Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Ergenekon's New Clothes?

Gareth Jenkins, a veteran Turkey analyst and an expert on the country's military and security affairs, has a new report out that takes a comprehensive look at the complicated Ergenekon coup plot trial and investigation. Although Jenkins has been a consistent critic of various aspects of the Ergenekon case, the report -- published by the Silk Road Studies Program at Johns Hopkins -- strikes me as fair and objective. Still, after reading the report, it's easy to see what Jenkins's verdict on Ergenekon is: the case has very few legs to stand on, and even those are rather shaky. What I found particularly interesting about the report, which also provides very good background about the history of the "Deep State" in Turkey and of the Ergenekon story itself, is its look at how Turkey's predilection towards conspiracy theories might be tainting the Ergenekon case.

From the report (pdf), entitled "Between Fact and Fantasy: Turkey's Ergenekon Investigation":
Whether among those formally indicted as part of the Ergenekon investigation or those detained in the police raids and subsequently released without charge, many appear to have been guilty of nothing more than opposition to the AKP. In fact, there is no proof that the Ergenekon organization as described in the indictments exists or has ever existed.

Indeed, the indictments are so full of contradictions, rumors, speculation, misinformation, illogicalities, absurdities and untruths that they are not even internally consistent or coherent.
This is not to say that the Ergenekon investigation is simply a politically motivated fabrication. There is no reason to doubt that most of those involved in prosecuting the case sincerely believe in the organization’s existence and are unable or unwilling to see the contradictions and irrationalities that are endemic in the indictments. The indictments themselves appear to be the products of “projective” rather than deductive reasoning, working backwards from the premise that the organization exists to weave unrelated individuals, statements and acts into a single massive conspiracy. The more elusive the concrete evidence for Ergenekon’s existence is, the more desperate the attempts to discover it become. Rather than convincing the investigators that what they are looking for does not exist, this elusiveness appears merely to make the organization more fearsome and powerful in their minds; and further fuel their desperation to uncover and eradicate it.

A predilection for conspiracy theories is nothing new in Turkey and can be found across the political spectrum. Both a large proportion of AKP supporters and many of those in law enforcement genuinely believe that a malicious conspiratorial cabal – which most associate with the Deep State – has been not only manipulating the political process but supporting or guiding a large proportion of the political violence in the country. Amongst
AKP supporters, attention tends to focus particularly on violence carried out in the name of Islam; where their sincere horror at the carnage that is sometimes perpetrated in the name of their religion has created a culture of denial, and a refusal to believe that their fellow Muslims could be responsible.
The report takes a good look at some of the problems with the evidence, indictments and judicial procedures in the case. About the case's first indictment (there have been three released so far, and a fourth is expected), Jenkins writes:
The indictment was also marred not only by repeated examples of flawed reasoning but numerous absurdities and contradictions. Most remarkably, despite its extraordinary length, the indictment produced no evidence that the Ergenekon organization it described even existed, much less that the accused were all members and engaged in a coordinated terrorist campaign to overthrow the government.

Indeed, rather than being based on deductive reasoning, the indictment appeared to project onto a collection of disparate events and individuals – not all of whom are necessarily innocent of any wrongdoing – a conspiracy theorist’s template of a ubiquitous, and almost omnipotent, centrally controlled organization which had not only penetrated every sphere of public life but been responsible for virtually every act of politically-motivated violence and terrorism in modern Turkish history….

…. some of the claims in the indictment about Ergenekon’s deeds and ambitions extended beyond the bounds of credibility. For example, the indictment claimed that the organization had met with the then U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney to discuss toppling the AKP government and replacing it with a more acceptable alternative. Even more absurdly, the indictment maintained that investigators had uncovered evidence that the “Ergenekon Terrorist Organization” planned to “manufacture chemical and biological weapons and then, with the high revenue it earned from selling them, to finance and control every terrorist organization not just in Turkey but in the entire world.”
In the end, Jenkins calls the Ergenekon case a "wasted" opportunity:
From a broader perspective, the public debate triggered by the discovery of the crate of grenades in Ümraniye in June 2007 could have provided an opportunity for the establishment of an independent truth commission which could perhaps have enabled Turks – including both secular nationalists and Islamists – to come to terms with the realities of recent Turkish history. But, in the short-term, a more pressing concern is not the wasted opportunity for Turkey to confront its past but what the Ergenekon investigation might be saying about its future, and the disturbing questions it raises about the prospects for democracy and the rule of law in the country.
Clearly, there are other views out there about the merits and the strength of the evidence of the Ergenekon case, but Jenkins's report is highly recommended reading for anyone interested in this complex story.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Ergenekon's Side Effects

As the historic trial and investigation of an alleged coup plot – known as “Ergenekon” – continues to grow in Turkey, the whole process is also have some very interesting side effects in the country. (For some background on the Ergenekon case, take a look at this article I wrote for the Christian Science Monitor.)

