Turkey's Kenan Evren: The last of the Cold War coup plotters

Turkey's Kenan Evren: The last of the Cold War coup plotters

Late in the summer of 1977, General Kenan Evren was set to retire from the command of Turkey’s Aegean Army due to the age limit. But a series of unfortunate events changed both his fate and that of the nation in May and June that year.

On May Day 1977, in Istanbul’s Taksim Square, 34 people died and 126 were wounded during a rally of trade unions and socialist and social democratic groups, after a stampede was triggered by a few shots. The events of that day still remain a mystery after all those years. Turkey was heading for an election on June 5. Bülent Ecevit, then the leader of today’s main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), wrote a letter to President Fahri Korutürk, a retired admiral, and said he suspected that a “counter guerilla” unit within the state, possibly trained and equipped by the Americans, may have been responsible for the “massacre.” He also claimed that the ultimate responsibility fell on the shoulders of the Justice Party (AP) government led by Prime Minister Süleyman Demirel.

On June 1, Demirel fired General Namık Kemal Ersun, who was Land Forces Commander at the time, as well as 200 officers suspected of plotting a coup d’état like the ones in 1960 and 1971. Ersun had been expected to become the next Chief of General Staff in 1978. 

On June 2, Demirel wrote a letter to Ecevit saying that there was reliable intelligence to suspect that there could be an assassination attempt against him during the CHP’s rally in Taksim scheduled to take place on June 3, asking Ecevit to cancel it. In reply, Ecevit said it was Demirel’s responsibility to counter the plot, and the rally turned out to be the CHP’s biggest ever, contributing to Ecevit’s election victory two days later. Nevertheless, the victory still failed to provide enough seats in parliament for the CHP to form the government.

Meanwhile, on the military front, Evren was the most senior officer in the chain of command. Demirel appointed this Korean War veteran as the Land Forces Commander on Aug. 30. Then, thinking that Evren was an officer with no political ambitions, (and after also indirectly consulting with Ecevit), Demirel appointed Evren as the Chief of General Staff on March 6, 1978.

Politicians and historians now agree that the worst days of the street bloodshed, which almost dragged Turkey into a civil war between left and right, started to escalate in the 1977-78 period.

Believing that Evren had planned and plotted the coup of  Sept. 12, 1980 together with his top chain of command, the toppled PM Demirel later told me in an interview that it was remarkable and terrifying to see how street terrorism was stopped overnight from Sept. 12-13, as the soldiers overthrew the elected Turkish government.

Not only Demirel and Ecevit, but all political leaders were arrested. The parliament and the constitution were abolished. All parties were closed. 

Evren imposed his own presidency, together with a constitution written under the auspices of a National Security Council, which was established and chaired by himself. It was announced that the constitution had been approved by the people with 92 percent support in a 1982 referendum. 

Over the course of the period of military rule, which ended on paper in 1983 but really continued until the end of Evren’s term as president in 1989, 650,000 people were detained. At least 171 people were proved to have been killed under torture in either police or military interrogations. Death sentences were given to 517 people in 210,000 cases in the military courts, 50 of which were executed. Some 299 people died because of prison conditions, 14 of whom died in hunger strikes in protest at the severe conditions. Among those 17 were four who burned themselves alive in Diyarbakır prison, which is regarded as a landmark incident in the rise of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Newspapers were closed for a total of 300 days. Some 30,000 civil servants were fired based on “suspicion,” 30,000 people fled the country (mostly to Europe) as political refugees, and 14,000 people had their citizenship revoked for political reasons.

This awful picture from Turkey is considered to have been one of the main reasons why Greece, which had managed to put an end to its own military rule a few years before, was later accepted as a member of the European Union.

However, the first decision during Evren’s military rule in 1980 was to lift Turkey’s veto on Greece’s return to the military wing of NATO, which Athens had suspended after Turkey’s Cyprus move in 1974. After all, the U.S.-led Western alliance was having a lot of trouble “containing” the Soviet Union from the south. The Soviet advance in Afghanistan, which started in 1978, had turned into an occupation in 1979, and in the same year the Islamic Revolution in Iran put an end to the pro-American, pro-West regime of the Shah, also causing concerns in the Arab world. The U.S. administration had given it’s “behind closed doors” blessing to Evren’s coup, with some lip service about a “quick return to democracy,” as the U.S. ambassador to Ankara at the time, James Spain, wrote in his memoires.

The 1980 coup by Evren was in line with the “zeitgeist” of the Cold War. Later, however, the enthusiasm of certain officers to overthrow Turkey’s government in 1997 could not find any sympathy in the West. U.S. President Bill Clinton and French President Jacques Chirac had supported President Demirel at the time for not giving way to the soldiers. Ten years later, the e-memorandum of soldiers against the presidency of Abdullah Gül in 2007 was a farce, and resulted in the crushing of political enthusiasm in the military through a series of unfortunate probes and court cases that were subsequently opened.

Thus, in a way Evren was the last of the Cold War coup-plotters - not only in Turkey, but also in the world. 

Despite the heavy and shallow propaganda of Kemalism against socialist, Islamist and Kurdish nationalist movements, which actually backfired in many layers of society, it was Evren who broke records in the opening of religious vocational İmam-Hatip schools - at least until the era of the (now President) Tayyip Erdoğan-led Justice and Development Party (AK Parti). It was also Evren’s constitution that made religion classes compulsory in primary and secondary education, and Evren was the first and only leader to deliver political speeches during rallies with a copy of the holy Quran in his hand - again until Erdoğan.

Thinking that the order engineered in the 1982 constitution by the military would last forever, Evren divided executive power between the president and the cabinet, which is currently one of the main political rows in Turkey as the country heads for another critical election on June 7.

Through a referendum in 2010, a “temporary” article in the constitution - stating that the 1980 coup leaders and officers could not be put on trial for what they did during the coup era - was lifted. Evren and the only other still-living member of the council of five who took power, former Air Force Commander Tahsin Şahinkaya, were tried in absentia (due to worsening health conditions). They were both sentenced to life in prison, though the case is still waiting to be approved in the higher court.

Evren spent most of his final years in the Gülhane Military Hospital in Ankara and died on May 9 at the age of 98.