One of Turkey’s key political phenomena in the past decade has been the gradual de-fanging of the military, a sinister institution that has toppled four elected governments since 1960. In fact, even until a few years ago, there was widespread expectation, or concern, that Turkey’s powerful generals would not break their tradition and take down a government that they did not like – this time that of the Justice and Development Party (AKP). That obviously did not happen, and the military has rather been reduced to what it should be in any democratic country. Officers, in other words, began obeying elected politicians rather than threatening them.
This has not been a smooth transition, though. It is in human nature to be unwilling to let power go, and Turkish officers have been no angels. The most hawkish among them even considered launching a final assault on “the domestic enemies of the regime” – something a bit like the ill-fated KGB coup during the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
The response to this threat was the criminal cases – such as Ergenekon or “Balyoz” (Sledgehammer) – opened against alleged members of the alleged juntas. However, these cases themselves quickly became controversial, for while some Turks saw them as the gateway to democracy, others saw them as witch hunts driven by vengeance.
That is why the recent legal testimony of retired Gen. Hilmi Özkök, who was the chief of staff between 2002 and 2006, was crucial. Özkök is known by many accounts as “the democrat general” who curbed the hawkish generals under his command and prevented a possible coup. But he obviously was also a loyal follower of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, which made him a figure that few people could dismiss.
So, what did Özkök say in his testimony to the Istanbul court which is investigating the coup cases?
Well, in a nutshell, he confirmed that these cases are not totally imaginary.
For example, Özkök noted that in a brainstorming meeting in 2003, Gen. Aytaç Yalman, the then-commander of the Army, suggested that an “ultimatum” (“muhtıra” in Turkish) should be given to the government, which, if realized, would have been a crime.
Özkök also said he had to warn Gen. Şener Eruygur, the then-commander of the gendarmerie, against “drafting unauthorized plans against the government.” (Eruygur is now in prison, and on trial in the “Ergenekon” case for proceeding solo with his “unauthorized plans.”)
Perhaps most importantly, Özkök confirmed that the “war simulation” meeting held in 2003 under the command of Gen. Çetin Doğan had indeed “exceeded its purpose” and that he had to issue a warning about it. (This 2003 meeting, later nicknamed “Sledgehammer,” is the reason why more than 100 officers, including Doğan, are now in prison in the ongoing trial.)
However, Özkök also said things which indicate that the junta hunt has gone too far. As for Gen. İlker Başbuğ, for example, who was his subordinate and who later served as chief of staff from 2008 to 2010, he spoke highly, confirming Başbuğ’s democratic credentials. (Başbuğ, however, is also in prison.)
All in all, Özkök’s testimony confirmed my basic conviction about the whole matter: Yes, there have been coup efforts within the Turkish military, and their prosecution has been justified. However, this justified process seems to be overdone. Now, I believe, is the time to calm down and undo the excesses of the junta hunt.