The case itself has been, at times, too complicated – and occasionally downright bizarre – to easily explain to audiences outside Turkey. But what I’ve found particularly interesting about the case is how the investigation of the alleged coup plotters – some of them current and former military officials – is helping shed light on some other dark chapters in Turkey’s recent past. This is particularly true in the predominantly-Kurdish southeast, where the Ergenekon case has given new life to the issue of the people who went missing during the 1980’s and 90’s, when Turkish security forces were locked in a bloody battle with the guerillas of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Human rights groups estimate that some 5,000 extrajudicial killings were committed during this period and that some 1,500 went missing, mostly at the hands of state elements.

“The Ergenekon investigation has allowed people to talk about their feelings and ask for their rights, especially if they have missing relatives. It has encouraged people to talk about the past. People feel safer to talk about what happened,” Tahir Elci, a lawyer in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir, which was also the scene of extreme violence during the 1980’s and 90’s, told me during a recent visit there. “Kurdish society knows very well the people who are now in jail. We know what they did. Now the rest of Turkish society is going to learn.”

In recent months, excavations of suspected mass graves and at cemeteries holding what had initially been ruled unidentified bodies have been conducted in several locations in the southeast, with the digs yielding bones that are now undergoing DNA testing. At the same time, numerous families have asked Turkish prosecutors to reopen their relatives’ dormant cases in the hope of finally resolving the question of what happened to them.

Outside the town of Cizre, near Turkey’s border with Syria and Iraq, I met Ata Ergul. His brother Hasan went missing on April 23, 1995, when plainclothes policemen picked him up while he was riding his tractor home. This past April, following information given in testimony by a former member of JITEM, a police unit believed to be behind many of the disappearances and unexplained killings in the southeast, the Ergul family started looking at old files of unclaimed bodies found in the region. In one of the files, they found pictures of a body that resembled the missing Hasan. Since then, they were able to convince a local court to have the body, buried in a potter’s field, exhumed and sent for DNA testing, which proved positive. This past June, Ergul’s family was finally able to give their relative a proper burial.

“Before, we were scared to say anything, but because of [the Ergenekon] investigation we saw other people asking about their missing relatives. We realized we were not alone,” the 41-year-old Ata told me, sitting in the courtyard of his missing brother’s house, shaded by a massive grapevine.

“It’s unbelievable that these people are in jail,” Mr. Ergul continued, talking about some of the military and police figures now in jail as pat of the Ergenekon case. “These people were the gods of this region. We’re not surprised by the names of those arrested, but that they’re in jail is unbelievable. It’s like a dream.”

“We hope that all those who are responsible for the killings stand before a judge,” he added. “Our pain and sadness are very deep.”

Back in Cizre, I met with Nusirevan Elci, director of the local bar association in, who these days finds himself more and more dealing with families now ready to look for their missing. Last December, sensing a change, Elci’s office decided to start writing petitions to local prosecutors to reopen the files of the missing. Since then, some 120 families have come asking for help. The bar association has also pushed investigators to start excavations at several suspected mass graves, with more to come.

“We tried to do these investigations before, but the empire of fear was still very strong here. We had to force families to talk about who they lost. They were not only afraid, but they were also hopeless about getting any results,” Elci said.

“Ergenekon is a big opportunity for Turkey. The state needs to look at its past and come to terms with it,” he added.

If the Ergenekon trial allows Turkey to actually do that is questionable. But as the new search for the missing in the southeast shows, the case is already unraveling much more than just the coup plot that it initially set out to investigate.

Dueling Pipelines and Turkey’s Delicate Energy Dance

A few weeks ago, Ankara was the scene of the celebratory signing of an intergovernmental agreement for the troubled Nabucco pipeline project, designed to weaken Russia’s grip on Europe’s energy supply by bringing Caspian and Middle Eastern gas to the continent via Turkey and the Balkans. (For more background on Nabucco, take a look at this series of posts from Istanbul Calling.) Although the pipeline is still far from becoming a reality, the signing in Ankara was hailed as an important step in helping Europe diversify its energy supply.

Cut to last week, when Ankara was the scene of the signing of another series of energy-related agreements, only this time with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Among the agreements signed was one that would allow Russia’s proposed South Stream gas pipeline – seen as a potentially lethal rival to the Nabucco project – to run through Turkish waters on the Black Sea.

What’s going on here? Had Ankara just stabbed Nabucco (and the European Union, it’s main supporter) in the back? Turkish officials clearly don’t want things to look that way, with “diplomatic sources” telling the English-language Hurriyet Daily News that “Nabucco is still [Turkey’s] priority.” That might be the case, but Ankara certainly also knows that as it moves along on Nabucco, it also needs to keep Moscow’s interests in mind. If anything, the recent dueling signings in Ankara serve as a good example of the delicate dance that Turkey now has to perform as part of its new, multi-polar foreign policy, which seeks to minimize conflict with its neighbors while also raising the country’s regional and international profile. As political scientist Bulent Aras points out in a new report he wrote on Turkish-Russian relations for the Foundation for Political Economic and Social Research (SETA), an Ankara-based think tank: “Under the strong influence of its new geographic thinking toward Russia, Ankara tries to avoid taking sides in any ‘Russia versus the West’ struggles, while developing its own relations with Moscow.”

