A short introduction for the uninitiated: On Feb. 28, 1997, as a result of a political crisis which was fueled by then President Süleyman Demirel, several politicians, and a significant portion of the media, the democratically elected coalition government of the Welfare Party (RP) and the True Path Party (DYP) -- known as the Refah-Yol government -- had been overthrown, and in its place, a minority government, backed by the military, had been formed through a number of intrigues by Demirel. This is called the postmodern coup of Feb. 28. Of course, the government was not the only victim of Feb. 28. The real victim was the public. In the first place, all journalists who were against this process lost their jobs. Using previously prepared blacklists, numerous people were “cleansed” from the bureaucracy and universities. People lost their jobs and lives. Hundreds of students were denied their right to an education just because they wore a headscarf, and their lives turned into nightmares.
The question which I chose to headline this article with originally came from Çölaşan, a columnist who writes for the Hürriyet daily. During the Feb. 28 process, a moment of disgrace occurred for the judiciary as members of the high judiciary were taken by bus to the General Staff, where they were briefed by soldiers about the coup. After that briefing, for some reason unknown to us, the columnists from Hürriyet, led by their Editor-in-Chief Ertuğrul Özkök, paid a visit to then Deputy Chief of General Staff Gen. Çevik Bir, one of the masterminds behind the Feb. 28 coup. In a recent documentary, Özkök talks about those days. He says: “With me were Emin Çölaşan, Tufan Türenç, Sedat Ergin and Gülçin Tenci. As we were about to sit down, Emin asked, ‘Let’s get straight to the point: Will you overthrow the government or not?’”
Özkök says they were all very surprised, including Bir, who replied: “What are you talking about, Mr. Çölaşan? That’s incredible. Don’t even think about it.”
Özkök claims “there was not such thing,” referring to the coup, in an effort to clear his name by putting Çölaşan in the spotlight. In other words, he implies that they were not aware of the coup or did not know that the government would be overthrown, and that had they known, they would not have acted the way they did.
And then there was a coup after all!
There was because the military had overthrown the government.
Bir was telling a lie. Everyone knew that a coup was in the making. The coup was expected and it was even desired by a significant portion of the politicians and journalists. Perhaps, they were expecting the military to stage a traditional coup, using tanks and other weapons, and perhaps they were wrong in their expectations. In the end, a coup came, and it was more painful and tragic than a conventional coup.
The missing champions of democracy
At that time, the West’s champions of democracy did not raise their voice against human rights violations in Turkey. No one expressed any support for numerous journalists who lost their jobs because they opposed the military.
To Tuncay Özkan, who applied to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), claiming that he was put on trial for “being a journalist,” the Strasbourg court said, “You are not being tried for your journalistic activities, but for serious charges against you.” If we agree that a person may be victimized for being a journalist, then a journalist cannot demand exemption from litigation for non-journalistic crimes. It further follows that the efforts to create confusion in people’s minds are ill-intentioned.
Those who staged the Feb. 28 coup and those who aided them have not been tried yet, including the members of the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK), politicians, journalists and bureaucrats involved. Yet, what they did is clearly a crime in a democratic country and it must be litigated. Except for a few people, no one from the supporters of the coup has come out to offer an apology or say that s/he was wrong in backing the coup generals. In other words, justice has not been served.
Ours is an odd country in that, as a person who had been victimized by coups many times in the past, Demirel acted as the leading actor of Feb. 28. Instead of standing erect against military memorandums and siding with Parliament and the civilian government, he opted to orchestrate the coup.
When the swords were drawn in January 1997, the General Staff issued President Demirel a 54-item memorandum. Demirel’s part was to work on these items and convey the message to the government. He set up a group comprising the head of the State Audit Institution (DDK), the head of the Department of Laws and Resolutions, and the secretary-general and deputy secretary-general of the Presidency. Journalists referred to it as the Presidential Study Group (CÇG). We learn this from the journal entries of Oğuz Özbilgin, the deputy secretary-general of the Presidency.
This group was to focus on the danger of reactionaryism. Ali Kalkancı, Fadime Şahin and many other fake religious figures who were later found to be working for the Feb. 28 generals started to pop up on TV in chilling radical images. In the meantime, then Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan, who was sitting in the bull’s eyes of these campaigns, failed to support the probe into the “deep state” as uncovered in the Susurluk affair. He also made mistakes which were later used by the coup perpetrators against him, such as when he hosted an iftar (dinner) for leaders of religious communities in the prime minister’s official residence. Although there was nothing wrong with this move, Erbakan played into the hands of the junta and, instead of resisting the coup, just gave up and relinquished everything.
In the meantime, Demirel attended the TV programs of “awesome journalists,” informing them of reactionary activities and drawing the public’s attention to the danger. At that time, the head of the National Intelligence Organization (MİT) -- a favorite topic of today -- was very active. The subject matter of the complaint was this: People who were discharged from the military by the Supreme Military Council (YAŞ) were being employed by the Refah-Yol government.
The military had blacklisted them. This list had been given to the Presidency. Another blacklist was being prepared by MİT. MİT’s blacklist had been given to the CÇG by then MİT Undersecretary Sönmez Köksal. Indeed, there was true coordination among state institutions at the time.
The National Security Council’s (MGK) meeting on Feb. 28, 1997, was to be built upon the CÇG’s draft text, which in turn relied on the 54-item military memorandum. In other words, the military issued a memorandum to the government.
As a result of the tension that started in January and was increased in a controlled manner, Erbakan submitted his letter of resignation to Demirel on June 18, 1997. Referring to the protocol he made with his coalition partner, the DYP, he demanded that Deputy Prime Minister Tansu Çiller be vested with the mandate to form a new government.
But Demirel did not do this. Instead, Demirel gave the mandate to form the government to Motherland Party (ANAP/ANAVATAN) leader Mesut Yılmaz, who unfortunately lacked the foresight to see the wrongness of accepting this mandate as part of a process that meddled with the natural course of politics, and accepted it. Although the RP, the DYP and the Grand Unity Party (BBP) raised a feeble objection, asking the president to give the mandate to Çiller, it was of no avail. ANAP established a coalition government with the Democratic Left Party (DSP) and the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP), and this government was backed by the Republican People’s Party (CHP).
This coup is possibly Turkey’s most disgraceful coup because politicians, bureaucrats and journalists worked together with soldiers to create a fake threat of reactionaryism and to eventually overthrow a democratically elected government. It is much more disgraceful than a conventional coup carried out by tanks and weapons. It was done with cooperation between soldiers and civilians.
The general public reacted harshly to everyone involved in that conspiracy. ANAP, the DSP and the DYP no longer exist. The CHP is slowing dying by holding party congresses one after another. The Justice and Development Party (AK Party), which can be considered a continuation of the RP, has been elected to office for three successive terms with strong voter support. Despite all its faults and defects, the public does not prefer pro-tutelage parties over the AK Party.
That said, hundreds of people who were victimized following Feb. 28, 1997, still demand justice.