In a yet another historic move, Turkey has witnessed a new and peculiar detention: For the first time in the republic's history a four-star air force general in duty, who is currently the commander of the War Academies, is now in jail. The case of General Bilgin Balanlı does not have the nature of a common crime.
He stands accused of “attempting to overthrow the government by force,” as indicated by Article 312 of the Turkish Penal Code (TCK). Although arguments by the prosecutor at this stage are not fully clear, we have been told that the case is connected to documents found at the Gölcük Naval Base last year and recent findings at the home of a colonel in Eskişehir (where Balanlı earlier served as the commander of the 1st Airbase).
The decision to detain him was made by a single judge, but this will in all likelihood be appealed and will be overseen by three judges in the next stage.
This dramatic development has several consequences and profound political undertones. Balanlı was one of the two currently serving four-star air force generals and he was on his way to being appointed as the next air forces commander next August. But the law and the regulations make it clear that he has lost all chances of being promoted, even if he is released. This leaves the army in deep trouble. Nobody seems to know whether a three-star general can be appointed instead. The situation is unprecedented.
It is apparent that the structures of the once untouchable military is shattering. Up until now there have been around 200 high ranking officers (30 of whom are one to four-star generals and admirals) who have been detained. The navy has suffered the most with many of its admirals currently in jail, and as an institution, is now operating under extraordinary circumstances.
It would be naive to think that the top command is not in disarray. Since procedural requirements demand that the prosecutor notify the General Staff of any interrogations and possible arrests of high ranking staff in advance, it is reasonable to assume that the recent cancellation of two major military exercises in the Aegean had something to do with the sentiments of the top command.
Could there be any “special timing” linked with the upcoming elections, that put Bilgin's detainment in a political context? There is no indication, no hint whatsoever that may in any way confirm this. On the contrary, reporters keenly covering Sledgehammer related investigations point out that the work of sifting through the documents -- particularly those found in the Eskişehir raid -- is taking a little longer than usual. But this apparently is not enough to hinder speculation.
Nevertheless, as events take shape, it is becoming clear that the grip of the judiciary over the alleged “rogue activity” within the military will continue, and may even tighten. Now, as of May 2011, almost the whole layer of officers who served in critical ranks during the murky years of 2002-2004 have now been subjected to severe accusations. This means an entire era is under scrutiny and prosecutors must work vigorously to sort out those responsible for undue, subversive activity against the elected government. Recent cases of arrests also highlight similar activities between 2007-2009.
Regardless of criticisms over procedures, the ongoing cases of Ergenekon and Sledgehammer, with these new developments are indicating a “normalization” in critical civilian-military relations in the country. Recent statements by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan while on his way back from a rally in Muğla, indicate that the process will be a “controlled demilitarization” of the political domain, possibly without too much haste (so as not to push the indispensable institution of the military off-balance). The period following the June 12 elections is crucial, since the work for a new constitution must encompass the civilian society without the interference of an institution which -- albeit to lesser degree -- is still showing intents to do so. A final nail in the coffin of military tutelage will be possible only if the people can prepare and vote on a democratic, civilian constitution.
It will inevitably mean confrontation with the bloody past. There can be no moral ground nor reconciliation unless the judiciary puts on trial the generals responsible for the ruthless, bloody coup of 1980, no matter how old or how ill they may be. The Ankara Prosecutor's Office the other day subpoenaed Kenan Evren and Tahsin Şahinkaya, two members of the junta, for interrogation. This is a welcome move, although bureaucratic procedures did take over seven months to do so after amendments to the Constitution. The wounds of what these people inflicted are still wide open in Turkey's psyche (and across the social divide). This ongoing transformation requires that they are prosecuted and subjected to fair and swift trials. This will be a symbolic but crucial step to ending a period of coups.