Will Turkey’s top general step on civilian toes in press conference?

April 29, 2009, Wednesday/ 17:16:00
In an interview with The Associated Press last November before Barack Obama took office, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, said: “We all serve at the pleasure of the president. I’ll serve as long as he wants me to,” even though he was only halfway through a two-year term.

Mullen’s statement represents what has come to be expected in any democratic country and reinforces the general outlook of civilian control over military issues. One cannot help but wonder whether Mullen’s Turkish counterpart, Chief of General Staff Gen. İlker Başbuğ, shares the same sentiments and feels accountable to civilian authority as strongly as Adm. Mullen, whom Başbuğ met on Saturday in Ankara at General Staff headquarters.

Başbuğ’s press encounter and question-and-answer session today will certainly give students of Turkish politics an opportunity to observe and analyze how he foresees the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) playing a role in shaping the future of the country. “The general ought to speak only on matters involving defense and technical issues and needs to refrain from commenting on any other issue,” says Atilla Yayla, a professor of political science at Ankara’s Gazi University. “On a courtesy note, he should even request permission from the prime minister to make a public announcement on technical matters,” he told Today’s Zaman.

Chief of General Staff Gen. İlker Başbuğ ought to speak only on matters involving defense and technical issues and needs to abstain from commenting on any other issue, says political science professor Atilla Yayla.

But Turkey is not an ordinary democracy and its military, NATO’s second largest army, has played -- and in fact still plays -- a dominant role in Turkish society. The powerful military has unseated four elected governments in the last half decade. It has long seen itself as the guarantor of democracy and stability in chaotic times. In recent years, however, the military seems to have been trying to adopt the role of silent actor or a power broker behind closed doors.

"Only in exceptional circumstances do top generals go to the press to discuss matters in Western democracies, and only after clearing it with their governments," says Hasan Celal Güzel, a former politician and a columnist with for the Radikal daily. Güzel told Today's Zaman that democratic principles are not well established in Turkey, or at least have not yet been fully implemented. "Military leaders on active duty should only talk about national defense matters," he underlined.

Yayla warns that reporters participating in the press conference will try to provoke Gen. Başbuğ into speaking on matters that usually lie within the realm of authority of the elected government. "If the general is sincere in respecting the boundaries of democracy, he should refrain from commenting on questions concerning politics and should refer them to politicians and government officials," he noted.

Chief of General Staff Gen. İlker Başbuğ

Under normal circumstances, one should expect a general to speak on military issues such as how the military assess its own capabilities against challenges posed by external threats. He may want to talk about how well the military has adapted itself to global threat assessments. More technical questions may follow, such as:

  • Where does the military see itself in terms of modernization and reforming the army?
  • Has the global economic crisis impacted its plans and forced it to revise its procurement policy?
  • How does the military intend to address transparency issues regarding military tenders and deal with corruption and bribery scandals wasting taxpayers' money?
  • Is the military revamping its judicial review process to bring the military justice system in line with democratic EU norms? Is it willing to subject itself to civilian judicial appellate review?
  • Are studies being conducted in the army to make it a professional force with a smaller number of troops or plans made to boost its rapid deployment capability? If not, should it work toward this end?
  • Is the curriculum of the military academies being reviewed so military cadets can be familiarized with contemporary global threats?
  • What measures has the army taken to maintain its unified command structure and chain of command?

On another note, the public is expecting the Turkish military to provide answers about the recent discoveries of large caches of weapons and munitions reportedly registered to the TSK. The military has so far kept silent on arms unearthed in the course of the investigation into the Ergenekon terrorist organization, a criminal network accused of conspiring to topple the democratically elected government in Turkey by creating chaos through high-profile assassination plots.

Güzel believes the army should come clean and take a stand against Ergenekon's leaders, some of whom are believed to be military officers, both retired and active duty. "It is obvious this shadowy group can't simply engage in plans to overthrow the government without enlisting the help of at least some officers, including high ranking ones," he stressed. He expects Başbuğ to answer some of these questions that have been lingering in the media for some time. "Maybe he can finally put all these questions to rest by distancing the army from Ergenekon with a clear stand," he added.

Güzel further notes that the army is a very important institution in Turkey and enjoys significant support from the public. He says the TSK should avoid giving the impression that it is aiding and abetting the Ergenekon suspects who use every imaginable means to weaken the case against them, including fake medical reports, forged documents and evidence tampering. He notes that high-level visits to Ergenekon suspects have been sanctioned by top brass and do not reflect well on the military.

Some of the questions the public is hoping Başbuğ will respond to are as follows:

  • How do you explain the discovery of arms and munitions registered to the TSK in the Ergenekon terror investigation?
  • How and by whom were these weapons taken out of TSK depots?
  • Has an investigation been launched to trace how these weapons ended up in the hands of people with suspected links to Ergenekon?
  • Has the military completed a through inventory check? Have any of the culprits been found? Are there any suspects?
  • What legal actions has the TSK taken against the suspects? Are there problems in inspections? Were these weapons stolen?
  • What measures has the TSK taken to prevent the theft of weapons and munitions? Are there problems with the existing safety and security procedures? Has a commission been established to review these procedures?
  • Why hasn't the TSK released any statements so far explaining how these weapons made it into Ergenekon's hands? Don't you think keeping silent on these investigations may harm the public's trust in the TSK?
  • The hand grenades seized during the arrest of Ergenekon suspect Fikret Emek and the one that was thrown at the Cumhuriyet daily reportedly came from the same batch of the military inventory. Has there been an inquiry into this?
  • Col. Arif Doğan has claimed that he received weapons through seizures in operations against terrorist groups. What is the procedure for weapons and ammunitions seized in such operations? Is it possible that some of these weapons were not registered into the TSK inventory?
  • Has the TSK identified, reprimanded or punished any personnel suspected of hiding weapons and ammunitions seized in operations and search missions?
  • Why has the military authorized top officers to pay visits to Ergenekon suspects who were accused of involvement in a scheme to topple the democratically elected government?
  • Does the General Staff not think that such visits will damage the neutrality and respectability of the military institution and hurt the ongoing court case?
  • Has the military authorized an investigation into alleged forged medical reports issued by doctors from the Gülhane Military Academy of Medicine (GATA) in a bid to help Ergenekon suspects go free?
  • If there was such an investigation, will the results be revealed to the public to allay concerns that military personnel are helping Ergenekon suspects?
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