Ergenekon: Turkey’s “deep state” in the light

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Turkey's numerous and interlocking series of political, legal and security crises continues to cast a large shadow over the country's future direction. At least one of these crises - the attempt to ban the governing Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi (Justice & Development Party / AKP) over its supposedly unconstitutional Islamist leanings - seemed to ease a little with the decision by the constitutional court on 31 July 2008 to impose a financial penalty on the party rather than declare it illegal.

Bill Park is a senior lecturer in the department of defence studies at Kings College London

This outcome, albeit by a narrow margin, was widely welcomed as a timely boost for Turkey's troubled democracy. As one legal timebomb is defused, however, another potent one remains primed. This is the 2,500-page indictment submitted to an Istanbul court on 14 July against an alleged conspiratorial group known by the sobriquet "Ergenekon".

The indictment was submitted a full thirteen months after the discovery of an arms dump in an Istanbul house, which prompted a wave of detentions. Under its terms, eighty-six figures - retired military officers, politicians, journalists, lawyers, businessmen, academics, and known criminals - were charged with a range of crimes; they included "attempting to destroy the government of the Republic of Turkey", "membership in an armed terrorist group", and "inciting people to rebel against the Republic of Turkey".

Among openDemocracy's many articles on Turkey's politics:

Fadi Hakura, "Europe and Turkey: sour romance or rugby match?" (13 November 2006)

Katinka Barysch, "Turkey and the European Union: don't despair" (27 November 2006)

George Schöpflin, "Turkey's crisis and the European Union" (23 July 2007)

Gunes Murat Tezcur, "Turkey's political opening" (24 July 2007)

Gunes Murat Tezcur, "Turkey's Kurdish challenge" (8 November 2007)

openDemocracy, "Turkey and a new vision for Europe" (12 December 2007) - a statement by leading European intellectuals

Hasan Turunc, "Turkey and Iraqi Kurds: the politics of military action" (25 February 2008)

Mustafa Akyol, "Turkey's ‘Islamic reform': roots and reality" (4 March 2008)

openDemocracy, "Turkey's risk, Europe's role" (2 April 2008) - a second statement from a group of European intellectuals

Katinka Barysch, "Turkey: the constitutional frontline" (14 April 2008)

Cem Özdemir, "Turkey's clash of values: memo to Europe" (29 April 2008

The indictment made no reference to the publication by the weekly journal Nokta in early 2007 of what were alleged to be excerpts from the diaries of a former commander of the Turkish navy that coups against the AKP government had been planned in 2003 and 2004 during the term of general Hilmi Özkök as chief of the general staff. The diaries reported that Özkök had disappointed some of his subordinates by opposing the plans. Nokta's offices were raided and the journal closed down, although no action appears to have been taken by the military high command against the alleged conspirators.

An elusive conspiracy

A number of leading figures who were implicated in the diaries - including retired gendarmerie general Sener Eruygur (head of the movement which during 2007 had organised mass rallies against the ruling AKP's attempt to secure the presidency), and retired general Hursit Tolon - were since arrested as part of the Ergenekon investigation, with the cooperation of the military authorities; but they were not charged in the indictment. There have been still more detentions subsequent to the submission of the indictment. All this suggests that more indictments are to follow.

More specific charges included in the indictment are "inciting others to stage the 2006 council of state shooting and a hand-grenade attack at the Cumhuriyet newspaper's Istanbul office". The interest in these two allegations lies in the fact that the council-of-state attack, in which a senior judge was killed, came in the wake of an anti-headscarf decision made by the council, and that Cumhuriyet is a ferociously secular newspaper whose owner and regular columnist Ilhan Selcuk is among those charged with Ergenekon membership.

A supposed Islamist, Alpaslan Arslan, was found guilty of these attacks and is currently in jail. It is now alleged that he had links with members of the Ergenekon "gang". The possibility that the derin devlet ("deep state") staged attacks on its own sympathisers and on figures otherwise regarded as Republican loyalists, and then sought to provoke crises by shifting the blame onto leftists, Kurds and Islamists, suggest that it will now be suspected of each of Turkey's endless litany of hitherto unresolved disappearances, bombings, assassinations, disturbances, and acts of intimidations.

Indeed, some sections of the Turkish media are already raking over the past for crimes that might plausibly be linked to Ergenekon, although other media outlets are doing their best to minimise both their coverage of and the significance of the case. The leader of the arch-Kemalist Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi (Republican People's Party / CHP) opposition party, Deniz Baykal, has been particularly insistent on what he has regarded as the politically-motivated, implausible and trivial nature of the allegations.

A shadow lifted

Turks have long been convinced of the existence of this so-called "deep state", consisting of interlocking networks of individuals, often drawn from but acting in parallel to the state, immune from prosecution and engaged directly or indirectly in illicit operations such as intimidation, assassinations and bombings against those deemed to be in opposition to the official Kemalist nationalist and secularist ideology of the Turkish republic. The detail contained in the Ergenekon indictment, made public on 25 July, suggest the presumed existence of a "deep state" has rested on something more substantial than any Turkish love of conspiracy theories.

It includes the allegation that the "gang" plied the PKK with logistical and monetary support and cooperated with it in the drugs trade, that it was behind a large number of unresolved political assassinations previously attributed to leftist and fundamentalist groups with whom the "gang" is reported to have links, and that it provoked intercommunal tensions between Turks and Kurds, and between Sunnis and Alevis.

One of the numerous past incidents attributed to the "deep state" is the so-called Susurluk affair of 1996, a road accident in which the high-ranking police officer at the wheel of the car and two of his passengers, a beauty queen and Abdullah Catli, an internationally sought after mafia boss and former leader of the far-right Grey Wolves movement, died. The only surviving passenger was a Kurdish tribal leader who both headed a "village guard" unit armed by the state to combat the armed guerrillas of the PKK in southeastern Turkey, and served as parliamentary representative for the Dogru Yol Partisi (True Path Party / DYP).

The national-assembly committee that investigated the incident offered considerable evidence of close ties between state authorities and criminal gangs, including the use of the far-right Grey Wolves to carry out illegal activities, but its investigations were obstructed and no serious arrests were made. The retired brigadier-general Veli Küçük, who was detained but then released during the investigation and was known to have associated with Catli, is just one of a number of Ergenekon indictees who had previously been linked to the Susurluk scandal.

Between past and future

The first cases relating to the Ergenekon investigation will be heard by the Turkish courts only on 20 October 2008. But with so many suspects, so many crimes, and with Turkey's track-record of official immunity, the investigation could take years before it yields significant fruit. It might meet with something substantially less than total success, and could even fizzle out. It is possible that the more the investigation shades from the "deep state" into the state itself, including the active military high command and perhaps the CHP leadership (both of which are anticipated), the more likely it is to at least partially run aground.

After all, as the Washington-based Turkish observer Omer Taspinar has expressed: "the system, the media, the state bureaucracy and the political culture of the country all fuel a schizophrenic and paranoid mindset. It is that mindset that has created Ergenekon". On the other hand, Turkey has never before moved anything like this far against the "deep state", and there is too a chance that the country might embark on the removal of those entrenched obstacles to its true democratisation.

The more this realisation penetrates the thinking of those in the west who have traditionally regarded Turkey's Kemalist establishment as the domestic guarantors of Turkey's democratisation, the more likely it is both that republican Turkey's past will be profoundly reinterpreted, and that its democratic future will be assured.