Friday, June 04, 2010

‘Turkey’s military problem’ (1)

“At least 51 percent of stocks in this company called Turkey have always been owned by its military…” This analogy, once expressed by a prominent Turkish businessman and banker, could be very helpful to understanding the decades-long battle and ensuing suffering for democracy in the country.
As a matter of fact, the old businessman had told his son, who is now a successful boss and owner of a media company, in order to caution him, to “not be too forward for liberal rights and democracy.” This unspoken fact set a pattern of obedience and fear among all segments of society. These sentiments were almost always coupled with helplessness. I recall a long dinner in Stockholm (where I was a resident journalist) in the mid-1980s with a group of leftist dissidents and exiles -- Turks and Kurds who had fled for their lives and sought refugee in Scandinavia. It was with confusion and dismissal that they assessed the reforms carefully launched at the time by Turgut Özal.
He was, of course, a neo-liberal; his project was to be rejected categorically by the dinner guests. I argued that the army systematically acted as if it was a political party with some half a million armed members, and only by endorsing economic stability and enhanced prosperity would its role be eventually subject to criticism and opposition. Only one of them agreed. The rest were still hopeful that the “progressive” parts of the army would rise up one day to lay the groundwork for the end of socialism.

This would, of course, never happen. A crushed and disappointed left (center or marginal) needed decades to understand that even its freedom was linked to prospective civilian control of the armed forces.

At the time, I served as a correspondent for the Cumhuriyet daily, covering Sweden, Finland and (later) the Baltic states. The newspaper was a center for the fight for human rights and freedom; it operated under severe pressure by the military authorities, but its staunch commitment to high journalistic standards helped make it very solid and trustworthy. It was all thanks to Hasan Cemal, who had managed to transform the newspaper -- with the help of a hugely intellectual group of editors and liberal-minded columnists -- into a quality daily. The success story went on till 1991, when a deep rift from within -- between rigid Kemalists and liberals -- tore the institution apart, with the latter leaving the paper.

Cemal (65), a columnist for the Sabah and Milliyet mass dailies ever since, is arguably the most experienced, knowledgeable and sharp-minded analyst in this country. His personal history is, in a sense, a metaphor for the entire critical history of Turkey since the early ‘60s. One can detect the changes, and progress, swinging between hope and gloom, self-scrutiny in all his daily work -- and even more so in his books -- all this synced with changes in this turbulent country.

He wrote one book about the coup in 1980, later a self-critical book about himself (how he gradually changed from a “violence-promoting revolutionary” in the ‘60s to a liberal democrat), a voluminous work simply titled “Kurds” and, now, a book called “Turkey’s Military Problem.” Its subtitle lays out the premise Cemal is working on: “Officer, take your hands off politics!”

In over 500 pages, backed with journal entries and notes and written in a lucid style, one which marks his career, Cemal analyzes the causes, reasoning and actions of the powerful Turkish military, mainly focusing on the past 50 years, which included three coups, direct interventions and several coup attempts. His line is clear: The military problem is the mother of all problems in Turkey.

As Cemal seeks the root causes of a one-time backwardness, of poverty and the low level of the rule of law and of a political life turned, under the tutelage of the military, into a “stop and go” democracy, he discloses the following: “In this country, the definitions on the most fundamental issues were made by the military, which has established criteria that were later imposed on the political system. And these criteria formed the basis of the robotic discourse of the state. And whenever the military decided that the criteria were breached and became indefensible under a pluralist regime, it threw its sword on the table [i.e., intervened]. This is the military’s concept of “guardianship,” and this lays the basis for military tutelage.”

He quotes key figures in Turkish politics. The late Bülent Ecevit speaks privately about “the military playing politics in a ruthless manner.” Süleyman Demirel tells him: “I was beaten twice by the army. One cannot do anything without them.” When Mesut Yılmaz wanted to discuss national security issues with the then chief of General Staff, Hüseyin Kıvrıkoğlu, he received the following response: “You [the government] just take care of the economy; leave the rest to us, it is all our business.”

Cemal’s book is one of the most valuable contributions to the ever-growing debate about the enormous transformation in Turkey. Through a dark journey on intrigue, plotting and, by taking snapshots of a fragile civilian democracy kept constantly at gunpoint, the reader (re)visits not only the dark corridors of “real” power in Ankara, but also Cyprus, Kurds, summary killings, dirty warfare and seemingly endless, illegitimate political and social engineering.

In my upcoming articles this week I intend to highlight some parts of Cemal’s work.

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