Turkey and Ergenekon: from farce to tragedy

An epic military, political, and security scandal continues to absorb Turkey. The affair's latest bizarre sub-plots make the tensions between the country's “deep state” and its constitutional order even more acute, says Bill Park.

The sprawling, chaotic, all-consuming “Ergenekon” investigation into the activities of Turkey’s so-called derin devlet (“deep state”) shows no sign of abating. Indeed, its tentacles are spreading ever further as it moves from enveloping its politicians and public to polarising the state’s core institutions.

The reverberations of a seemingly permanent yet ever-elusive political scandal have reached a decisive stage at the highest level of official politics. Turkey’s prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and head of the ruling Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (Justice & Development Party /AKP) intends to bring a thirteen-part constitutional-reform package to parliament by the end of March 2010. Its passage would enable oversight of the party’s key institutional adversary, the Hakimler ve Savcılar Yüksek Kurulu (supreme board of judges and prosecutors / HSYK). But Ergenekon’s corrosive effect is equally evident in the longer-term divisions it is fomenting within Turkey’s military and judiciary, which the latest developments in the affair are sharpening (see Soner Cagaptay, “What's Really Behind Turkey's Coup Arrests?”, Foreign Policy, 25 February 2010).

A conflict of shadows

The frenzy surrounding Ergenekon has begun to focus primarily on one of the overarching conspiracy’s many sub-plots: namely, the extraordinary 5,000-page Balyoz (Sledgehammer) plan. This was revealed in January 2010 by the Turkish journal Taraf, the leakers’ outlet of choice. The plan - approved by the military elite in 2003, following the AKP’s election victory of November 2002  - was modelled on the orchestrated disruption that preceded the “generals’ coup” of 12 September 1980. Its aim seems to have been to generate an atmosphere of crisis in Turkey in order to prepare the ground for a military takeover (see Gareth Jenkins, Between Fact and Fantasy: Turkey's Ergenekon Investigation [Silk Road Studies, August 2009]).

The Balyoz plan’s detail mixes the fantastical and the deeply serious. It envisaged the bombing of Istanbul mosques during Friday prayers; the deliberate shooting down of a Turkish warplane over the Aegean to provoke a crisis with Greece; names of friendly and hostile journalists; and lists of bureaucrats, ambassadors, and regional governors to be targeted for arrest.

The military elite insists that the plan is no more than a war-game scenario; its voluminous documentation was dismissed by the chief-of-staff Ilker Basbug as amounting to a “piece of paper”. This stance ran into trouble over a single scrawl on one such piece. The signature of an army colonel, Dursun Cicek, was found on a document (published by Taraf in June 2009) outlining ways to discredit the AKP and the Fethullah Gülen movement; Basbug said that the signature was forged, though civilian forensic and police agencies declared it authentic - a finding now acknowledged by an internal military investigation.

This incident is emblematic of how each story-line in the wider Ergenekon chain of disclosures tends to unfold in a way that intensifies the pressure on the Turkish military. For example, the signature of a retired general, Cetin Dogan, is now also alleged to appear in the Balyoz archive. Dogan was charged on 26 February 2010 as part of the Balyoz investigation - along with the former special-forces commander Engin Alan, the most senior of around fifty active and retired officers detained in the most recent round-up (see Gareth H Jenkins, “Defense against documents: the Turkish military’s rearguard action”, Turkish Analyst, 23 November 2009).

Dogan suggests that the former chief-of-staff General Hilmi Özkök should confess what he knows about the affair; Özkök in turn claims to have had no knowledge of Balyoz, and insists the then land-commander General Aytac Yalman should take responsibility; Yalman agrees, but refuses to speak until given permission from the current chief-of-staff Ilker Basbug. The unsettled Basbug seems more concerned with identifying whistleblowers from within the ranks than with assisting the investigation, and is increasingly shrill in his warnings about the morale of the armed forces (see “Başbuğ: 'A demoralized military is a national problem'”, Hürriyet Daily News, 11 February 2010).

A landscape of plots

The agitation surrounding the Balyoz plot has to fight for space in Turkey’s media with the equally convoluted Kafes (Cage) “operation action-plan”. This subterranean project was exposed in April 2009 after the discovery in Istanbul’s Poyrazköy district of an illegal arms-cache provoked a police-raid on the home of a retired Turkish army major.

The Kafes plan, allegedly (that word again) conceived within the navy command, compounds the multifariousness of Ergenekon and the scale of Balyoz with an ambition all of its own. Its bizarre features include an operation to assassinate non-Muslims (along the lines of the killing of the Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink in January 2007) in the hope that international and domestic blame would attach to the AKP government; the use of prostitutes to blackmail unreliable senior naval officers; and the concealment of explosives inside a submarine exhibited at Istanbul’s Rahmi M Koc museum supposedly intended for detonation during a visit of schoolchildren. In the latter case, the police’s retrieval of the explosives in July 2009 was followed by an internal military investigation which concluded that a navy unit had been tasked to remove them - and “forgot” to do so.

