Obama orders arrest of three four-star generals. Air Force and Marine chiefs accused of trying to overthrow the administration.” If these headlines were splashed across the front pages of the American press, worries in the United States about healthcare, stimulus packages and budget deficits would pale into afterthoughts. Yet life in Turkey continues as normal, at least for the moment, despite last month’s arrests of 49 former and active military officers. Those held include two former commanders of naval operations, two admirals, three vice-generals and one vice-admiral, as well as two rear admirals and two brigadier generals still on active duty.
On the surface, the arrests are an extension of the round-up over the past two years of nearly 300 people who are alleged to have been plotting to overthrow the government of the Justice and Development Party (AKP). The bizarre schemes in the latest charges included planning for a mosque to be bombed and a Turkish fighter jet to be shot down, so the armed forces could step in to rescue the country from chaos, conveniently deposing a democratically elected government perceived by some to be hell-bent on turning Turkey into an Islamic state.
The latest skirmish between the AKP and the military prompted President Abdullah Gul to arrange a meeting between Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and armed forces chief General Ilker Basbug. After three hours of talks, Gul’s office said that any “current problems would be solved within the framework of the constitution.”
So, no joy for those fearing (or others hoping for) a military coup. In fact, the prospect is highly unlikely since the whole world has changed since the military last flexed its muscles that way in 1980. Turkey is no longer the last outpost before the start of the evil Soviet empire, and there is less incentive for foreign states to sanction military coups. The current charges stem from 2003 and a war game codenamed Sledgehammer, which included steps to unseat the Erdogan government by creating chaos in the country with the help of terrorist attacks, according to press reports. The AKP says it was for real; the army says it was part of a normal exercise.
Erdogan has distanced himself from the arrests by saying that the judiciary is in charge of the investigation and technically he is correct.
What may be just as intriguing as the alleged plot is the role in its revelation played by the Taraf newspaper, which has revealed many of the stories about the equally alleged coup attempt. The paper is only two years old, and its inception coincided with widespread arrests in relation to the “Ergenekon conspiracy” case, in which well over 200 people are still under arrest for conspiracy to overthrow the government. Taraf claims to have received material from military officers who are opposed to the plots. The fledgling daily has scooped its better-established rivals with lurid tales. The inherent conflict between the AKP and self-styled staunch secularists is rife with conjecture but not replete with facts. Each time the AKP uses its legitimate powers of patronage to appoint supporters into various establishment jobs, it risks the charge of adding yet another brick to the Islamist state it is supposedly building. There is never a mention that the secularists had been appointing their own favorites for more half a century before the AKP came into power in 2002. Predecessors of the AKP presided over rampant inflation — some lottery prizes are still advertised as offering prize money of trillions of liras — and wholesale corruption. The AKP has reduced inflation to single digits, expanded the economy at a rate never seen in modern Turkey’s history and stabilized the currency.
Some financial analysts warn the very public spat between the army and the government will destroy all these economic gains. One report said the lira would quickly lose 8 percent. More sanguine (and cynical) observers recall the results of the so-called ‘e-coup’ in April 2007, when the army warned the AKP not to pose a threat to secularism, and the attempt to close down the party in 2008. In both cases the markets and the currency quickly recovered.
There is no particular reason to believe that this trial of strength will have any different consequence, and a military coup in Turkey these days is as likely as Obama arresting four-star generals.
Peter Grimsditch is Executive Magazine’s Istanbul-based correspondent