The general who changed a cursed tradition

The general who changed a cursed tradition

Yesterday’s testimony by retired General Hilmi Özkök in Istanbul’s 13th criminal court can be regarded as a milestone in the four-year-old ‘Ergenekon’ case. The case has seen hundreds of people, from right-wing activists to left-wing journalists, from academics to generals, tried under the accusation of establishing and being members of a terrorist organization looking to overthrow the Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) government.

Özkök served as the Chief of General Staff of the Turkish Armed Forces (TAF) between 2002 and 2006.
Soon after Özkök took office, by the end of August 2002 in fact, there was a critical early election in Turkey. In 2001 the country had been hit by the worst economic crisis of its history and a three party coalition was losing control over every single area of government as the Iraq war approached on the horizon. AK Parti, known to be a moderate split from the Islamist political tradition and describing itself as ‘conservative democrats’ won the Nov. 3 elections and established a one-party government; the first one seen after decades.

Özkök confirmed in the court room yesterday that he was too worried about the AK Parti rule as the leading member of the Turkish military, which has a staunchly secular tradition and education. That was not the whole picture. The Turkish military had overthrown the elected governments in 1960, 1971 and 1980, claiming that the governments had dragged the country to the brink of failure and ‘religious reactionism’ had always been a popular excuse for coups. In 1997, through a sharp psychological operation, the military had managed to persuade the Islamist Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan to resign.

It is understood from Özkök’s statement as a witness yesterday that there had been meetings among generals to evaluate the political situation after the AK Parti’s election victory. In those meetings, it was suggested that the military should issue the government an ultimatum, warning them not to promote or inject their religious motives into political and social life. “But at the end of the day it is what the commander says which counts. There might be cases of discrepancy between me and my officers.” He also admitted for the first time that he was ‘informed’ about certain drafts to intervene, but never took any action to implement them.

It is true that he had not taken any legal action against them too, but those were critical days; he confirmed in the court that at some point (from the first half of 2004 until some of the interventionists officers were put into retirement by him) he had to bring his own food from home as he was afraid of being poisoned in the headquarters.

“Is it a crime to be a Democrat?” he asked in complaint at one stage of the testimony, referring to a media campaign erected against him. Perhaps he feels sorry for his former brothers in arms who are in jail now as a result of his stance. Yet by resisting pressure from other ranking officers Özkök perhaps broke the cursed tradition of intervening in politics at will which has been deeply rooted in Turkey’s military for a long time.