Friday, June 25, 2004

PARIS — The powerful Turkish military establishment has been under unprecedented political scrutiny ahead of the NATO summit opening in Istanbul on Monday.

Turkey’s application to open membership negotiations with the European Union has been systematically eroding the influence of the army, which considers itself the ultimate guardian of the country’s secular system introduced by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of modern Turkey.

It was the military’s strength and determination that on three occasions, stopped the country’s slide into terror and anarchy, chastised quarreling politicians and created a safer atmosphere for political and economic development, according to European analysts.

After each of the three coups between 1960 and 1980, the army returned to barracks but kept a watchful eye on political squabbling and the security situation.

In preliminary negotiations with the European Union, senior European officials warned that without curbing the army’s role, Turkey could not be admitted into the predominantly civilian European club.

Although an army general still presides over the National Security Council, which holds the reins of power, other senior military officials are gradually being reduced to silence. Fewer controversial and critical statements by generals have been appearing in the Turkish press while Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, previously affiliated with Islamic forces, has been steering Turkey toward Europe.

The army’s situation in the post-Cold War era perhaps was best described by Turkish commentator Mehet Ali Birand.

“This is a new, Turkish model of democracy, one in which the army speaks within the system. It is no longer apart. In a way, the armed forces have become a kind of nongovernmental organization, an interest group with heavy weapons,” Mr. Birand said.

The proliferation of extremist Islamic groups, some of them linked to known terrorists as far away as Saudi Arabia, has led to speculation that the Turkish politicians might have to hand over security to the military again.

Turkish sources say Mr. Erdogan, and particularly his Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, would like to keep security in the hands of the police and paramilitary “jandarma.” But many Turkish officials feel a more efficient and better-organized force eventually will become necessary.

Thus, once again, amid tense security preparations after this week’s bomb attacks in Istanbul, the country’s eyes are on the army, which the late President Turgut Ozal once described to The Washington Times as “the most respected force in the nation.”

Yesterday, police sealed off streets, searched cars and blew up suspicious packages as part of a huge security sweep a day before President Bush arrives in Turkey, the Associated Press reported.

The security measures came after two explosions Thursday — one outside the Ankara hotel where Mr. Bush is expected to stay and a second on an Istanbul bus. The bombings killed four persons and wounded 17.

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