Where are we on civil-military relations in Turkey?
Paid military service was the most important election promise of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) ahead of presidential elections in June last year. Together with their families, six million men over the age of 18 make one of the country’s biggest lobbies.
The Turkish Parliament ratified the law after the elections, in July, which enable those eligible in terms of age to complete just 21 days of military service if they pay 15,000 Turkish Liras.
Over half a million applied for paid military exemption and the implementation started by mid-September.
The military service is five months and 14 days for university graduates or 12 months for non-graduates.
Time spent in the military makes up a very special period in a Turkish man’s life. I have not come across anyone who was not beaten or hit at least once by his commander. I have never known anyone who came back without a bitter, often a terrifying memory about his days in the military.
Obviously no one expects time spent in the military to be fun, but in the case of the Turkish army, which is known to be highly disciplined, some may argue that what appears as a training based on discipline can turn at times into a physical or psychological torment. No one could dare challenge it.
In the past, there was a general conviction that only the children of the “political and economic elites” could get away from this distress by somehow ending up in “good places or positions.” Good place meant cities in the western part of the country, as those going to the east faced a bigger risk of death due to the fight against terror. Good position meant a job at the command level, which required certain skills like knowing a foreign language in addition to being a university graduate.
The practice of paid exemption, which was in force for Turkish citizens living abroad, was first introduced for those living in Turkey in 1987, followed by another one in 1992. The high price that was required these years consolidated the view that the “rich” don’t do military service.
This is the third time the AK Party introduces paid exemption, but this time 15,000 liras looks easier to afford especially for middle class families who make a good bulk of the AK Party’s constituency.
The other day I came across a friend who benefited from the latest short-term paid military service. What he recounted stands as a stark contrast with the past in terms of the military’s perception of civilian citizens.
He said colonels hold meetings with the short-term conscripts to listen to their “complaints.” Upon the request, some of the soldiers were given permission to visit the kitchen so they see how food is being cooked.
Interestingly, the commanders asked the short-term conscripts “not to call” some “important names,” so they are accorded privileges. Let me recall that we are talking about a period of 21 days.
My friend said that while some understood that using the chance for a short-term military service required to be content with whatever circumstances, there were others who were of the “I should get back what I paid for,” mentality. In this case they seem to think: “I paid 15,000 liras, the conditions should be better.”
The army used to be respected but also feared by civilians. The military was above criticism and they did not hide despising civilians.
A lot has changed. On a daily basis civilians do not fear soldiers. Soldiers, on the other hand, even if they might continue to despise the civilians they can no longer show it openly.
When it comes to criticizing the army, one has to say that it still remains a closed box not open to criticism. In July last year, on the anniversary of the 2016 coup attempt, the General Staff came under the responsibility of the Defense Ministry.
Ending a decades-old anomaly, this decision was applauded as the civilian oversight on the military. Yet this oversight remains limited to the executive branch.
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan seems to have forged a good working relationship with the current defense minister as he is the former chief of general staff. But how about the future?
Old habits die hard. There is still a gap between military cadres and the civilian bureaucracy, according to experts familiar with the issue.
The coup attempt has left deep scars on the army, which immediately after the coup also had to assume the heavy burden of cross-border operations in Syria. Indeed the fight against the PKK’s terror and the army’s current operations abroad do not leave much time and room to foresee how civil-military relations will shape in the future.
Will there be a transition to the professional army, for instance? If so, how? And how will the education system be? We don’t see much debate on these issues yet.