Friday, 16 January 2009

Turkey Divided Over the Meaning of Ergenekon Conspiracy

Published in Articles

By Halil M. Karaveli (vol. 2, no. 1 of the Turkey Analyst) 

As the investigation into the alleged Ergenekon conspiracy continues unabated, the polarization of Turkish society deepens. According to one interpretation of the unfolding drama, a mortal threat to democracy has been averted by the prosecutors. The opposing narrative holds that a “republic of fear”, intolerant of political dissent, is being instituted. In the final analysis, one interpretation does not exclude the other.

BACKGROUND: The New Year got off to a politically dramatic start in Turkey as police rounded up a new set of suspects in the Ergenekon conspiracy case. The prosecutors claim that they have unraveled a coup plot against the Islamic conservative AKP government. In what was the tenth wave of detentions, three retired generals, a former head of the Higher Education Council (YÖK), a formerly indicted representative of the shadowy Turkish “deep state”, and an eccentric writer known for his anti-government views were hurried off from their homes at wee hours by the police. The police also raided the home of one former chief prosecutor of the High appeals court, Sabih Kanadoglu, who although not detained or presented with any specific allegations, had to accede to a search of his archive that lasted several hours.

Two of the generals – including Tuncer Kilinç, who once served as secretary general of the then-powerful National Security Council – as well as Kemal Gürüz, the former head of YÖK, were subsequently released. Others detained in the “tenth wave”, significantly a group of ultra-nationalists in the province of Sivas, were arrested. The latter group had reportedly planned to assassinate Armenians in the city. And for the first time since the investigation began, acting upon evidence found in the homes of among others a serving lieutenant-colonel, the police were able to locate a staggering amount of weapons of presumably military origin, which had been hidden in caches in Ankara as well as in other parts of the country.

The recent escalation of the Ergenekon investigation, which has been pursued for more than a year and which has resulted in over one hundred suspects being rounded up and imprisoned, is significant for several reasons. The revelation of the arms caches strengthens the case, as it represents hard evidence of a conspiracy, although it remains to be seen if the prosecution will succeed in linking them to the alleged conspirators.

It was an unprecedented event when two former four star generals Hursit Tolon and Sener Eruygur were arrested last summer. The latest detentions of two other formerly high ranking generals as well as officers on active duty further underlined that former and active representatives of the Turkish armed forces no longer enjoy any tacit impunity. Liberal and other pro-AKP commentators rejoice at the fact that “those who have thought that they stood above the law” no longer do so. Representatives of the secular opposition, on the other hand, castigate what they regard as being an outrageous attempt to defame the military and the secular opposition in general.

In fact, the position of the military remains opaque. The General Staff abstained from opposing the arrests of Tolon and Eruygur, and did not make any public statement about the recent detentions. The Chief of the General staff, General Ilker Basbug, nevertheless immediately requested meetings with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President Abdullah Gül. It has been speculated that these meetings were instrumental in the subsequent release of the generals Tuncer Kilinc and Kemal Yavuz.

The military has to walk a fine line, protecting its prestige without giving the impression that it does not accept the rule of law. Moreover, at one level, far from pitting the General staff against the AKP government, the Ergenekon investigation may actually converge with the interests of the General staff. The two retired four star generals that were imprisoned last summer, as well as the two detained in the latest round-up, have been known to entertain the notion that Turkey should seek new alignments with Russia, Iran and China, which obviously runs contrary to the traditionally pro-U.S. stance of the Turkish military. The fact that generals holding such unorthodox views are targeted may imply that the prosecution has the endorsement of the General staff, which in such a scenario would be seeking to send a “corrective” message to those in active duty who might be tempted by the “Eurasian alternative” to Turkey’s current western alignment.

Turkish media is awash with information – or perhaps disinformation – emanating from the investigation about what the Ergenekon conspirators have allegedly been up to. However, the prosecution has so far failed to establish any links between the two categories of people targeted: on the one hand the intellectuals, academics, journalists, justices and generals that have been implicated in the case; and on the other, the criminals and shady personalities who more easily fit into the suspected and well-known pattern of “deep state” activities.

