From the very beginning of the Ergenekon investigation and throughout the trial process the country has been divided into two camps. On the one hand, liberal, moderate Islamists argue that Ergenekon is a criminal network that carried out most of the unsolved political murders in recent Turkish history. On the other hand, Kemalists and neonationalists tend to downplay the importance of the Ergenekon network.
No matter how the Ergenekon trial ends, it will have a direct impact on anti-American sentiment in Turkey. It is no secret that the neonationalist groups, which include the leading figures of the Ergenekon network, have promoted anti-Americanism in Turkey. Ergenekon supporters frequently organize street protests to accuse the United States of plotting against the network (Yeni Safak, April 19). One of Turkey’s major Kemalist associations, Ataturkcu Dusunce Dernegi (Ataturkist Thought Association), organized a rally last July in protest against the Ergenekon trial. Protesters accused the United States of being the main force behind the Ergenekon inquiry (July 19). The Workers Party’s youth movement, Turkiye Genclik Brilgi (Turkish Youth Union) is active in public and on the internet describing the Ergenekon investigation as “an American plot against Turkish nationalists” (see the Facebook group organized by the Workers Party youth movement). On the other hand, Ergenekon supporters recently organized a protest at Silivri Prison, where the Ergenekon trial is being held, to accuse the United States of intrigue against the Kemalists (Radikal, October 20).
It was reported that a public prosecutor had questioned Erol Olmez, one of the imprisoned Ergenekon suspects, about connections with the terror attack on the American consulate in Istanbul on July 9 (Hurriyet, November 12). Allegedly, Bulent Cinar, one of the terrorists killed during the shootout in front of the U.S. Consulate, had spoken on the telephone with Olmez (Taraf, November 13). There is not enough evidence to suggest that the neonationalists in general and the Ergenekon criminal network in particular may escalate their anti-American sentiment into that level of violence against American institutions, but it is clear that the neonationalists and Ergenekon are the two major sources of anti-Americanism in Turkey. Given that the arrested Ergenekon suspects were frequently commentators on TV shows and at public events and were also the main organizers of major rallies to protest the government and American policies in Turkey and in the Middle East, one can argue that the Ergenekon arrests should reduce the intensity of public anti-Americanism in 2008.
In addition to other factors, public antipathy toward the United States may be related to the intense anti-American campaign of leading Ergenekon figures, such as Dogu Perincek, Sener Eruygur, Hurist Tolon, and Emin Gurses. Turkish opinion about the United States and the American people had become increasingly negative until 2008:
Nearly half of Turks (46%) say they have a very unfavorable view of Americans, up from just 32% a year ago. 17% have a somewhat unfavorable view of Americans. Similarly, opinions of the U.S. fell from 30% very or somewhat favorable last year to 23% in the current survey (Pew Global Attitudes Report, Turkey, June 23, 2005, www.pewglobal.org/reports/pdf/247turkey.pdf).
According to German Marshall Funds of the United States’ Transatlantic Trends findings, on a 100-point “thermometer scale,” Turkish warmth toward the United State was 20 degrees in 2006. In 2007, when large scale rallies were organized by neonationalist groups and the anti-Americanism debate was intensified, Turkish warmth toward the United States dropped to 11 degrees. In June of 2008, before the Russian invasion of Georgia, Turkish warmth toward the United States increased by three degrees to 14 degrees. While Turkish warmth toward the United States has increased slightly this year, for first time since 2006 Turkish warmth toward Russia has decreased, by three points to 18 degrees (www.transatlantictrends.org, see the polls from 2006, 2007, and 2008).
The Ergenekon inquiry could be one of the factors that have reduced the intensity of anti-Americanism on TV stations and in newspapers. The news channel SKYTV, for instance, has dropped two programs that were airing anti-American themes in almost every show. The mainstream Istanbul daily Aksam, moreover, fired one of its columnists who is known for her relationship with the Ergenekon criminal network and anti-American sentiments.
Given the fact that the Ergenekon network’s supporters are trying hard to portray the Ergenekon trial as an American plot against the neonationalists, no matter how the Ergenekon trial ends, it will affect people’s opinion toward the United States in one way or another. If the major defendants are found not guilty and released, they will appear on television, blaming not only the ruling government but also the United States for their arrests. If the court convicts the Ergenekon suspects, their supporters will try to depict the sentences as politically motivated under pressure from the ruling government and the United States.