A letter from a group of retired Turkish admirals on an 85-year-old maritime treaty has sparked government claims of a bid to launch a military coup – providing a distraction as the country faces record coronavirus numbers amid economic woes.
Responding to speculation that Turkey could withdraw from the 1936 Montreux Convention that governs shipping in the Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits, 104 former senior naval officers voiced “concern” about debate over an agreement that played an important role in Turkey’s security and status.
Leading figures from the government and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) portrayed the statement as a part of a conspiracy to mount a coup and compared it to military statements preceding the overthrow of civilian governments in the past.
Ten of the signatories were detained by police early on Monday as prosecutors investigated a potential crime "against the security of the state and the constitutional order".
“The government overreacted for several reasons and one is that it can’t rule Turkey in a non-crisis environment,” said Berk Esen, assistant professor of political science at Istanbul’s Sabanci University.
“This case gives them an excuse to continue their extraordinary regime. In normal circumstances people would talk about foreign policy failures, economic failures and that’s going to cost the AKP, so they’re constantly looking for issues that are going to change the public debate.”
Since Turkey began easing coronavirus restrictions at the start of March, daily cases have reached record levels, with nearly 45,000 reported on Saturday, a peak since the start of the pandemic.
The lira has plummeted since Mr Erdogan removed the market-friendly central bank governor last month and inflation hit 16 per cent on Monday, its highest since mid-2019.
Talk of a putsch plot has swerved news coverage away from these issues, described by opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu as an effort to “throw a veil over” the country’s problems.
Among those arrested was Cem Gurdeniz, a former admiral credited with the Mavi Vatan, or Blue Homeland, naval doctrine behind Turkey’s claims in the Mediterranean and Aegean seas.
Adm Gurdeniz was unavailable for comment on Tuesday. His wife Rengin said his arrest brought back memories of his imprisonment as part of now discredited trials that targeted the military between 2008 and 2013.
“Ten years ago, we had a 3½ year process,” Ms Gurdeniz told the pro-opposition Cumhuriyet newspaper. “Now I’m experiencing déjà vu in every way. I feel like the same thing is happening again and I’m worried about myself and my country.
“They’ve expressed an opinion and in any other country in the world they wouldn’t be investigated for it.”
But Mr Erdogan said the admirals’ declaration exceeded freedom of speech given Turkey’s history of coups.
“This action, which was undertaken at midnight, is definitely a malevolent attempt,” he said on Monday after a meeting of AKP officials specially convened to discuss the issue.
“We cannot call it freedom of expression. The duty of retired admirals is … not publishing statements about a political debate that includes the implication of a coup.”
Turkey experienced military takeovers in 1960, 1971 and 1980, as well as a 1997 military memorandum that led to the collapse of an Islamist-led coalition. In 2016, rogue members of the military tried to overthrow Mr Erdogan in a failed coup that caused more than 250 deaths.
The 1997 intervention saw the powerful National Security Council force the resignation of Necmettin Erbakan, Turkey’s first Islamist prime minister.
His movement gave birth to the AKP and memories of the military’s role drove Mr Erdogan to curb the influence of the armed forces, viewed as a bastion of the secular values of Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
During the AKP’s reign, hundreds of military officers were jailed by prosecutors and judges later shown to be members of the Gulenist religious sect that the party was allied with at the time.
A few years later, the 2016 coup attempt was widely seen as a plot led by Gulenist officers, many of whom had risen to fill the commands left vacant by the trials, after Mr Erdogan turned on his former partners.
“Many of these admirals were purged by Gulenists and served time in prison and that certainly thickens the plot,” said Dr Esen.
“But it shows how Erdogan has governed through coalitions and marriages of convenience since he came to power.
“It seems that he uses partners to purge the enemies of those partners and then he changes partners and purges other groups. So you have this circle, this cyclical motion, of partners and targets.”
The retired admirals’ statement also touched on the military’s traditional discomfort over religion in public life by referring to recent photographs purporting to show a serving rear admiral wearing the turban and robe of a religious sect over his uniform.
The suggestion that Turkey could exit the Montreux Convention came after the government said it was going ahead with building a ship canal to the north of Istanbul between the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea, offering an alternative to the Bosphorus.
Mr Erdogan said the canal will not be bound by the convention.
But many expect the controversy stirred by the statement to die down without any great consequences.
“Turkey will move on to the next crisis,” said Dr Esen.