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February 12, 2013, Tuesday

Why visit a sick general?

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan did it again. After throwing the Shanghai bone to a hungry crowd of analysts and columnists to chew on two weeks ago, last weekend he made another move that is wide open to interpretation by visiting retired Gen. Ergin Saygun at a hospital.

By referring to Turkey's potential membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), the Justice and Development Party (AKP) leader managed to open up a new round of debate about Turkey's EU perspectives. Some commentators seriously believed the prime minister had given up on EU membership, while others made the assessment that his remarks were made merely to put pressure on the EU. His surprise visit to Saygun, who is recovering from heart surgery after having been sentenced some time ago to 18 years in prison for his role in the Sledgehammer plot to overthrow Erdoğan's government, has led to a new round of speculation. The prime minister has given all the Erdoğanologists a new riddle to solve.

Why would Erdoğan, all of a sudden, show compassion for one of his sworn enemies, who was out to take him down as recently as 2007? According to some, the visit should be interpreted as a highly symbolic political pardon. Erdoğan showed that he is willing to forgive Saygun and other subversive generals, a calculated move to neutralize his former enemies, ensuring the military will not block his efforts to settle the Kurdish issue.

The Financial Times made a link to fears voiced earlier by Erdoğan that the imprisonment of hundreds of officers and former officers has weakened the capabilities of Turkey's military as well as to the AKP leader's growing frustration with the slow pace of some high-profile mass trials. The Financial Times' reference to some recent resignations by high-ranking officers seems to confirm rumors that not long ago, the military's top brass made it clear to Erdoğan and President Abdullah Gül that they have run out of patience. The visit to Saygun should thus be interpreted as Erdoğan's answer to these threats: He got the message and will do his utmost to get the generals, some of whom have been waiting for a final verdict for years now, out of prison as soon as possible.

That concealed promise leads to another explanation that makes sense. If the prime minister accepts the fourth judicial reform package that will be presented to him this week, the consequence will be that hundreds, if not thousands, of prisoners will be released immediately. These include dozens of Ergenekon and Sledgehammer suspects from the military as well as hundreds of Kurdish activists and journalists who have been jailed pending the conclusion of the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK) trial. The release of so many Kurds will be welcomed by Kurdish nationalists, and is most probably part of wider efforts by the government to strike a deal with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) this spring. Many Turkish nationalists, however, will not be amused.

By warming up to the military, Erdoğan is trying to demonstrate his even-handedness and desire to prevent these bad nationalist feelings from turning violent or an electoral liability in the foreseeable future.

Personally, I tend to see Erdoğan's reaching out to Saygun as part of an overall softening of relations between the prime minister and the military since 2011. After the third AKP election victory, Erdoğan and the military both knew that the old days of military tutelage were over, once and for all. The military accepted the AKP's supremacy and, in return, Erdoğan cooperated by trying to save as much as possible of the military's remaining prestige and influence. This explains why the Uludere incident was not properly investigated and why several further democratic reforms were never institutionalized. Parliamentary oversight of the defense budget is still not guaranteed, and auditing of military expenditure by the Court of Auditors was only saved by an intervention of the Constitutional Court after the AKP had used its majority in Parliament to exempt the military from such public accountability.

Last week, the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) published a very informative report on the successful attempts by the Egyptian army to strike a back door deal with Egypt's Islamist president, Mohammed Morsi. The military has conceded most of its political influence but managed to block moves towards greater transparency and civilian oversight; the new Egyptian constitution, for instance, continues to protect the army's enormous economic interests. The SWP's conclusion sounds alarmingly familiar: “For the time being, the military institution and the President have developed a sort of symbiotic relationship -- both cannot do without each other.”

Of course, there are huge differences between Turkey and Egypt and, overall, Erdoğan is in a much better position than Morsi. However, the similarities between the anti-reform, pro-status quo civil-military establishments of the two nations should worry democrats in both countries.

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