The Turkish military is as committed as ever to defending the principle of secularism enshrined in the country’s constitution but will resist attempts to be dragged into party politics, General Ilker Basbug, the new chief of the Turkish General Staff (TGS), told journalists in Ankara earlier this week (NTV, CNNTurk, September 17).
Basbug was speaking during the second of what the military called “Communication Meetings.” On September 16 Basbug met for three and a half hours with leading Ankara-based members of the domestic and foreign print media. On September 17 he held a similar three-and-a-half-hour meeting with representatives of radio and television channels.
The meetings are further evidence of the changes introduced by Basbug since he assumed command of the TGS at the end of August (see EDM, September 8). Relations between the TGS and the media have traditionally been problematic. Requests for information or interviews have usually either been left unanswered or declined. Consequently, journalists have had to rely primarily on formal statements—particularly those posted in the recent period on the TGS website—and public speeches or pre-prepared, ostensibly “off-the-cuff” remarks by leading commanders on the sidelines of public functions. The flow of information has been intermittent, abrupt, and unpredictable, with the result that an unexpected statement by a commander has the ability to turn the domestic agenda news agenda upside down within minutes of its being reported by the media. Most notably, late in the evening of April 27, 2007, Basbug’s predecessor, General Yasar Buyukanit, posted a hastily drafted statement on the TGS website effectively threatening a coup if the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) pushed ahead with its plans to appoint the then Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul to the presidency. Ultimately, the AKP called Buyukanit’s bluff by holding an early general election, which it won by a landslide (see EDM, July 23, 2007). Gul was appointed president in August 2007.
Unlike the emotional and sometimes volatile Buyukanit, Basbug has a reputation for making calm, measured decisions even under the most intense pressure. As part of the new media strategy announced by Basbug on September 16 and 17, the TGS will now hold weekly press briefings, starting from September 26. Basbug also indicated that the TGS would issue fewer written statements and “off-the-cuff” remarks at public functions; and he promised that the TGS Communications Department would be more receptive to individual requests for information (Dogan Haber Ajansi, September 17).
“A communications facility will be open 24 hours a day,” said Basbug. “The Communications Department will take questions over the telephone, thanks to a standby duty system, and try to answer them as soon as possible” (Turkish Daily News, September 17).
It appears that Basbug’s main goal is to control and manage the flow of information, rather than to make the TGS more transparent. In recent months there have been a string of leaks of information by military personnel, including publication in the pro-AKP media of what appear to be classified documents.
“This is illegal. We are determined to prevent it from happening again,” said Basbug (Anadolu Ajansi, September 17). He claimed that unscrupulous journalists had been cultivating contacts in the military and then abusing their trust by revealing and sometimes distorting what they had been told or shown in confidence.
There is little doubt that the shift in emphasis from the often very blunt public statements issued by leading commanders to a more subtle strategy of regular, relatively informal engagement with the media will help improve the military’s image. In the past, what members of the TGS would refer to as public “expressions of concern” frequently looked more like military orders issued to the Turkish government and people. It is likely that Basbug has calculated that the new strategy will be more effective.
Significantly, at both meetings, Basbug insisted that the TGS was as committed as ever to what Turks call the “February 28 Process,” the carefully calibrated campaign coordinated by the military to force the Islamist-led coalition government from power in 1997, starting with the presentation of an ultimatum at the National Security Council meeting of February 28, 1997.
“The process will continue as long as the reasons for it remain. It is normal for us to support it,” said Basbug. “There are some issues that fall within the Turkish Armed Forces’ responsibilities and fields of interest and that are related to politics” (NTV, September 17).
Perhaps more striking than what Basbug said was his refusal to comment, negatively or positively, on the strategy adopted by Buyukanit. When asked to evaluate the statement of April 27 and the February 28 process, Basbug replied: “We find it strange that the April 27 statement is compared with the February 28 process” (NTV, CNNTurk, September 17). “The statement was issued by Chief of Staff Buyukanit in the name of the Turkish Armed Forces,” said Basbug. “There is a chain of command in the Turkish Armed Forces. Don’t expect me to comment any further on this topic” (NTV, CNNTurk, September 17).
Basbug also made it clear that he would resist any attempts to drag the TGS into political debates that were unrelated to its perceived areas of responsibility. “No one should attempt to use the Turkish Armed Forces for their own political aims,” he said (NTV, CNNTurk, September 17).