party leadership therefore, relies on contradictions, paradoxes, and inconsistencies when creating a comparable discourse. Continuing democratic reforms would significantly lower the anti-democratic elements in Turkey's balance of power.

Joshua Walker reiterated the common misperception in Washington related to joint efforts to define Turkey's role in the region. He noted that it was important to examine how the civil-military relationship impacts Turkey's foreign policy objectives. Walker agreed with Cizre that the Ergenekon case is a symbol. He argued that it was not the actual trials and 3,000 page indictments that explained the case, but it was symptomatic of the deep state's role throughout the country's democratization process. Walker was critical of the approaches being pursued by Washington and Brussels. He noted that, the EU tended to focus on Turkish domestic issues, especially human rights, and democratic reforms. Washington, by contrast, was slow to get involved in what it considered to be internal politics. The Obama administration had emphasized not only Turkey's geostrategic importance but also Ankara's symbolic importance in the region. Walker argues that while the U.S. appeared to be improving its regional approach by including additional partners, where Turkey can be a critical component. The key to this approach is continued stability in Turkey.

With regard to the recent Kurdish opening, the AKP portrayed it as a democratic initiative rather than a Kurdish one. This ambiguity would help the AKP to de-legitimize criticism anticipated from opposition groups. The strengthening of the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq could affect the situation gravely. The military and secular opposition parties were therefore eager to have AKP resolve the Kurdish issue. At the same time, the AKP's failure would provide an opportunity to depose the government.

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