IMPLICATIONS: Having failed to establish such a linkage, the Ergenekon case has in fact succeeded in creating and sustaining a suspicion about the existence of such a linkage. There is now a widespread perception that being in opposition to the rule of the AKP and to the Islamicization of Turkish society in general is tantamount to being a coup-plotter. More specifically, that is a perception that has been established on one side of the line that divides Turkish society. While those who support the AKP government are encouraged to be suspicious of the political opposition, those on the other side of the divide tend to be altogether dismissive of the Ergenekon case, not because they would approve of and support such a conspiracy, but because they have come to perceive the allegations as an instrument used to delegitimize and ultimately silence the opposition.

The perception that the case is political was not rendered less credible when Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan at an early stage declared himself to be the “prosecutor of the case”. Even commentators who are supportive of the AKP and the prosecution acknowledge the damage done to the case by the detention of so many reputable individuals, known to be in opposition to the government. Indeed, these figures were typically detained and subsequently released a few days later without any criminal charges or even less, any incriminating evidence being brought against them. This certainly casts a shadow over the investigation. Taha Akyol, an influential conservative and pro-AKP columnist recently exhorted the police and the prosecution to display more restraint and act more carefully.

There is a worry that the instances of disrespect for due process will damage the legitimacy of the case. Riza Türmen, a former Turkish judge with the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), warns that Turkey risks having troubles with the court, which according to Türmen could find ground for a declaration of mistrial. The former judge calls attention specifically to the ECHR principle that as a general rule, those standing trial should not be incarcerated unless there is a risk that they will escape, destroy evidence or murder witnesses. Several of those incarcerated weeks or months ago as Ergenekon suspects are yet to be charged with any crime.

Türmen also mentions that many of the detentions in the Ergenekon case collide with the ECHR’s principles, according to which there must be sufficient legal ground for the belief that a crime has been perpetrated by the detained individual in order for such a restriction of individual liberty to be acceptable. And Türmen notes that since the proceedings of the Ergenekon investigation are followed on television by millions, those who are detained and subsequently released are “paying a price not foreseen by the law”.  The television images of Kemal Gürüz, the former head of the Higher Education Council, being somewhat brutally forced into a police car by officers acting like they had apprehended a street criminal, were a case in point.

As Türmen observes, the two opposing poles of Turkish society are prone to view the Ergenekon case strictly from their respective ideological perspectives. But in fact, the two divergent narratives about Ergenekon are far from being mutually exclusive. It may at one and the same time be about averting a real threat to democratic values, while also serving as an instrument for the establishment of the ideological preeminence of Islamic conservatism by delegitimizing and dispiriting, if not silencing, the forces of secular opposition.

CONCLUSIONS: Turkey may very well be faced with a right-wing nationalist conspiracy. The murder of the Armenian-Turkish journalist Hrant Dink in 2007 is a reminder that the recent revelations of what is described as plans to assassinate other Armenian citizens of Turkey cannot be taken lightly. Likewise, enough circumstantial evidence suggests that a number of the figures rounded up in the case have indeed been plotting against the current government.

Nevertheless, it is understandable that the secular opposition, feeling increasingly victimized by the Ergenekon proceedings, reacts against the linkage that the Ergenekon prosecutors and their supporters more or less assume exists between themselves and extreme right-wing nationalists. As columnist Murat Yetkin in Radikal points out, that leads the secular opposition to be oblivious to the fact that such a right-wing threat does exist, while the advocates of Ergenekon are only too prone to equating opposition with coup conspiracy.

Assuming that they are motivated by a sincere desire to secure Turkish democracy, the supporters of the Ergenekon case would need to display a much stronger sensitivity about the legal improprieties that bedevil the investigation.


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The Turkey Analyst is a publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Joint Center, designed to bring authoritative analysis and news on the rapidly developing domestic and foreign policy issues in Turkey. It includes topical analysis, as well as a summary of the Turkish media debate.


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