BACKGROUND: 2010 goes down in Turkish history as the year when the military was deprived of its legal impunity, and when its loss of the political supremacy was finally sealed. The year began and ended on a similar note: On February 22, over fifty active duty and retired military officers, among whom the former chiefs of the air force and of the navy, were detained in an unprecedented police operation. The detainees were accused of having plotted to overthrow the government under an alleged plan codenamed “Sledgehammer” in 2003. The existence of the plan, which detailed how the government of the Justice and development party (AKP) was going to be destabilized, could not be denied, but the accused officers maintained that it was a “war game”. Last week, the trial of the nearly two hundred active duty and retired military officers, including dozens of generals and admirals who stand accused of complicity in the “Sledgehammer” plan got started.
Regardless of whether or not the military officers are ultimately found guilty as charged, the significance of the “Sledgehammer” case resides in the fact that it sets a legal precedent of undeniable historic importance, establishing that the military does not stand above the law. Yet even though the sight of dozens of generals and admirals being brought before justice presumably will discourage potential coup plotters in the future, the ideology that has animated and legitimated the military’s political interventions nonetheless still remains to be expunged.
The General staff has kept a low profile since August, when the government asserted its legal authority over the military by refusing to promote generals who were accused of complicity in the alleged coup plot, but whom the General staff nevertheless had slotted for promotion. Last week however, the General staff posted another memorandum on its website, announcing its deep concern that the founding ideology and principles of the republic – the unitary state and the nation state – were being jeopardized by the introduction of bilingualism, and reiterating that the military remains committed to preserving the republic as it was originally conceived. The new e-memorandum of the General staff seems to have been prompted by the recent statement of Selahattin Demirtaş, the leader of the Kurdish Peace and democracy party (BDP) that bilingualism is going to be promulgated in the Kurdish Southeast.
Shortly before the General staff issued its memorandum against the public use of Kurdish alongside Turkish, President Abdullah Gül had declared that although Turkish will remain the sole official language, “all the languages spoken by our citizens are our languages”. The presidential statement and the military memorandum represent not only two radically opposed visions of the state-society relationship; they also represent different epochs. As they clamor for linguistic and cultural discipline, the generals – who still presume to know what is best for the country – invoke an ideology of the 1930s, while the president’s embrace of diversity is attuned to the 21st century and liberal in spirit.
The memorandum itself did not reverberate as the military’s similar interventions have done in the past; indeed, it was mostly met with a shrug, with almost no one getting worked up over it. A deputy chairman of the AKP contented himself with urging the military to mind its own business; meanwhile Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan appeared to be sending a message to the generals as he used the word Kurd repeatedly – eight times according to the press reports – in a speech two days after the memorandum was posted. Indeed, Erdoğan for the first time spoke of the “Kurdish people”, effectively acknowledging the existence of two distinct peoples in Turkey.
IMPLICATIONS: Yet even though an ideological gulf separates the AKP and the military regarding the Kurdish issue, and although the AKP has taken measures to ensure that the generals do not dare to subvert its rule, demilitarization and radical democratization is not necessarily what Erdoğan has in mind. The military still retains autonomy in its own realm, using the money of the tax payers as it sees fit; it is not economically accountable to the elected politicians. In a telling move, the AKP government recently amended a law that was supposed to give the National Audit bureau the – nominal – right to inspect military expenditures; the amendment stipulates that the audit bureau cannot call the expenditures of the military into question, which means that the General staff will effectively continue to enjoy financial independence. The unaccountability of the military inevitably contributes to keeping the notion that the military stands above the citizenry alive, while the AKP’s accommodation of the military signals that the party in fact may not envision a comprehensive departure from the authoritarian heritage of the republic.
