Ergenekon: power and democracy in Turkey

Bill Park
17 September 2009

The series of trials in Turkey investigating the extra-legal activities of the elusive ultra-nationalist organisation "Ergenekon" reached a crucial stage on 3 August 2009 with the acceptance by the Istanbul chief public prosecutor of the third indictment presented to it. In subsequent weeks hearings relating to the case have been merged with those investigating the second indictment, which centres on alleged coup plots against the government headed by Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi (AKP). 

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

Also by Bill Park in openDemocracy

"Ergenekon: Turkey's military-political contest" (3 November 2008)

"Ergenekon: Turkey's deep state' in the light" (7 August 2008)

The Ergenekon scandal begun with a police raid in June 2007 on a house in an Istanbul shantytown that netted some grenades and fuses. More raids and arrests followed, leading to the opening of a first indictment in July 2008; the second was accepted by the court in March 2009; the addition of fifty-two new defendants named in the third brings the total number of suspects to almost 200. The process of investigation, moreover, is ongoing: the submission of a fourth indictment is forecast.  

The third indictment marks a departure from the first and second in that it labels the Ergenekon organisation as "terrorist". It also makes a number of major allegations: 

* that JITEM - a secret gendarmerie intelligence unit (whose existence is officially denied) was responsible for the assassination of the Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, and that it planned numerous other killings, including that of the writer Orhan Pamuk and the former armed forces chief-of-staff Yasar Buyukanit 

* that the Ergenekon organisation orchestrated the anti-Alevi violence in Sivas in 1933 which resulted in thirty-three deaths 

* that it aimed to infiltrate the administration of the country's universities 

* that it was responsible for corruption in military procurement.

The legal facade 

Gareth Jenkins, an independent Istanbul-based British analyst, is one of just a few commentators, inside or outside Turkey, who have read the first two indictments in full. This is hardly surprising, as they run to 2,455 and 1,909 pages respectively. The third indictment, at 1454 pages, will surely meet with a similar fate. After close examination of the documents, Jenkins has produced an invaluable and compelling eighty-three page analysis of their contents. Indeed, its publication has generated something of a storm in Turkey, whose effect has been further to demonstrate the extent to which the Ergenekon case has divided political opinion in the country along (predictably) polarised lines (see Gareth Jenkins, Between Fact and Fantasy: Turkey's Ergenekon Investigation, Silk Road Studies, August 2009).  

Among openDemocracy's many articles about the future of Turkey: 

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) 

Safa A Hussein, "Turkey's Kurdish tightrope: a view from Iraq" (5 November 2007) 

Soner Cagaptay, "Turkey and the Kurds: everybody's problem" (5 November 2007) 

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

Fatma Müge Göçek, "Hrant Dink: memory and hope" (17 January 2008) 

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

Katinka Barysch, "Turkey: the constitutional frontline" (15 April 2008) 

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

Hakan Altinay, "Recep Tayyip Erdogan: the Mandela test" (17 March 2009) 

Gunes Murat Tezcur, "Turkey in transition: reality and image" (24 April 2009)It is impossible to do justice here to his report, but Jenkins argues that the indictments reflect the widespread Turkish attachment to conspiracy theory rather than any judicial concern with hard evidence. His report suggests that the investigation presupposes - but entirely fails to prove - the existence of an Ergenekon "gang" to which the indictees are accused of belonging. Jenkins also highlights the numerous judicial flaws surrounding the case: 

* the "evidence" often amounts to little more than hearsay and is full of contradiction and inconsistency 

* a majority of the suspects seem guilty of little other than opposition to the AKP government 

* the circumstances of many of the detentions are illegal 

* the police raids have themselves not been carried out with due process 

* there has been extensive and illegal leaking of information to the pro-government media.  

In short, Gareth Jenkins characterises the Ergenekon case as largely a witch-hunt conducted by elements within the judiciary, the police and the media against AKP opponents and arch-secularists and nationalists. Although he stops short of accusing the government of directly masterminding the investigation, he does draw attention to its support for it and to its failure to ensure legal procedures are properly followed. Jenkins concludes: "a more pressing concern is not the wasted opportunity for Turkey to confront its past but what the Ergenekon investigation might be saying about its future, and the disturbing questions it raises about the prospects for democracy and the rule of law in the country."  

Jenkins's report adds to growing doubts that the AKP government is indeed doing what many people hoped for and believed in after its election in 2002, and even after its re-election in 2007 with an increased majority: an intensified process of democratisation in Turkey. The European Union-associated reform process has made little headway since 2005, the plans for a new constitution have been dropped, and the draconian tax-fine imposed on the Dogan media group looks more like an act of political spite and intimidation than it does an attempt to crack down on the near-universal tax evasion practiced in Turkey.  

There are other developments that have intensified Turkey's polarisation, prominent among them the publication in June 2009 by the anti-military newspaper Taraf of documents leaked from the Ergenekon investigation and bearing the signature of a navy colonel. The documents outline a plot to discredit both the AKP government and the influential religious movement that carries the name of its founder, Fethullah Gülen.  

The Turkish general staff has insisted the documents are forgeries and were not produced under its auspices; it has refused to prosecute the officer under its own code. He was briefly detained by the police, but then released in record time on the orders of a judge.  

The political calculation 

What conclusions might be drawn from these events? After all, it remains a fact that Turkey's political history is littered with unexplained assassination and disappearances, death-threats, and violent incidents; and that the Ergenekon investigation represents the first sustained attempt to tackle this dark past. It is true too that many in Turkey associate these crimes with the so-called derin devlet (deep state) - an inner core of arch-Kemalist military officers, judges, and bureaucrats whose members have long benefited from a "culture of immunity" surrounding their activities (see Gareth Jenkins, "Turkey: 'Deep State' conspiracy", 27 January 2009).

The Ergenekon investigation might yet conclude - if it ever concludes - that no "gang" exists as such. But this might come to matter less than it should, if the case is seen against the background of Turkey's official, longstanding and extensive "culture of immunity".   

A key modern illustration, mentioned in Jenkins‘s report, is the bombing of a bookstore in the Kurdish town of Semdinli in 2005. The gendarmerie officers who were caught red-handed by witnesses to the incident remain at large and protected by the military and the courts, while the (Islamist) prosecuting judge responsible for flaws in the conduct of the case was hounded from office as a result.  

Those in Turkey who are now so critical of the less-than-democratic credentials of the AKP and its sympathisers have often remained silent in the face of abuses such as this. The manipulation of the judicial process, intimidation of the media, habitual corruption, and an inclination to conspiracy theory was inherited rather than invented by those currently in power in Turkey. Yet the AKP has also introduced more extensive EU-friendly reform than any preceding government, and is currently engineering a much needed opening on the Kurdish question.  

In this light, perhaps the Ergenekon case can be seen less as containing any promise of democracy, and more in terms of power: as a battle for control over Turkey's institutions. The core choice is between (on one side) an inner core of unelected, self-appointed and often state-employed arch-nationalists whose "culture of immunity" is at last under threat, and (on the other) an imperfectly democratic, illiberal, but nonetheless electorally popular new elite of Anatolian populists. Take your pick - if you must.  

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