BACKGROUND: General (ret.) Tuncer Kilinç held one of the most senior positions in the hierarchy of the Turkish General staff. Kilinç was secretary general of the National Security council, the once powerful body where the General staff used to convey its demands to the civilian authorities, before the council was overhauled and put under civilian control in accordance with EU demands. After his retirement, Kilinç has joined the ranks of former generals who, shunning Turkey’s and its military’s traditional strong ties to NATO and the United States, have been advocating an eastern reorientation, towards Russia, China and Iran. The notion entertained by the former generals has been termed “Eurasianism”.
In January, Kilinc and Kemal Yavuz, another retired general equally known as an outspoken proponent of such views, were among those detained in the latest round-up of suspects in the Ergenekon coup plot case. The two were quickly released, without even being brought before a judge, who normally would have decided whether or not there were any legal grounds for the detentions. The releases of the two former generals were presumably secured by the preceding intervention of General Ilker Basbug, the Chief of the General staff, with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President Abdullah Gül.
General Basbug’s intervention broke with a pattern that had been established in the course of the Ergenekon investigation. It was the first time that the General staff intervened, albeit in a non-public manner, in order to secure the liberation of retired high ranking military officers who had been detained. That did not occur when retired generals Sener Eruygur and Hürsit Tolon were imprisoned last summer. When Kilinç and Yavuz were rounded up, the General staff was quick to display open solidarity, with spouses of the top brass being dispatched to the families of the detainees with the mission to console. Yet in another respect, the cases of all four generals fit the same pattern: They are all NATO critics and Eurasianists. Indeed, among those who have been netted in the Ergenekon investigation, the Eurasianist orientation is one of two striking feature. The second category of alleged coup plotters consists of those, like maverick journalist and politician Tuncay Özkan, who have expressed strong opposition to the growing societal and political power of the Islamic movement led by preacher Fethullah Gülen.
Conspicuously, a week before he was detained, Kilinç spoke at a panel together with Sule Perincek, the wife of Dogu Perincek, the leader of the nationalist-leftist Workers party who is held in prison as a suspect in the Ergenekon case. There, Kilinç publicly restated that Turkey should leave NATO. Although probably a mere coincidence, it nevertheless serves to reinforce the perception that Eurasianist inclinations may indeed be specifically targeted in the Ergenekon investigation.
IMPLICATIONS: According to one interpretation, the very fact that the Ergenekon case has gotten so far in itself testifies to the collusion of the military High Command with the investigation. The sight of retired generals being incarcerated by civilian authorities had, indeed, hitherto been unimaginable in Turkey. That collusion would in turn indicate that the General staff disapproves of Eurasianism, and that it is willing to go to great lengths in order to check anti-NATO feelings in the ranks. At least it seemed plausible, until the releases of generals Kilinç and Yavuz, to conclude that the General staff for whatever reason felt obliged to acquiesce in the imprisonments. With his swift reaction to the latest detentions, Chief of the General staff Gen. Basbug evidently drew a line, effectively telling the AKP government and the judiciary not to go after what would have been, and was widely rumored to be, the next level in the hierarchy: former Chiefs of the General staff. And it has also partly undercut the reasoning according to which the top brass is happy with the Eurasianists being tucked away in prison.
The precise extent of Eurasianism in the military is as difficult to establish as is the position of the General staff in the matter. Yet, although retired military personnel obviously don’t speak for the military, it is a telltale sign that it has become commonplace for former generals to propagate for Turkish withdrawal from NATO. General Isik Kosaner, the Army chief who will replace Basbug in 2010, himself did not refrain from accusing the United States in his inaugural speech last summer. Incontestably anti-U.S. feelings have taken hold within the Turkish military during the last decade. Indeed, U.S.-Turkish relations have slowly been poisoned since the end of the Cold War. From the perspective of the Turkish military, the policies of the United States in Turkey’s neighborhood have, whether intentionally or not (notably with the encouragement of Kurdish aspirations in Iraq) ended up endangering Turkey’s territorial integrity. But perhaps even more importantly, the military has become inclined to perceive the United States as – indirectly – threatening its position, or at least as having become unsupportive of its traditional claim to be the upholder of Turkey’s societal order.