Indeed, in the wake of the violent clampdown by the police on protesting university students in Istanbul and Ankara recently, the question of the AKP’s adherence to democratization writ large has gained new acuity. Prime Minister Erdoğan sided with the police, declaring that he was not going to let anyone touch the police. As it were, the protesters themselves displayed little respect for free speech as they disrupted seminars, attacking and silencing speakers. One of those who were attacked by the students was the Jewish-Turkish human rights defender Roni Marguiles; indeed, strident Turkish nationalism seems to be what animates the protesting students ideologically.
Yet the protests are also a sign of a growing unrest that is the result of the perception that only those who have connections to the AKP and/or to Muslim brotherhoods can look forward to a bright future in the new Turkey. The winner-takes-all attitude of the AKP, the exclusion of “others” who do not conform to the party’s conservative cultural codes from advancement and employment in the state bureaucracy sustains an ideological polarization that is in turn inimical to the democratic evolution of society. As prominent liberal editor Ahmet Altan of the pro-government daily Taraf observed, separate groups tend to seek to further their own narrow self-interest at the expense of the others in Turkish society. In the wake of the retrenchment of state absolutism, formerly oppressed groups now seek to impose their own identity as they crave the recognition that they were denied for decades. The lack of a sense of community, the inability or unwillingness to empathize with others makes the future of Turkish democracy uncertain.
Yet attempts are also made to heal Turkey’s divides: the state is pursuing a dialogue with Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned leader of the Kurdish PKK. Öcalan himself recently made a peace offer to the powerful Muslim brotherhood of Fethullah Gülen with which the Kurdish movement has been confronting in the Kurdish southeast of the country. The offer to the Gülen movement came only a few weeks after Öcalan had endorsed the – as it were stillborn – idea of an electoral alliance between the Kurdish BDP and the Kemalist Republican People’s party (CHP). Meanwhile Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the reformist leader of the CHP, has been busy reaching out to those constituencies – the pious conservatives, the Kurds – which his party had so far shunned. The importance of these attempts to offer visions of reconciliation should not be underestimated in a country torn apart by deeply felt cultural and political animosities, even if they are motivated by political expediency.
CONCLUSIONS: What Turkey is discovering is that democracy means struggling with differences and conflict, and that democracy in turn cannot be sustained without an accompanying sense of community. Reconciling diversity and community is never easy, and the fact that Turkey was built on the denial of diversity renders such an endeavor all the more difficult. Even though leaders like Kılıçdaroğlu, who aspire to bridge the divides, indeed can make a certain difference, overcoming Turkey’s deep rifts ultimately requires a move from below.
It is the rise and assertiveness of those who were kept subdued by the military-bureaucratic elite, the religious conservatives and the Kurds, that has unraveled the republican paradigm of uniformity; now it is up to those empowered citizens, emancipated from state tutelage, to engage in a conversation, with each other and with those of their fellow citizens who mourn the defunct order, deliberating on and eventually agreeing upon a new Turkey where what is different is not perceived as a threat or as an insult.
What needs to be done can be described in simple enough terms: In the words of Markar Esayan, a Turkish-Armenian columnist in the daily Taraf, “we need to get to know each other better, to repair our damaged relations”, constituting a web of civil relations. Yet the unraveling of the edifice of the military-bureaucratic elite has exposed that Turkey was much more Middle Eastern than what had perhaps been assumed: the supposedly integrated nation is revealed to have been a fiction, at least to a significant extent; there is in fact no society in the true sense of the word, rather a patchwork of mentally enclosed communities – defined by religion, culture, ideology, ethnicity – that have little or no communication with each other. That mattered little as long as the state ruled supreme and when the citizen was a mere subject, powerless but also without responsibility; now, however, with the regime of state tutelage overturned, the nascent citizenry will have to assume its responsibility for the common good.
Unless civic virtue is nurtured and the polarizing tendency to assume the worst about others in society is overcome, the new, post-Kemalist Turkey will prove to be a disappointment.
Halil M. Karaveli is Senior Fellow with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, and Managing Editor of the Turkey Analyst.
© Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, 2010. This article may be reprinted provided that the following sentence be included: "This article was first published in the Turkey Analyst (www.turkeyanalyst.org), a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center".