Staunch secularist to head Turkish forces

Gen Ilker Basbug has to balance the military's political role with the country's ambitions to comply with European norms.

Ilker Basbug will be Turkey's next military commander.
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ISTANBUL // Gen Ilker Basbug, desiganted to be Turkey's chief of staff of the armed forces, faces the difficult task of balancing the military's determination to keep its political role with the country's ambitions to comply with European norms demanding civilian control over the armed forces.

Gen Basbug was named chief of general staff last weekend by the High Military Council, which meets twice a year to address personnel issues of the second-largest armed forces in Nato. In a sign of the continued political power of the military, the government played no role in deciding whom to name as military chief, although Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, was at the council meeting. The president, Abdullah Gul, was expected to approve of the nomination.

"The armed forces decide that for themselves," said Can Fuat Gurlesel, the head of the Institute for Strategic Studies in Istanbul. When he takes over from Gen Yasar Buyukanit at the end of the month, Gen Basbug, 65, whose name translates as "commander in chief" in English, will become one of the most powerful men in Turkey. Tradition - Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, was himself an army general - and the country's constitution, introduced after the military coup of 1980, give the armed forces a role that goes far beyond border defence.

The military has pushed four elected governments out of office since 1960 and is seen by many Turks as an institution that is above daily politics. This respect makes the post of armed forces chief extremely powerful, wrote the commentator Mehmet Ali Birand in yesterday's Turkish Daily News. "No matter what elected officials may say, you have the ability to influence or even stop many policies with a single speech."

Gen Basbug, who will retire as chief of staff in 2010, has indicated that he strongly believes in the forces' role in domestic politics. "It is the legal duty of the military to defend the founding principles of the republic," he said in a recent speech. "We do not have the choice of whether we want to do this or not, we do not have that luxury." In the same speech, Gen Basbug reconfirmed the military's determination to take a stand against what he sees as efforts to turn Turkey into an Islamic society. "We see that there are efforts to give a religious flavour to our culture. We have to lead a determined fight to safeguard secularism."

Those convictions put the general on a possible collision course with Mr Erdogan's Justice and Development Party, or AKP, which has roots in political Islam. Only last week, the Constitutional Court warned the AKP over Islamic tendencies and came close to shutting the party down. "He is a very ideological person who will make sure that the government stays on the straight and narrow," Rusen Cakir, a journalist, told the Turkish news channel NTV.

At the same time, Gen Basbug is expected to continue the military's tough stance on the Kurdish rebel group, the PKK, or Kurdistan Workers' Party, which has been battling Ankara since 1984. As commander of Turkey's land forces during the last two years, the general was one of the first officers to publicly call for a military intervention into neighbouring Iraq in order to attack rebel positions there. Turkey sent soldiers over the border for a weeklong intervention last February.

But Gen Basbug is also known as a realist who can be blunt about the failure of his army to deal a deadly blow to the PKK. "If we had been successful, the fight should not have lasted until today," he said last year. He has indicated his belief that the fight against the PKK cannot be won by military means alone. He recently welcomed plans by Mr Erdogan's government to introduce a Kurdish-language television channel. "He can look at the problem and the problem's roots with a 'social eye'," the columnist Fikret Bila, who follows the military, wrote in yesterday's Milliyet newspaper.

In the two years Gen Basbug will be at the helm, he faces other challenges as well. Former army generals have been charged with plotting to overthrow Mr Erdogan's government, a development that could damage the forces' reputation for impartiality. The general will probably try to distance the military from illegal activities while avoiding the impression that he is "soft" on Mr Erdogan. It may be even trickier for Gen Basbug to answer the question of how to reconcile the political role of the Turkish armed forces with the country's European Union bid. Mr Erdogan's government limited the political influence of the military in recent years, but Brussels has said Mr Erdogan's reforms have not stopped the military interference.

"The armed forces continued to exercise significant political influence," the European Commission said in its latest progress report for Turkey in November. "The tendency for the military to make public comments on issues going beyond its remit, including on the reform agenda, has increased." Mr Gurlesel said he expected Gen Basbug and other top officers to continue to speak out if they see secularism or the country's unity under threat. "But I do not think this will reach the dimension of a crisis with the EU," he said.

As Turkey's progress towards Europe is a vision that goes back to Ataturk himself, the military supports the EU bid in principle, Mr Gurlesel said, adding that the military is stung by reports portraying it as anti-EU. It remains to be seen how Gen Basbug will deal with the contrast between the military's perception of its own role and EU expectations. But Mr Gurlesel said he did not think the military is interested in dramatic confrontations. "They want a soft landing," he said.

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