CAROL MIGDALOVITZIt’s hard to believe the tragedy of Dec. 28, 2011, revealed an unremarked upon positive development in Turkey. According to the authorities, poor intelligence mistook 35 smugglers in the Uludere district of eastern Turkey for Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) terrorists and devastatingly led to their being targeted and killed by the military. The calamity produced appropriate concern about effects on the government’s relations with the Kurds. That significant part of the story remains to be played out. Another equally important part has been evolving for months.
After the attack, the Turkish General Staff posted condolences on its website. Yet, the individuals making public announcements about the event and conveying apologies were civilian officials – Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and President Abdullah Gül. Chief of General Staff Gen. Necdet Özel was not seen, except when going into the prime minister’s office to discuss the situation, and his voice was not heard. The symbolism here is what is critical: The Turkish military is now completely responsible to the government, not vice versa as sometimes it appeared to be and was the case in the past. In other words, it is the government’s military and not the military’s government.
In fact, since he took office in the summer, Özel’s actions and absences have demonstrated his subordination to civilian leaders. Yet, only on Victory Day in August 2011, when he conveyed greetings to the president and did not receive greetings as other chiefs of staff have, did he draw comments. He has also given at least two television interviews: one to NTV in October and one to CNN Türk in November. (These were the only ones that I caught; there may have been others.)** He was not present for either. Instead, he gave written answers to questions submitted. The subjects concerned solely matters that are undeniably within the military’s purview: conscription, border outposts, the campaign against terrorism and unmanned aerial vehicles, among others. The general did not comment on political or governmental matters outside of his area of responsibility. Moreover, Özel meets only with foreign military visitors as did his immediate predecessor, not with foreign government officials and politicians. He properly leaves inter-governmental affairs to those whom the Turkish people elected.
On one occasion, some commentators criticized the general for visiting military commanders imprisoned in connection with the alleged Balyoz (Sledgehammer) affair. Yet his statements then were conspicuously innocuous. Like many others, including those who believe all allegations surrounding the purported Ergenekon and Balyoz plots, he expressed dismay at the length of the legal proceedings and called for speedy trials. I would hazard a guess that this is a non-controversial, majority view in Turkey.
For years, the European Union’s annual report on Turkey’s progress toward membership has called on the Turkish military to respect boundaries and civilian control over the military. Özel is doing just that in a very quiet way. In EU member countries, comparable conduct on the part of military officers is unremarkable. Maybe because of Turkey’s history – after all, military officers founded the republic and perpetrated several coups – just this once, it bears notice. Henceforth, it may also be “unremarkable.”
*Carol Migdalovitz is a former member of the U.S. Congressional Research Service.
**Editor’s note: This article was written before the recent General Chief of Staff interviews that were published in yesterday’s daily Milliyet and Habertürk.