Angry reactions triggered by remarks from CHP Deputy Chairman Süheyl Batum last week, referring to the military as a “paper tiger” for not staging a timely coup d'état to overthrow the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government, have been growing, with the latest blow to Batum coming from Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who commented on the controversy at his party's parliamentary group meeting on Tuesday.
Batum criticized the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) for being too weak to take a stand against the government in comments he made on Saturday. He purportedly said during a visit to the Atatürkist Thought Association's (ADD) Zonguldak branch that the government and the investigators probing coup allegations inside the military had managed to “demolish the military.” Batum said: “It turns out, [the military] was a paper tiger, and we thought it was an army. Turns out, the US simply carved a hole in it. They were able to fell that gigantic tree within seconds.”
In yesterday's group meeting, Erdoğan said that it was a legal offense to create the image that the Turkish military was under the influence of the US military and called on prosecutors to file complaints against Batum. “If this goes unanswered, they will play with our military as if playing with a ball. They should be made to pay for this.” He also noted that a prosecutor in Zonguldak had already started a legal investigation into Batum's words.
Erdoğan continued, “The main opposition party should give up on applauding coup stagers. You hear a constitutional law expert say these strange words,” referring to Batum, who is a constitutional law professor. “Such people cannot be academics or men of law. At best, they are people who have only memorized the Constitution booklet in their hands.” In fact, the paper tiger remark was not the first of Batum's pro-military intervention remarks. Two weeks ago, he suggested nominating some of the civilian suspects in the trial of Ergenekon -- a clandestine gang charged with plotting to overthrow the government -- as parliamentary deputies. If they were elected to Parliament, this would be a “get out of jail free” card for people accused of having conspired to overthrow a democratically elected government.
Erdoğan’s remarks came after a statement from the TSK on the military’s official website was issued on Sunday, which said, “Efforts to drag the TSK into discussions of daily politics are frustrating.” It said the military should not be used as an instrument for political polemics. It added that the armed forces expected politicians to be more mindful of their remarks when talking about the military in contexts where they would like to appeal to certain voters.
AK Party Deputy Chairman Hüseyin Çelik also reacted to the scandalous statement from Batum. He said on Monday, “Actually this is just a manifestation of the CHP’s mission to be a guardian of the regime of military custodianship.”
In fact, the CHP, and particularly Batum, has been worried about a regime crisis in Turkey. In a speech he made late last year, Batum alleged that Turkey was in danger of losing its secular character and was facing a “regime crisis.” Speaking at an event organized by his party’s İstanbul Bahçelievler branch in late December, Batum called on the branch’s members to warn people of this danger during the election campaign. “Turkey has a regime problem. Call it moderate Islam or the Great Middle East Project if you will, this regime crisis that the Americans want to institute here is real. We have to visit each and every house and warn the people of this danger,” he said.
Zonguldak Prosecutor Hüseyin Özbakır announced on Monday that his office had launched an investigation into Batum’s remarks about the military.
Mixing military and politics
Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) leader Devlet Bahçeli also slammed Batum’s remarks saying his statements were the reflection of the anxiety felt by a losing politician. He said: “These words are not only unfortunate, but they are also the manifestation of a politician losing his common sense. Our recommendation for this CHP administrator is to say openly what it is that he expects from the military and if he doesn’t believe in the wisdom of democracy and the ballot box, then seriously rethink whether he should continue his political career after this point.”
Bahçeli also spoke at his party’s parliamentary group meeting. He accused both the CHP and the AK Party of using the TSK as material for political polemics. “We have frequently witnessed and criticized the government party over the past years for its using the TSK as political material. It has become a habit for the AK Party to drag the military into politics to appear as if they [the AK Party] are victims.” He said insulting and provocative statements by AK Party representatives in the past had caused damage to the TSK. “The obligation for the TSK to stay away from politics and focus only on the country’s safety is not open to discussion,” he said.
He said the TSK was no paper tiger, but one of the most imposing strengths of the Turkish nation with its history that stretches back thousands of years.
Süleyman Demirel, a multi-term prime minister and former president of Turkey who had briefly considered Batum to head his Democrat Party (DP) in the past referred to Batum’s remarks as “a meaningless statement that was extremely out of line.”
Bülent Arınç, an AK Party deputy chairman, also showed his reaction and tweeted Monday night, “What Batum means is this: Why hasn’t the military brought the AK Party down yet?”
Retired officers speak out
Retired military officers joined in the debate yesterday, criticizing Batum severely for his words. Retired Lt. Col. Şenol Özbek said, “It is one thing to criticize anti-democratic elements within the military; it is another thing to accuse the entire Turkish military.” He said that Batum had shot the TSK in the heart with his words. He said the reason behind this was the CHP’s general frustration with the military for not staging a coup. “When they gave up on the hope of an intervention from the military, they started making such statements.” He also said that Batum’s words constituted an insult to the military, adding, “When he realized that, he back-pedaled on his initial words.”
Indeed, Batum on Monday rephrased his words, saying he was not referring to the TSK as a paper tiger. He said, “I am sorry if my remarks upset the TSK.” However, this time he made accusatory comments about former chiefs of general staff, Hilmi Özkök, Yaşar Büyükanıt and İlker Başbuğ. He said, “Nobody has asked Hilmi Özkök how come he is not on trial [for coup-related crimes] although everyone that served under him is.” He criticized Büyükanıt for what he deemed was a weak stance against the AK Party’s alleged attempts to bring more religion into the lives of secular people, while he also made angry remarks about former Chief of General Staff İlker Başbuğ, who allowed civilian prosecutors investigating an alleged assassination attempt on Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç’s life to search a room where documents containing military and state secrets are archived.
Şahin Akdoğan, a retired major, said Batum’s words came as no surprise. “They wanted to cooperate with the army and overthrow the AK Party government. They are frustrated because this didn’t work out. They don’t know what to do now. So they are at a point where they are hurling insults at the military.” Akdoğan said Batum and those who think like he does have been waiting for signs of possible intervention from the military for a long time. “But they now see that this is not going to happen. They are now faced with the reality that the military is no longer in active politics. Their hopes have been drowned,” Akdoğan said of the CHP, “They haven’t served this nation at all for many years. They are the paper tigers themselves. Instead of clashing with the values of the nation, they should fight against the problems of the country.”
Armağan Kuloğlu, a retired general, said the CHP appeared to be trying to appeal to a certain segment of voters by using the TSK.
The Jurists Union Foundation (HBV) also released a statement yesterday, stating that Batum was in fact calling for a coup d’état by referring to the military as a paper target. It said it was cause for “great concern” and also “terrifying” that Batum, as a person who has made an academic career out of researching fundamental rights and freedoms, is the person to utter these words.