Thursday, July 10, 2008

Ergenekon Proves New Test for Democracy

Just as political as the AKP closure case, the Ergenekon investigation has come to rock Turkish politics in the past week and has prompted many to conjecture that what is happening in Turkey at the moment is more a struggle for power than a test for democracy (see Gareth Jenkins’ July 7 commentary from the Eurasia Daily Monitor). While it does indeed seem that Turkish politics is coming to be ever more defined as a struggle for power between two divergent groups—the rising Islamic middle class represented in power by the broad coalition AKP has managed to strengthen in recent years and the so-called ‘Kemalist’ secular establishment—intent to maintain and expand their political power, both the closure case and the Ergenekon investigation are, at heart, tests for Turkish democracy. If we view one of the most important aspects of democratic governance as the establishment of legitimate procedures by which political groups vie for power viz. their contestation of key political issues within the public sphere, then the crucial test with which Turkey is currently faced is whether both the closure case and the Ergenekon investigation will follow the rule of law and become truly transparent, public political phenomena in which democratic norms will ultimately prevail.

I have been without Internet for more than a week now, but one positive to this frustration is that I am now able to look back on what has been an incredibly confusing week of events. In the early morning of July 1, police detained 24 suspects alleged to be involved in the deep state network Ergenekon. The suspects included some very “big fish,” as the headlines of the liberal daily Radikal hailed on July 3. Among those detained included retired General Şener Eruygur, former military head of the Gendarmerie and current president of the Atatürkist Thought Association (ADD), retired General Hurşit Tolan, former head of the First Army Force (İlk Ordu), and Sinan Aygün, well-known Kemalist politician and current president of the Ankara Chamber of Commerce (ATD). Mustafa Balbay, Cumhuriyet Ankara correspondent, was also arrested, bringing similar charges of government-led attempts to intimidate journalists who have been particularly critical of AKP. The arrests were also accompanied by raids on Cumhuriyet’s Ankara bureau and the ADD in İstanbul. As before noted, Cumhuriyet is at the forefront of the neo-nationalist press and is well-known for its seething attacks on the government and the ADD is strongly opposed to AKP as a threat to secular governance. The ADD was one of several organizations involved in the large rallies against the election of Abdullah Gül during the presidential crisis in spring 2007. The early morning detentions and raids raised accusations that the Ergenekon investigation has turned into little more than a witch-hunt aimed to discredit AKP detractors. With the arrests coming just hours before the first hearing of the closure case, some have even decried the events as political revenge and even the most fervent of AKP supporters with whom I have talked have had difficulty dismissing the claim that the arrests were not 'somewhat' politically-motivated.

The Ergenekon investigation commenced on 13 June 2007 when hand grenades and a small amount of explosives were discovered in a house in İstanbul. At the time, ten were arrested, but the investigation soon seemed to quiet and was lost among news of the presidential crisis. It was not until this January that the investigation really picked up strength following the high-profile arrests of retired General Veli Küçük and twelve associates (see Jan. 25 post). The January arrests led to the renewal of intense scrutiny of what some have referred to as Turkey’s “deep state” (derin devlet). Since that time, accusations have been made that the shadowy-network now well-known as Ergenekon participated in plans to bring about numerous military coups and may have been behind such violent events as the Malatya murders, the Alevi-Kurd riots in the Gazi district of İstanbul, and the murder of Hrant Dink. It has also been alleged that the group had plans to assassinate Nobel Prize laureate Orhan Pamuk. As general of the gendarmerie, Küçük was among those entrusted in the early 1990s by Tansu Çiller to use any means at their disposal to eliminate the PKK. The result was a series of grave human rights violations and chaos in the southeast that while weakening the PKK, also undermined the legitimacy of the Turkish state in the international community and made it virtually impossible to reach the sort of peaceable, diplomatic solution to the Kurdish problem that had been sought by Turgut Özal. Upon retiring in 2000 and with Öcalan arrested, Küçük is said to have turned his attention to the Islamist threat he perceived as coming from AKP. Some in the press have speculated that Ergenekon is not led by Küçük, but instead has a much longer history and that the former general is only a member of a much broader and powerful organization with substantial links to the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK). However, others have been much more skeptical to regard Ergenekon with such far-reaching power, and have instead regarded the network as a weak, disorganized association of has-beens and wannabes with no link whatsoever to the TSK.

Throughout the investigation, the TSK has made no move to prevent the government from performing what has been a very wide-reaching and politically sensitive investigation. Indeed, the July 1 arrests of Eruygur and Tolon occurred at a military retirement facility and were executed by members of the TSK at the request of the prosecutor. This cooperation seems to suggest that any connections Ergenekon has to the military are weak and that the top brass of the TSK are not tainted by links to the network. However, the press has made much of Ergenekon's alleged connections to the military, implying that the TSK has had significant knowledge of the organization and even cooperated with it. On July 3, the Islamist daily Sabah ran a story in which the paper implied that the TSK had given a green light to Ergenekon to pursue plans for a military coup that would take place this summer. However, lacking in evidence, the story points only to hand-written documents that were found in the July 1 raid of Ereygur’s home. The documents are said to have laid out an operation plan by which the network was set to carry out a number of attacks on the judiciary and then to organize a number of protests geared to urge the state to protect the judiciary. According to some newspapers, the protests would span 20 provinces and would lead to clashes with police. Responding to the instability, the idea was that the conditions would be rife for the military to step in so as to end the civil strife. However, it is doubtful that the TSK was part of any such plan. First, the series of events in the operation plan make little success in terms of practical logistics, and second, the military is set to consider promotions in August, including the election of a new Chief of the Armed Services. If Ergenekon was acting in cahoots with the TSK, it is highly doubtful that the military would pick this month as a good time to plan any such coup. The planned assassinations have been said to include that of Supreme Court of Appeals Chief Prosecutor Abdurrahman Yalçınkaya.

