The arrests of two retired Turkish general officers on July 6 are the latest detentions in an ongoing investigation into Turkish government allegations of a conspiracy to overthrow the government. Most alarming among the allegations against the conspirators is that, in addition to seeking to shape public opinion in their favor through use of the Turkish media, the plotters planned to use assassinations of Turkish citizens as a tactic to bring about the intervention of the Turkish military, a charge that, if proven, would be tantamount to carrying out terrorist acts to overthrow the government (Independent, July 2). The alleged plot, known as the Ergenekon case, is known to have been underway since 2003. The investigation has resulted in the arrest of two dozen or more individuals from not only Turkey’s military sphere, but also political leaders, members of the Turkish media, a prominent ultra-nationalist attorney and others (Independent, July 2). Turkish authorities reportedly have uncovered a network of conspirators and seized weapons and explosives (Today’s Zaman, July 6). As a measure of the intended scope of the plot, the conspirators reportedly aimed at nothing less than the reshaping of Turkey’s military and parliamentary establishments—along with the national-level bureaucracy and local governments—countering many of Turkey’s existing legislative and national security policies and even the rewriting of Turkey’s Constitution (Today’s Zaman, July 8).
The two most prominent names among the arrestees, because of their former high-ranking positions and their continuing access to present-day officials, are retired generals Sener Eruygur, former commander of Turkey’s Gendarmerie Forces (a paramilitary responsible for rural security), and Hursit Tolon, former commander of the Turkish First Army (Hurriyet, July 6; Milliyet, July 6). Showing the scope of the secularists’ dissatisfaction, other suspects include Mustafa Balbay, Cumhuriyet newspaper’s Ankara representative, and Ankara Chamber of Commerce President Sinan Aygun. The names are among those mentioned in the seized diaries of another senior Turkish military officer—retired Admiral Ozden Ornek, former commander of Turkey’s naval forces (Turkish Daily News, July 4).
General Eruygur presently heads the Ataturkist Thought Association (ADD) (Bia News Center [Ankara], July 4). The ADD is named for Mustafa Kemal “Ataturk,” the founder of modern secularist Turkey in 1923, following the collapse of the Ottoman regime and the nationalist victory in the subsequent Turkish War of Independence (1919-1923). A number of observers see the government’s coup allegations as a counter-offensive to the present court case against the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), brought by secularists seeking to outlaw the Islamist political party and ban its officials from political office. On the day of the latest arrests, the AKP was engaged in court fighting charges leveled by Turkey’s chief prosecutor (Independent, July 2).
The key piece of government evidence to emerge is a diary maintained by retired Admiral Ozden Ornek, an Ergenekon insider. The document details the names of the participants in Ergenekon, the plans for carrying out the coup and the motivations of the participants—including a deep-seated fear of the possible future course and outcome of the Cyprus issue. An important June 12 raid on an Istanbul residence may have resulted from the seizure of Ornek’s diary. Turkish authorities reported that the raid uncovered a network of conspirators, along with a cache of hand grenades, explosives (TNT) and fuses (Hurriyet, July 14). A number of suspected plotters were also arrested (Haber Panorama, July 2). Even beyond the information that the Ergenekon conspirators were actively involved in preparing to overthrow the Turkish government, the Ornek diary contained the names of two abortive plots in 2004—codenamed “Sarikiz” (Blonde Girl) and “Ayisigi” (Moonlight)—in both of which General Eruygur played an active leadership role (Today’s Zaman, July 4). Evidence of a third coup plot, “Eldiven” (The Glove) was also found in the home of General Eruygur (Taraf, July 7; Hurriyet, July 14).
Information corroborating the material found in the Ornek diary was recovered from the personal computer of General Eruygur. A startling allegation derived from that information suggested the Ergenekon organization had plans for a bomb attack on Taksim Square, one of Istanbul’s busiest areas. With a callous disregard for the lives of Turkish citizens, it was hoped the bombing would kill a large number of people and injure hundreds more, creating a level of chaos sufficient to bring about the intervention of Turkey’s military forces in response. The killing and wounding of such a number of people would place the action on a scale with, for example, November 2003’s twin al-Qaeda attacks in Istanbul. In addition to the bomb attack, the plotters planned to assassinate a senior army general and the chief prosecutor of the Supreme Court of Appeals, Abdurrahman Yalcinkaya. The irony in the latter assassination target is that the core goal of the plotters was the replacement of the AKP government, and Yalcinkaya is presently engaged in the court proceedings designed to disband the AKP and dissolve the Turkish government on charges of the constitutional offense of being anti-secular (Today’s Zaman, July 8).
Ominously, the Ergenekon plotters demonstrated a level of seriousness when they enlisted the aid of an individual named Osman Gurbuz (a.k.a. “Fake Green”). Arrested during the roundup of suspects, Gurbuz allegedly headed a team of attackers who fired indiscriminately into three Istanbul coffee houses and a business office in the infamous “Gazi” incident in Istanbul in 1995, an attack that killed one person and wounded dozens more from the local Alevi community. Nearly two dozen Alevis were killed in anti-police protests in the days following the attack (Sabah, July 4; Radikal, July 7).
Modern-day Turkey is no stranger to coups d’état—both attempted and successful—over the decades since its establishment. The Ergenekon plot and 2004’s Sarikiz, Ayisigi and Eldiven conspiracies are merely the most recent. Turkey’s military establishment has intervened three times to remove the government of the day and deliver a return to the military’s perception of strict Kemalist principles. In 1960, then Premier Adnan Menderes, President Celal Bayar, the Cabinet and Parliament were removed from power; Premier Menderes was later executed. The years 1962 and 1963 saw two additional attempts at coups d’état, both of which were witnessed personally by this writer. The government of Suleyman Demirel was forced to resign in 1971 under the threat of military intervention, following years of left- and right-wing demonstrations and violence that swept a number of nations in the region. Widespread violence in Turkey again led the Turkish military to intervene on September 12, 1980, for the second time against Suleyman Demirel. Turkish military Chief of Staff Kenan Evren announced that the military was acting to stem anarchy in Turkey and to preserve the republic founded by Kemal Ataturk.
This latest episode in the ongoing tug of war between Turkey’s secularists and its reformers exhibits a number of departures from the past: First, although not entirely unprecedented, the Ergenekon plot appears to have received minimal support, in large part because of the absence of widespread anarchy in Turkey, the primary “spur” for the Turkish military in the past; second, the contest between Turkey’s secularists and its reform-minded factions has been carried out this time as much within the legal system as outside of it, as witnessed by the ongoing court battle against the AKP (Turkish Daily News, March 17); third, the Turkish judicial establishment (police, courts and internal security) has demonstrated a convincing willingness in their investigation of the Ergenekon case to move quickly and decisively against those, including the military, who seek to move against Turkey; fourth, state-of-the-art technology such as computers is a two-edged sword—while they can aid members of an organization greatly in the management of an effort, they also tend to record an abundance of evidence that in this case will go a long way to bringing about an end to Ergenokon. The Ergenekon case may very well prove to have been a sea change in the manner in which the internal affairs of Turkey are conducted.