ISTANBUL // Confronted with a wave of accusations that range from coup plots to assassination plans directed against high-profile critics, the Turkish military has ended its long-standing policy of stonewalling any attempt to investigate members of the armed forces from outside.
When Gen Ilker Basbug, Turkey's chief of general staff, ordered his subordinates to open a secret archive to an investigating judge last month, that decision marked a key moment in the transition towards more civilian control over the military, observers say. The balance of power in Ankara is tipping towards the civilians. "We are not hiding anything, open the door," said the general's order, according to media reports that are understood to have had the blessing of the armed forces. Kadir Kayan, a judge in Ankara, has been going through documents in the "cosmic chamber" of the military, an archive containing secret files, for more than two weeks. Mr Kayan is investigating accusations that two military officers planned an assassination attempt on Bulent Arinc, a deputy prime minister and outspoken critic of the military. As a country that has seen four governments pushed from power by the military since 1960, Turkey developed "a structure we call military guardianship" over the years, Ali Bayramoglu, a prominent columnist, told yesterday's Vatan newspaper. In that structure, the military never fully recognised the leadership of civilian governments, he added. But recent events signalled that those days are over. "We see that this is changing step by step," Bayramoglu said.
Abdullah Gul, Turkey's president, has also expressed his confidence that Turkey had overcome the time of military coups and threats. The mere idea that the military could stage a coup today was a sign of "disrespect" against the army, Mr Gul told the news channel CNN-Turk in a recent interview. "What we see in Turkey today is normalisation." Gen Basbug has had to deal with a series of reports about illegal activities inside the armed forces in recent months. Among other things, prosecutors in Istanbul are investigating whether officers in the general staff itself drew up a plan to destabilise the religiously conservative government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister. Several former generals have been standing trial as members of the so-called Ergenekon organisation, a nationalist group that prosecutors claim plotted to overthrow Mr Erdogan. Critics, who include members of the armed forces and the judiciary, regard Mr Erdogan as an Islamist radical bent on destroying Turkey's secular order.
Last year, parliament passed a law that gives civilian prosecutors and judges the last word in cases involving coup plotters from military ranks. The reform is seen as a key piece of legislation in efforts to open up the armed forces to more civilian control, an important requirement that Turkey has to fulfil before it can join the European Union. Before the reform, civilian courts rarely dealt with cases involving officers, a practice that often resulted in suspects being cleared quickly by military judges. That system was part of what Bayramoglu calls the "autonomous place" of the military inside the Turkish state. Other efforts to strengthen civilian oversight over the military and to rein in the political role of the generals in recent years involved a reform of the national security council in Ankara, a body that used to be the most important vehicle of the military to influence or pressure governments. Today, the council, although still an important institution, is regarded as an advisory body.
While Gen Basbug and other top commanders sometimes complain about what they see as efforts to undermine the public standing of the military, they have not made any open attempts to openly resist changes that the government and the public see as steps to strengthen democracy. Mr Erdogan and Gen Basbug have managed to keep channels of communication open between the government and the military leadership, a development that has helped to keep tensions down during the transition process.
At a meeting at the military's headquarters last week, Mr Erdogan and Gen Basbug agreed to strengthen co-operation. "Do not expect any disharmony between institutions" of government and military, the Hurriyet daily yesterday quoted an unnamed government member as saying. The newspaper drew attention to the fact that, after last week's meeting of Mr Erdogan and Gen Basbug, the general staff cancelled its regular press briefings that often dealt with political issues. "It seems we are not going to see many more speeches by the military that enter the political sphere," Sukru Kucuksahin, a columnist, wrote in Hurriyet.
But even though Turkey's political and military leaders have succeeded in minimalising open confrontations about the change taking place in the balance of power between them, the process of stripping generals in Ankara of privileges that are regarded as incompatible with EU norms is far from over. In a major report published in November, the EU commission said there were still important areas where Turkey's armed forces acted outside civilian control. Laws giving the military the right to take action without permission by civilian authorities in certain circumstances were still in effect, the EU said. There was also a lack of parliamentary control over military expenditure, the report said.