Friday, August 15, 2008

Hints and Allegations

I was having tea with a Turkish friend the other day and we were talking about how difficult it is to follow Ergenekon. My question was how any Turk could stand all the confusion: new charges emerging everyday; links of this retired general to that particular action; sometimes links that do not make complete sense, but that surely hint to some deeper, lingering conspiracy; the weight of all the charges and innuendo, true or false, bearing down on the public mind and seemingly begging to be sorted out. My friend answered that for most people, there is little cause for concern. Ergenekon is simply business as usual, but the proverbial Pandora's box of state and government secrets has simply been left open a few more minutes more than usual this time around. The result is not necessarily more transparency, though, but a greater range of accusations. As Andrew Finkel discusses in his column in Today's Zaman, many of these hints and allegations are nothing new. From Finkel:
The milk in my coffee curdled, a pen leaked in my shirt and the tap in the bathroom is dripping again. Call me paranoid, but I am sure the plot hatched deep within the recesses of the Turkish state to make my life miserable has moved into a higher gear.

Or could there be some other explanation? Goodness knows, we should take seriously the trial of those accused of conspiracy to use violence to undermine legitimate authority and frustrate the popular will. On the other hand, let us try to get the hysteria into perspective. Those defendants in what has become popularly known as the Ergenekon affair are accused of some pretty terrible things. On the other hand it is an absurdity to think that they are responsible for every unhappy swerve in Turkey's post-war history.

Many of the things now being attributed to Ergenekon are not shadowy events that are suddenly emerging into the light, but things everyone knew about at the time. It was with amazement that I read that the Feb. 28 pincer movement to unseat the government in 1997 was the work of men in green-tinted sunglasses maneuvering behind the scenes. I seem to recall that senior generals held a public press conference in a well-coordinated exercise in breaking up the governing coalition. The newspapers that supported those efforts are now excused of having had a venal motive -- swapping their support in exchange for bank licenses and privatization tenders that by the 2001 financial crisis cost the country dearly. Duh! Did anyone ever think otherwise? Newspapers were bartering support for pecuniary gain before 1997 and are doing it today. Is Ergenekon behind the decision by two state banks to finance the purchase of Sabah newspaper, or is it just business as usual?

It's not Ergenekon that causes people to keep their mouths shut. There is a culture of complicity in which citizens turn a blind eye to others' wrongdoing because they hope to get away with their own petty crimes. A mountain of regulations exists to protect the environment and natural and historical values, but a bird's eye view of any Turkish city suggests those rules are there to line the pockets of those charged with enforcing them. The great example was in the 1994 local election when current Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was running for mayor of İstanbul. Newspapers paraded the shock-horror story that he had built two houses without planning permission. According to most psephologists, this almost certainly increased his vote. When Ahmet Isvan was elected İstanbul mayor in 1973 and was photographed with a sledgehammer destroying a mafia-built casino near Taksim Square, over half the city whose own homes were built without proper procedures took fright. He was not re-nominated as the Republican People's Party (CHP) candidate in 1977.

This notion of complicity explains why even after the great warning bell in the 1994 economic crisis, Turkey was so reluctant to reform. People had become much too skilled at making the old engine work. The fact that governments were issuing bank licenses to people you wouldn't trust to walk your dog didn't stop ordinary people from investing at the very highest rate of interest under a blanket government guarantee on deposits. Were they hired by Ergenekon to pave the way for instability? We all know how the system eventually collapsed morally, economically and at the expense of an entire generation of politicians. After the earthquake in 1999, even buildings themselves fell to the ground. Was it Ergenekon shaking the foundations?

Of course there are many unsolved political crimes in Turkey that in the interest of justice need to be explained. Was Hrant Dink, the Turkish-Armenian editor, gunned down by a bunch of ultranationalist hooligans acting alone, or were they manipulated by a paramilitary clique that staged the incident to derail Turkey's ride to Europe. Did security officials fail to protect Hrant because they were obeying a secret set of instructions, or were they listening to the teachings of nationalist textbooks and the headlines of a chauvinistic press -- and just couldn't be bothered.

So yes, the Ergenekon conspiracy is broad and far-reaching. And the terrible thing is that the whole nation is in on it.
In fact, many of the stories being run in Zaman's own newspapers claim to reveal new narratives to past events by interweaving Ergenekon as some sort of secret agent heretofore unknown. The fact is that many of the claims now being brought to the forefront are not new at all, but simply label past events under the Ergenekon umbrella without really explaining just what Ergenekon is or how it works. In this way, my friend told me that Ergenekon seems to become a sort of "boogie man," a larger-than-life figure on which to pin all the country's wrongs. As Finkel explains, the answer--or rather, answers--are far sophisticated than many in the media or the government would like the public to believe. The greater public, for its part, simply sits idly by and watches from the sidelines as the powers that be sort out the details. However, as my friend frustratingly explained, such citizen spectatorship is precisely why all the old charges seem new, and why blaming it all on Ergenekon--despite all the confusion--provides some level of psychological comfort. Ergenekon is becoming the scapegoat, a demon-like figure by which to atone for a guilt that is in reality looms much larger and is much more difficult to explain. Exorcism will be no easy task.

For more on Ergenekon and the accusations of papers like Zaman, see July 7 post.

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