The Kafes and Balyoz controversies have overshadowed even the arrest of two special-forces command-officers in December 2009; they were detained outside the home of deputy prime minister Bulent Arinc on suspicion of plotting his assassination. The investigation into this incident led to the military making an unprecedented concession: that a civilian judge could conduct a thorough search of a super-sensitive military facility: in this case the special-warfare department’s Ankara headquarters, known as the “cosmic room”. The judge concerned received death-threats; if that was predictable, the arrest of seven military officers who had been tailing him was - even by Turkey’s “new” standards - more startling (see Steven A Cook, “The Weakening of Turkey's Military” [Council on Foreign Relations, 1 March 2010]).

The army for its part continues to dismiss officers suspected of Islamist sentiment, if so far none alleged to have been involved in Ergenekon-related activities (though in February 2010 a military tribunal did give a four-year prison sentence to a lieutenant-colonel who had kept at home weapons belonging to the armed forces). More typical of its attitude is that on 3 March 2010, the third army chief General Saldiray Berk - who has to date refused to appear before a court for questioning over his supposed political plotting - led the military’s biannual, high-profile military exercises. The event  - “Sarikamis 2010 Winter”, referring to its location in the eastern province of Kars - was, somewhat unusually, not graced with the presence of any representatives of the Turkish government.

Turkey’s fracture-zone

The avalanche of revelations associated with the Ergenekon investigation carries several “unknown unknowns” in its thunderous train. A major one is the impact it might be having on Turkish public opinion, which is traditionally well-disposed towards the armed forces. An effect of the long crisis has been to strip the military (for the time being at least) of its untouchability, as the detailed exposure of its disruptive plans alternates with embarrassing personal dramas (such as the dispute between teams of doctors as to whether three indicted retired generals  - Levent Ersöz, Sener Eruygur and Hursit Tolon - are fit enough to stand trial). 

In these circumstances the tensions between Turkey’s military, judiciary and political leaders are becoming acute. They were on display when on 4 February 2010 the Ankara government rescinded the longstanding protocol (Emasya) granting the military the right to assume responsibility for public order in the event of a breakdown (see Omer Taspinar, “Turkey’s Difficult Democratization”, Brookings, 15 February 2010); and again after the chief prosecutor of Erzurum in eastern Turkey ordered the arrest of his Erzincan counterpart Ilhan Cihaner on 17 February for Ergenekon-related activities - and was himself dismissed almost immediately by the judgessupreme board (HSYK).

The latter is far more than a local affair. The moderate-Islamist AKP government regards the HSYK as a bastion of the secularist-Ataturkist order, and suspects it of being the agent of a concerted attempt to undermine the Ergenekon prosecutors. This underlines the significance of the government’s presentation of its constitutional-reform proposals to the Ankara parliament; these include measures (first outlined in 2007) to restructure the HSYK in conformity with the process of accession to the European Union. In turn the HSYK is conducting an enquiry into whether the government might be culpable of illegitimate pressure on the judiciary - and if the answer is “yes”, the AKP could share the fate of its Refah Partisi (Welfare Party) predecessor in 1998 and find itself closed down by the constitutional court.

Turkey’s lawyers and politicians are in dispute too about the ramifications of a constitutional-court ruling of January 2010, again part of the requirement to make Turkey’s legal order compatible with the European Union’s acquis communautaire. The ruling overturns a law passed in July 2009 which had given civilian courts the right to try military officers for non-military crimes. This outcome alone has the capacity to tip the entire Ergenekon investigation into an even deeper abyss.

Turkey is surpassing itself in its capacity for the absurd - and soon also, perhaps, in its capacity for the tragic.

About the author

Bill Park is a senior lecturer in the department of defence studies at Kings College London. He is currently conducting a longer-term study of the three way relationship between Turkey, the United States and the Kurdish Regional Government in Northern Iraq. His books include Turkey's Policy Towards Northern Iraq: Problems and Prospects (Routledge, 2005), and Modern Turkey: People, State and Foreign Policy in a Globalized World (Routledge, 2011)

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

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openDemocracy, “Turkey and a new vision for Europe” (12 December 2007)

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Juan Gabriel Tokatlian, “Armenia and Turkey: forgetting genocide” (12 October 2009)

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Kerem Oktem, “Turkey and Israel: ends and beginnings” (10 December 2009)