On September 4-5 General Ilker Basbug, the new chief of the Turkish General Staff (TGS), conducted a two day visit to the predominantly Kurdish southeast of the country, inspecting military units, meeting with selected NGOs in Diyarbakir, and mingling with the local people on the streets of Van.
The visit capped a remarkable first 10 days in command for Basbug, during which he laid down markers on a number of domestic political issues, ranging from the military’s determination to preserve the prevailing interpretation of secularism in Turkey, to its attitude to the ongoing Ergenekon investigation (see EDM, July 29) and its resolute opposition to the granting of an amnesty to militants of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Perhaps most significantly, Basbug unequivocally demonstrated that, under his command, the TGS military can be expected to play a more consistently assertive and proactive role in Turkish politics than under his predecessor, General Yasar Buyukanit.
Basbug has long been regarded within the military as one of the most able officers of his generation, combining a formidable intellect with an implacable commitment to the principle of secularism, which was enshrined in the country’s constitution by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (1881-1938), who founded the modern Turkish Republic in 1923 (see EDM, July 24).
At the August 28 ceremony to mark his assumption of command of the TGS, Basbug had no hesitation in declaring his support for the July 30 verdict of the country’s Constitutional Court, which found the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) guilty by a margin of 10-1 of becoming a focus for anti-secular activities (see EDM, July 31).
“The principle of secularism is one of the founding principles of the Turkish Republic,” said Basbug. “The Constitutional Court is the only organ authorized by the constitution to comment on and define secularism” (Turkish General Staff website, www.tsk.mil.tr).
In accordance with Turkish protocol, President Abdullah Gul attended the handover ceremony. The Turkish military has long believed that Gul shares what they suspect is the AKP’s desire to change the prevailing interpretation of secularism in the country. In April 2007, Buyukanit’s heavy-handed – and ultimately unsuccessful – attempt to prevent Gul from becoming president forced the AKP to call an early general election for July 2007 (see EDM, July 23, 2007).
In Turkey, after preliminary expressions of respect for the dignitaries in their audience, it is customary for speakers to punctuate their speeches with occasional further references to the highest-ranking person in attendance. Significantly, each time Basbug did so, his reference to “my dear president” was immediately followed by a blunt statement of the Turkish military’s determination to preserve Ataturk’s ideological legacy, particularly secularism (www.tsk.mil.tr). Basbug also dismissed suggestions that it was time for the military to withdraw from the political arena.
“The Turkish Armed Forces will always play a role in preserving and protecting the founding philosophy of the Turkish Republic as drawn up by Mustafa Kemal,” Basbug warned (www.tsk.mil.tr).
Basbug has also delivered an unmistakable warning to the AKP over the ongoing judicial investigation into the ultranationalist gang known as Ergenekon, which has resulted in the arrest of a number of high-ranking, retired members of the military. Although the investigation is based around a kernel of truth, AKP-sympathizers in the lower echelons of the judiciary have attempted to use it for ideological purposes, mixing fact, hearsay and disinformation in an attempt to try to discredit the fiercely secularist military (see EDM, July 29). The resultant politicization of the Ergenekon case has played into the hands of those of the AKP’s opponents who claim – inaccurately – that all of the alleged evidence produced by the investigation is a fabrication.
Much to the frustration of many members of the officer corps, under Buyukanit the TGS tended to avoid commenting at all on the Ergenekon investigation. But Basbug has had no such reservations. On September 3, Lieutenant General Galip Mendi, the commander of the local garrison in Kocaeli, where many of the Ergenekon suspects are being held, visited some of the retired military personnel in prison. No one doubts that the visit was at least authorized – and probably initiated – by Basbug. Perhaps more remarkably, the TGS then posted a press statement on its website, confirming that the visit had taken place, before noting the: “trust and respect of the Turkish Armed Forces towards the judiciary” (Press Statement No. BA 40/8, www.tsk.mil.tr). The visit will have reassured the Turkish officer corps that Basbug will have no hesitation in preserving the reputation of the TGS. In addition, it will have given the judges responsible for hearing the Ergenekon case the impression that they know what verdict the military would like to see.
During his visit to southeastern Turkey on September 4-5, Basbug also took the opportunity to restate both his and the TGS’s refusal to countenance the possibility of an amnesty for PKK militants. A full or partial amnesty is generally regarded by those close to the PKK as being a prerequisite for any cessation of hostilities (Jamestown interviews, Van, Dogubayazit, August 2008). Yet, when the possibility of an amnesty was raised by one of Basbug’s interlocutors during his meetings with NGOs in Diyarbakir, Basbug immediately replied: “It’s impossible. It can’t even be discussed” (Radikal, Milliyet, Hurriyet, CNNTurk, September 5).
More subtle has been Basbug’s silent comment on prospects for a solution to the decades old division of Cyprus. The latest round of UN-sponsored talks between the two communities on the island were launched on September 3. Hardliners in Turkey insist that any solution must be based on the de facto recognition of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC). Since its unilateral declaration of independence in 1983, the TRNC has only been recognized by Turkey. In August 2006, when he assumed command of the TGS, Buyukanit’s official photograph on the TGS website broke with convention by showing him seated in front of the flag not just of Turkey but also of the TRNC. When the first photograph of Basbug as chief of staff was posted on the TGS website at the end of August this year, it also pictured him seated in front of the flags of both Turkey and the TRNC (www.tsk.mil.tr). As someone with a reputation for his attention to detail, it is unlikely that Basbug was unaware of the message that the photograph would send.