Perhaps nothing has been more symbolic of the transformation in Turkish society over the past few years than the string of indictments the country’s courts have recently been issuing against senior military figures. The country is in the thick of a major, public reassessment and reform of the relationship between its soldiers and civilians – and thus between its past and present. This provokes a deal of controversy both inside and outside Turkey, and is part of a complex process. It has seen both a new openness in discussion of previously taboo subjects, such as past military coups, while also leading to allegations of a curtailment of free speech in the prosecution of several anti-government and often pro-military figures. This controversy is likely to continue, with the year ahead seeing some major court appearances by senior military leaders.
SHIRTS OF STEEL: The Turkish Armed Forces is the second-largest military in NATO after the US, and has played a key role in the country’s politics since the foundation of the modern republic in 1923. Seeing itself as principle guardian of the secular nature of that republic, and responsible for ensuring Turkey’s progress towards the goals set by the republic’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the military has not hesitated to intervene if it saw this progress threatened. In 1980 the September 12 coup was launched. The military undoubtedly restored order in a country that was, at the time, beset by violent confrontation between left and right. The military then wrote the 1982 constitution under which Turkey is still governed – albeit in amended form – and withdrew from outright rule. However, the generals maintained a powerful hold on politics over the years that followed, predominantly through the National Security Council, on which the top generals met with the leading politicians. For many years, the General Staff and its decisions were seen as being more important than those of the government, both inside and outside Turkey. In 1997 the pro-Islamist Welfare Party (RP) was elected to government, however. The military, seeing the RP as a threat to the Kemalist state they had sworn to protect, organised a “soft coup” – known as the February 28 process – that saw the government obliged to resign, this time without overt military action.
The leaders of the current Justice and Development Party (AKP) government were all important figures in that RP administration. Therefore, when the AKP won the general election of 2002, some in the military and others were, allegedly, very concerned. What happened next is highly controversial and has been the subject of a lengthy series of court cases.
ERGENEKON: Known as the “Ergenekon” conspiracy, after an alleged group that sought to trigger another coup and oust the AKP, this has since widened to include the “Sledgehammer” case – which includes allegations of sinister plots to create instability and overthrow the government, hatched from within the military. This in turn has led to a major investigation of the military itself. Most spectacularly, in March 2012 the former chief of the general staff General Ya ar Büyükanıt was obliged to give testimony in court on the Sledgehammer case. Then in April 2012 the trial of the leader of the 1980 military coup, General Kenan Evren, began. At issue is his role in the alleged torture and disappearance of many Turks following the takeover. Both these events would have been unthinkable even a few years ago. They indicate just how diminished the role of the military is in Turkish politics and how open the discussion now is over some of the darkest hours in the country’s recent past.
These moves have not been without their critics. Also prosecuted in the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer case have been a number of journalists, academics and political activists accused of links with the conspiracy, with this sounding alarm bells for many inside and outside Turkey. There are also concerns over the capacity of the judicial system to deal fairly and efficiently with such momentous cases. Yet the period ahead is likely to see much re-examination of the recent past. This will likely increase civilian oversight of the military, while shedding welcome light on recent darkness.
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