Turkey coup plot: What's behind the tumultuous identity crisis

In addition to the Armenian genocide resolutions roiling Turkey in recent days, the country has also been shaken up over the arrests of top military officials in an alleged Turkey coup plot. How the turmoil affects Turkey's EU bid and its regional ambitions.

Rich Clabaugh/Staff
Turkish President Abdullah Gul (r.) stands by a military officer in front of an image of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of modern Turkey.

The recent arrests of dozens of high-ranking military officers here – among them the former heads of the Navy and Air Force – for their part in an alleged Turkey coup plot to overthrow the country's liberal Islamic government has caused a political earthquake here. Such arrests were a first in Turkish history for a group previously considered untouchable.

The officers are suspected of being part of a 2003 plan dubbed “Sledgehammer,” which aimed to create social chaos and political turbulence in the hopes of removing the government of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). The plan, first revealed in documents leaked to the liberal Taraf newspaper, possibly included the bombing of popular mosques and the ratcheting-up of military tensions with Aegean neighbor Greece.

The arrests came amid increasing tension between Turkey’s old-guard secular elite and the government and its supporters. Controversy over the arrests has thrown into higher relief the country’s deep political polarization and its struggle to strengthen democracy and increase civilian oversight of the military.

Is a military coup likely or possible?

The powerful Turkish military, which sees itself as the guardian of the country’s secular system, has orchestrated the removal of four governments since 1960. The last time was in 1997, when it persuaded an Islamist-led coalition to step down simply by expressing its dissatisfaction with the government in a detailed memorandum – the “postmodern coup,” as it has come to be known in Turkey.

Things have changed a lot since then. Although a constitution drafted after a 1980 coup enshrined the armed forces’ role as defender of secularism and gave it broad powers, reforms linked to Turkey’s bid to become a European Union member have clipped the wings of the military.

Although surveys have shown that the military remains Turkey’s most trusted institution, popular support has been steadily eroding, along with the public’s appetite for military interventions in politics. Case in point: Though Turkey’s generals expressed their “concern” prior to elections in 2007 in an online statement posted on the military’s website (the “e-coup,” some call it), the AKP went on to sweep the parliamentary elections and install one of its leaders as president.

What is the status of ties between the military and the current government?

Ties be­tween the military and the AKP have been tense from the start. The party, which first came to power in 2002, was founded by members of a re­formist wing of the Islamist party that the military had forced out of power in 1997. Hard-line secularists have long suspected the AKP of having a hidden agenda to blur the line between religion and state in Turkey.

The question of what role religion should play in public and political life has divided modern Turkey since its founding in 1923 by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, a military officer and secularist. For most of its modern history, Turkey has been governed by a secular, Western-­oriented elite, but the rise of the AKP has put the military face to face with an emerging political class that is more connected to its Islamic faith and sees Turkey’s place as both in the East and in the West.

Does Turkey still plan to enter the EU?

Turkey’s connections to Europe – economic, political, and cultural – were already well established during the Ottoman Empire (1299-1922). Turkey was officially recognized as a candidate for EU membership in 1999 and started negotiations with Brussels in 2005. After an initial burst of reforms, though, Ankara appears to have lost its zeal for the EU. Some of this is due to frustration with European foot-dragging, but another reason is Ankara’s growing sense of its own potential as an economic and political power in its region.

This change has been particularly noticeable in the Middle East. After decades of keeping its Muslim and Arab neighbors at arm’s length, Ankara has reengaged with them in recent years. Relations with Syria and Iran, for example, have improved dramatically. Ties with Israel, however, once an important strategic ally, have taken a serious tumble.

This new foreign policy has led to accusations that Turkey is changing its traditional pro-Western stance.

But Sami Kohen, a veteran foreign-affairs columnist for the daily Milliyet newspaper, sees it differently: “During the cold war, Turkey’s foreign policy was indexed to the West, to Washington,” he says. “Here we have a turning point, a change. Is Turkey changing axis? It’s not a useful question.... I believe the thinking now in government circles is that Turkey itself can now be an axis.”

How does this latest domestic turmoil affect Turkey’s regional ambitions?

Turkey’s ability to succeed on the world stage is tied to its being able to resolve its troubles at home first, observers say.

“We have a lot of unsettled accounts domestically,” says Semih Idiz, an Ankara-based analyst who also writes for Milliyet. “A lot of things have been whitewashed over the years, and now everything has come home to roost in a big way. All this talk of where Turkey is going is meaningless until Turkey itself figures out what its own identity is.”

Many in Turkey say the nation needs to abandon its 1980 Constitution, dictated by the military, and write a new document that reflects liberal democratic values.

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