The truth is that the incredibly biased nature of news related to Ergenekon and the stories use of unnamed sources make any such conspiracies incredibly difficult to assess. This was the case with last June’s story in Taraf about plans for a coup that was to take place last year (see June 21 post). Most disconcerting about the investigation is that small bits of information are being leaked by the AKP government to a few selected newspapers and that there is little transparent and beyond conjecture about what is actually being discovered as to how big a threat Ergenekon really posed and as to what exactly it was up to. (For criticism from Turkish press organizations, click here). There is little doubt that the Ergenekon network existed (exists?), that its plans were violent, and that it embraced a neo-nationalist platform it aimed to promote by destabilizing the country. However, how serious were the plans and how organized was the network? Today’s Zaman speculated yesterday that the investigation was in no way over and that the network necessarily includes numerous people in the police and security forces, including the National Intelligence Organization (MİT), who have not yet been detained. It also speculates that the investigation is likely to include a number of artists and intellectuals who were engaged in the plotting. According to the Zaman media group, which is controlled by Fethullah Gülen, Ergenekon might be thought of as an umbrella organization that creates numerous terrorist groups with the single aim of creating an environment of political instability conducive to a coup. Zaman has speculated that the Ergenekon network is organized around seven separate areas related to terrorism, economy, media, NGOs, armed groups, ethnic groups, and officials. To this extent, Today’s Zaman has reported that the group underwent restructuring in 1999, pointing to a document uncovered in Küçük’s house entitled “Ergenekon, Analysis, Restructuring, and Development.” However, all of these claims should be regarded as just that—claims. With little information about the investigation actually released by named, credible sources, media stories about the group’s activities can be given little weight until accompanied by further documentation.

Of those detained on July 1, only 10 have been formally arrested and the other 14 released. An indictment is expected to be released by the İstanbul Chief Prosecutor’s office some time in the coming days, but has continually been postponed. The indictment will not include those arrested on July 1, but is rumored to include 2500 pages of evidence outlining the nature of the Ergenekon investigation and spelling out its criminal activities. However, the indictment has continually been postponed due to reported problems entering text into the National Judiciary Network Project (UYAP). In the meantime, the prosecutor in charge of the Ergenekon investigation, Zekeriya Öz, continues to execute a very broad-based organization in a highly charged political climate. Öz is said to be facing numerous death threats and security for the prosecutor has been reported to be quite high. While Öz’s responsibility is no doubt massive, so is that of the government. Erdoğan increasingly sounds like a prosecutor in his sounding off against those who have criticized the investigation as political (click here for his response to equally idiotic comments coming from CHP leader Baykal). Others who have been critical of the investigation and AKP’s practice of leaking information to the media using unnamed sources have been labeled as aiding the terrorists. As of late, this includes much-respected Rıfat Hisarcıklıoğlu, President of the Turkish Union of Chambers and Commodity Exchanges (TOBB). Such critics have been charged with showing their true face. This “us” versus “them” mentality is likely to only heighten political tensions in Turkey and further polarize an already dangerously divided political society. It also stinks of McCarthyism and undermines the investigation and the legitimacy of AKP as a responsible political party intent to follow the rule of law and the provisions of due process. By leaking information to the press, AKP has done little but send the message to many in Turkey and the international community that it is nothing but yet another political party intent to compete for power by scoring political points by whatever means necessary. By not taking criticism of the investigation seriously and pointing fingers, AKP is strengthening arguments that it is out for little but political power.

Beyond this leaking of sources, the dramatic early morning hours chosen to pursue the arrests seem particularly excessive and unnecessary, and most importantly, so does the day Öz decided to execute the detentions. Occurring only a few hours before the first hearing of the closure case, the Ergenekon investigation lit up papers, allowing them to juxtapose the closure case against the shadowy, imposing plans of "deep state" figures determined to undermine Turkish democracy. This narrative is a nice fit within the larger AKP-orchestrated narrative, and while AKP's closure is no doubt a blow to democracy, so is the party's jeopardization of the legitimacy of a very important investigation. While it will probably never be proven that the party had a role in ordering the arrests in the hours before the closure, the appearance of such impropriety is reason enough for criticism. When combined with the source leaking, it becomes all the more valid. The move was also particularly unwise as it came in the twilight hours of a day in which Turkish markets were already especially vulnerable. If the conflict inherent in politics is to be properly institutionalized in Turkey, there is indeed much work to be done. If democracy is to ultimately prevail, the Ergenekon investigation must amount to much more than leaks and the scoring of political points, thereby eschewing what has long made politics little more than a spectators' game for far too many Turks. Many Turks are left wondering when democracy will ever come ("Ne zaman demokrasi gelecek?"). It seems an appropriate partial answer to this question lies in yet another: When will they (the elite—new or old) ever learn?

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