Turkey's resignations, a sign of military decline

July 30, 2011 - 10:28 AM
Turkey Military

ALTERNATIVE CROP - In this photo released by the Turkish Presidency Press Service, Gen. Necdet Ozel, commander of Gendarmerie paramilitary force, meets with President Abdullah Gul at the Presidential Palace of Cankaya in Ankara, Turkey, late Friday, July 29, 2011. Gul approved the appointment of Gen Ozel as the new commander of Turkey's Land Forces, hours after the country's Chief of Staff and other top army commander have resigned Friday in what is seen as tensions with the Islamic-rooted government.(AP Photo/Turkish Presidency Press Service, HO)

ISTANBUL (AP) — In past decades, the Turkish military showed displeasure with civilian leaders by overthrowing them. This time, the upset generals quit, a move that only strengthened the hand of an elected government that has in turn been accused of targeting opponents at the expense of democracy.

The decline of military clout in Turkey, a NATO member with a robust economy and an activist foreign policy, is welcome for many Turks who believe any political role for commanders is a throwback to the era of coups and instability that once sullied their international image. It's also key to Turkey's bid to join the European Union, though the candidacy is adrift because of mutual skepticism on a host of issues.

"The military has been largely pushed to the side. They're not going to be able to implement a coup d'etat," said Howard Eissenstat, a Turkey expert at St. Lawrence University in the United States. "The police force is thoroughly under the control of the (ruling party) and has been militarized over the last 10 years, and the opposition is weak and divided."

President Abdullah Gul said Saturday that the sudden resignations a day earlier of the nation's top four military commanders, who were troubled by the arrests of dozens of generals in alleged coup plots, would not cause a crisis even if their departure was unprecedented.

The subtext of his message was: the government is in firm control and there's no danger of a coup. The government sought to gloss over the controversy, saying the generals had merely asked for retirement, but some observers speculated the brass miscalculated by believing their radical step could force their civilian masters to make concessions.

Merve Alici, a member of Young Civilians, a non-governmental group that promotes democracy, described the resignations as "passive-aggressive" behavior and said she was happy to see that had not created a "crisis" in the old sense of the term in Turkey. The Turkish currency dipped in value, as nervous traders reacted, but the government was poised to fill the leadership vacuum by appointing Gen. Necdet Ozel, the military police commander, as chief of staff.

"I believe that it's a good development in the sense that this untouchable image of the military is just decaying one step at a time," Alici said. "They are not these people who come and stay there and never leave."

On Saturday, Labor Minister Faruk Celik tried to reassure the country ahead of the formation of a new command structure at a key military meeting that begins Monday.

"I believe that what happened last night would contribute to the normalization of Turkey as well as putting the military-civilian relations on the right track," he said.

The military contributes troops to NATO operations in Afghanistan and Libya, though they are not directly involved in combat, and is fighting Kurdish rebels concentrated in southeast Turkey. The resignations of Gen. Isik Kosaner as chief of staff, along with the commanders of the navy, the army and the air force, are unlikely to have an immediate effect on operational matters.

But the military has seemed increasingly archaic in political terms, clinging to its self-appointed role as guardian of the hardline secular values of national founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk long after the ruling party of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a devout Muslim whose grand vision sometimes draws comparisons to Ataturk, came to power in 2002 on a platform of democratic reform.

The conflict between Turkey's old and new elites partly played out as a debate over the role of Islam in society, but Erdogan cast it as a struggle for transparency and accountability when police rounded up hundreds of retired and active-duty military officers accused of plotting against his government. The trials were widely welcomed at first, but long imprisonments without verdicts and alleged irregularities in the handling of evidence have stirred claims that the government is manipulating the legal process.

The resignations of Kosaner and his peers came after a court ordered the arrest of seven more active duty generals and admirals along with more than a dozen other officers on charges of carrying out an Internet campaign to undermine the government. In his farewell message, Kosaner said he was quitting because he could not protect the rights of his staff and he sharply criticized the wave of arrests.

Kerem Oktem, author of "Angry Nation: Turkey since 1989," a book about the country's transition from military to democratic rule, said that while there is "no doubt" that the military has tried to subvert elected governments, there are "serious shortcomings" in the coup plot trials that point to long-standing problems in the Turkish justice system.

More broadly, Oktem said, accusations that the government has amassed too much control stem from an authoritarian tradition of power that "does not represent or encapsulate liberal views" in Turkey. In his view, the ruling Justice and Development Party followed electoral rules but was compelled to fight off non-democratic challenges by similar means.

In 2008, the Constitutional Court, then a bastion of secularism, narrowly ruled against shutting the ruling party on the grounds that it had violated the country's secular values but still gave the party a warning against leading the country toward Islam. Ruling party leaders viewed the crisis as a political attack, and much of the national debate has since focused on the coup plot trials that they back.

The trials "started out as positive things, but they've grown so unwieldy and they seem so political that this doesn't look to me like the creation of a neutral bureaucracy," said Eissenstat, the St. Lawrence academic. "It looks to me like the assertion by a single party over more and more parts of the apparatus of the state."