ANKARA, Turkey — To strengthen this country’s chances of joining the European Union, its armed forces have undergone painful reforms over the past year that have curtailed their influence and increased the autonomy of the civilian government.
But analysts say a growing chorus in the ranks of the military insists that the European Union is demanding too much, too quickly, and not accommodating Turkey’s unique military-civilian relationship.
The Center for Eurasian Strategic Studies (ASAM) announced last month that it would no longer support the findings of a forthcoming study on the future role of the armed forces, on which ASAM collaborated for the past year and a half with the Center for European Security Studies (CESS) in Groningen, the Netherlands. The report has been delayed indefinitely.
“Turkey has many threats, and our security organization can’t be made comparable to European armed forces” said retired Maj. Gen. Armagan Kuloglu, vice president of ASAM, pointing to a map of the Middle East that occupies a prominent location in his office.
The main source of contention was a recommendation from CESS that Turkey’s armed forces be made accountable to the defense minister, as in most EU countries, thereby ensuring greater civilian control. Currently, the military reports directly to the prime minister, which reduces transparency and prevents democratic decision-making, said Peter Volten, director of CESS.
Following the demise of the Ottoman Empire after World War I and the creation of the Turkish republic in 1923, the military has viewed itself as the guardian of the secular state and it is often criticized as being a parallel government. Since Gen. Mustafa Kemal, called Ataturk, transformed the country into a modern, Western-oriented nation, his military successors have guided it on a tight rein.
Army as “backup”
Three times troops have toppled democratically elected governments — in 1960, 1971 and 1980. In 1997 pressure from the general staff compelled an Islamist government to resign in what was called a “postmodern” coup.
“The military is regarded as a backup system,” said Gareth Jenkins, a senior consultant for the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “It doesn’t want to run the country, it just wants it to be governed in an acceptable way.”
The recent reforms have been nothing short of revolutionary. The National Security Council (NSC), the military’s vehicle to pressure the government into implementing policies it favors, was stripped of its executive powers and reshaped into an advisory board. A civilian majority sits on the NSC and in August 2004 a civilian — former Ambassador to Greece Mehmet Yigit Alpogan — was appointed secretary-general for the first time.
Last year, military representatives were removed from the High Education Board and the High Audio-Visual Board. In 2004, education spending exceeded defense expenditures for the first time in the nation’s history, and from next year on, parliament will have more oversight of the defense budget.
All the reforms were “a psychological blow to the untouchable status of the military,” said Umit Cizre, a military analyst. “The balance is tipping toward elected civilians.”
The insular culture of the armed forces is becoming more transparent under the leadership of the liberal Gen. Hilmi Ozkok. In the past, officers accused of corruption rarely were prosecuted.
Last winter, Turks viewed powerful television images of former Adm. Ilhami Erdil on trial for illegally obtaining military contracts for his daughter’s company and for improper use of military funds.
It is a warning shot to officers that the skullduggery of the past no longer will be tolerated.
Trial sent a message
“The trial has important symbolic value,” said Burak Bekdil, who covers the military for Defense News. “It is a way to garner the respect of the people and send a message to the EU that the armed forces can be more democratic.”
Though the military’s prominence in formal institutions is waning, it still exercises a great deal of clout behind the scenes. Last year, after the general staff vociferously criticized the government’s plan to ease university restrictions against clerical school graduates, the government withdrew its draft bill.
It is this unofficial sway that continues to concern EU officials and bolsters claims that the military remains an impediment to a flourishing democracy.
“The armed forces continue to exercise influence through informal mechanisms,” said EU Enlargement spokeswoman Krisztina Nagy. “If Turkey wants to be a member state, it has to be clear that civilian authorities have control of the military and not the other way around.”
EU identity valued
Some members of the general staff have been strong advocates of EU membership because the process is seen as a way to fulfill Ataturk’s aspiration of converting Turkey into a Western nation.
Supporters believe that it would raise the economic standards and education levels of the populace, which would suppress separatist sentiment among ethnic groups and diminish the influence of Islamists.
For now, most of the population — 63 percent in the latest poll, down from 75 percent in December — favors accession. The military prides itself on being the most respected institution in the nation and does not want to be seen as impeding a widely supported initiative, said Mr. Bekdil, of Defense News.
But there has been a palpable shift in sentiment in recent weeks.
In April, Gen. Ozkok opined in a speech broadcast nationwide that EU membership has always been conditional and the armed forces could withhold its support if it feels Turkey is being treated unfairly.
The general staff believes Turkey is being forced to make concessions on politically sensitive topics such as Cyprus and claims of an Armenian genocide. Gen. Ozkok voiced displeasure at the lack of EU action against the Kurdistan Workers Party, (also known by its Turkish initials, PKK), which has resumed a violent separatist insurgency in the southeast of the country.
“It is in Turkey’s interest to be a member of the EU, but it is very wrong for the EU to see this as a favor to us,” Gen. Ozkok said. “If Turkey does not enter the EU, it does not mean the end of the world.”
Lesser role rejected
No EU demand has challenged the identity of the armed forces, nor raised its ire, as much as calling for the military to be placed under a civilian defense minister.
The armed forces are still deeply suspicious of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s mildly Islamist government, though many praise it for leading Turkey to Europe’s doorstep. What the military is not willing to accept is an organizational structure that subordinates the military to a civilian official, particularly an Islamist one.
“If the general staff is under the Defense Ministry, then politicians will assign appointments and promotions,” said Yilmaz Aklar, a former navy captain and a senior researcher at ASAM. “In a few years you could see an Islamic armed forces. This is a danger.”
Throughout the military, there remains a deep-seated distrust of politicians. “Our parliamentarian culture is not that developed,” Mr. Aklar said. “They think only of tomorrow for their political fortunes and not for the long-term development of the country.” The general staff will continue to closely monitor the Islamist-minded sentiments of the government and will speak out against anti-secular activities, even if the European Union does not want them to, Mr. Aklar said.
“The security of Turkey is more important than accession to the EU,” he added.