Until now, the military had never been contested in its societal dominance, in its role as the main pillar of the republic. Ultimately, it was always the military that laid down the rules, whether it ruled directly or exerted its influence indirectly. The rise of Islamic conservatism is dramatically restricting the reach of the traditional power of the military. Indeed, the Turkish military is challenged as never before in the history of the republic. The forces that it once thought it controlled and therefore encouraged when it suited its interests – such as the Islamic Fethullah Gülen movement which once received the support of the military as a counterweight to communism and Kurdish separatism, and to which the General staff extended its gratitude for services rendered to Turkish nationalism – now themselves aspire to set the rules for the military.
So far, the Ergenekon investigation into an alleged coup conspiracy has failed to produce convincing evidence of the existence of such a conspiracy against the Islamic conservative AKP government, certainly it has failed to legitimize the scope of the detentions carried out. Yet conversely, it has served to expose the new vulnerability of the military. The investigation has furnished the police and its domestic intelligence apparatus, which is believed to be heavily invested with Islamic conservatives, with the pretext to directly target the military. And it may be that circles within the military have come to suspect foreign encouragement of this process. The AKP government has received strong support from the United States and the EU, and the leader of the most prominent Islamic movement, Fethullah Gülen, resides in the U.S., where he is held in high esteem in political circles. These facts account for the growth of anti-U.S. feelings in military ranks.
Indeed, some in the military may even fear that they are intentionally targeted by the United States. A recent statement by former president Süleyman Demirel, who collaborated closely with the General staff against Islamists during his tenure as president in the 1990s, suggests that such suspicions may linger. Demirel speculates that the Ergenekon case “must be directed from abroad”, since “Turks alone could not have mounted such a vast enterprise”. Recently, Hüseyin Kivrikoglu, a former Chief of the General staff, reiterated that the Turkish military had always had its eyes turned on the West, and that there would never be any question of altering that fundamental orientation. During his tenure, however, Kivrikoglu never visited Washington, the first Chief of the General staff since Turkey became a NATO member to depart from that traditional display of Turkish-American friendship. Hikmet Çetin, a former foreign minister and speaker of parliament, and another representative of the old state establishment, has also stated that Turkey’s national security interests make a decoupling from the West utterly unthinkable.
CONCLUSIONS: These recent reaffirmations of Turkey’s continued commitment to the West by members of the old state and military elite could be interpreted as suggesting that the Eurasian alternative espoused by others from the same establishment is indeed unrepresentative of military thinking in general. Or, they could hint at the insecurity of the military. Insecure of what the American intentions really are, not knowing how to interpret the role of the United States in relation to the Islamic challenge that is mounted against it, and perhaps even suspecting an American role in the plot, the Turkish military may in that case be reaching out a hand.
Eurasianism, the notion of a Turkish alliance with Russia, China, Iran, or any other substitute for the West to the East or South of Turkey, lacks credibility in strategic terms. Nevertheless, Turkey’s Western partners have reason not to be indifferent to the lure of Eurasianism among the military ranks. It is above all a troubling symptom of the wider, ideological, eastward shift of the country . It is an expression of nationalism, in defiance of erstwhile allies, who are suspected of having conspired against the nationalist-secular character of the Turkish republic. Paradoxically, it ultimately implies a rejection of the values which are associated with those allies.
As Turkey becomes a more Islamic conservative country, the opposition to that evolution typically does not take on a liberal, but rather a nationalist form. One reason is obviously the Western support, perceived or otherwise, for the AKP and the Fethullah Gülen movement. However, at a deeper level, it is a reflection of the peculiar nature of Turkish secularism, which has always had a strong nationalist, rather than an Enlightenment liberal, tilt. The principal secularist concern has been to secure the supremacy of Turkishness over Islam in a national identity that was constituted around a Turkish-Islamic synthesis. Although clashing over the current reconfiguration of national identity, “secularism” and Islamic conservatism have today effectively joined each other in an anti-Western embrace.