From being intense regional rivals and then Cold War foes, Turkey and Russia have moved towards being strong partners in trade, defense and energy. That said, Turkey – like Europe – also finds itself heavily dependent on Russian energy supplies, importing 63 percent of its gas and 28 percent of its oil from Russia. It is now also working out terms with a Russian company to build Turkey’s first nuclear power plant, something that critics say will only deepen the country’s dependence on Russia. Still, Ankara policymakers realize that working together with Russia makes more sense for Turkey than antagonizing it.

But as Aras points out in his SETA report, this new approach to Russia will not be without its limitations:
“There is no guarantee that the Turkish politicians’ projection of good relations with Russia will be possible without endangering its relations with the EU and the US….
…. The current developments indicate that Turkish and Russian policy-makers have the political will to improve bilateral relations in the realm of politics, economy and security. However, these relations are not free of a number of serious problems that could threaten a derailing in the growing ties; both countries have converging and conflicting interests in neighboring regions. This fact, in combination with the high-profile status of both countries, makes Turkish-Russian relations promising, yet difficult.”

Istanbul Calling at The Faster Times

This blog is now also appearing over at The Faster Times, a new online publication that has high ambitions and wide-ranging interests. You can check it out here. The Turkey page is here.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The Kurdish Gambit

I have a piece up on the Eurasianet website looking at what the Turkish government's upcoming "Kurdish Initiative" -- a reform plan aimed at resolving the long-standing Kurdish issue -- might look like and what are some of the challenges facing it. There are a number of internal and external factors pushing Ankara to finally take a decisive (and non-military) step in dealing with the Kurdish issue, one of the more interesting ones being the fact that jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan is planning to release his own "road map" on how to solve the Kurdish problem.

Things are certainly moving forward on the issue in Ankara, with one of the more interesting and positive developments being the announcement that Turkish PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan has finally agreed to meet with members of the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP). Erdogan has previously refused to even shake hands with the DTP's parliamentarians, saying they must first denounce the PKK.

More on this issue from my Eurasianet article:
After decades of conflict and repressive policies, Turkish leaders appear to be taking concrete steps toward resolving the Kurdish issue. But analysts warn that domestic opposition and the lack of consultation with Kurds themselves could limit any plan’s chances for success.

In recent months, Turkish leaders have sent strong signals that an initiative to deal with the Kurdish issue is in the works. In May, President Abdullah Gul said that Turkey had an "historic opportunity" to address the issue, while Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, just before departing for a recent trip to Syria, told reporters: "Whether we call it the Kurdish, the southeast or eastern problem, whether we call it the Kurdish initiative, we have started work on this."

In late July, meanwhile, Turkish Interior Minister Besir Atalay said during a nationally televised news conference that the government is actively working on a comprehensive plan -- one based on democratization and expanded rights. Although he didn’t offer any specific details or a timeframe, Atalay told reporters, "We have the intention to take determined, patient and courageous steps."

Writing in the English-language Hurriyet Daily News, political analyst Mehmet Ali Birand said the government’s anticipated initiative does represent an important shift. "The Turkish Republic has now accepted the existence of a Kurdish issue and a [Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)] problem, and has started comprehensive efforts towards finding a solution. Until now, these issued were accepted, but ignored," he wrote.

"Now, for the first time, the Kurdish issue is being separated from the PKK issue, and again for the first time, a plan is being developed that will influence Turkey’s future," Birand continued.

According to reports in the Turkish press, the government’s plan may include a series of moves on the cultural rights front, including the establishment of private Kurdish-language television stations and Kurdish language faculties in universities, as well allowing towns and villages to once again use their original Kurdish names. It is not clear if it would include a wide-ranging amnesty program for members of the outlawed PKK. The group continues to attack Turkish security forces, mostly from its hideouts in northern Iraq.

Observers say a series of domestic and regional developments are forcing the political and military establishments in Ankara to confront the Kurdish issue in a new way. "The Turkish military is finally coming to grips with the fact that it cannot win this war, no matter what happens [to the PKK] in northern Iraq. It’s finally dawning on them that some kind of political solution is necessary," says Henri Barkey, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington and an expert on Turkish politics.

Barkey also says Turkey’s ambitions to play a larger role on the world stage, particularly as a regional mediator, are also forcing Turkish leaders to take stock of the country’s own problems. "Turkey is lecturing other countries, like Israel and [China], about human rights issues and here you have a country where the Kurdish language is illegal. That is absurd," Barkey said. "They have to do something. There is a discrepancy between domestic Turkey and the image it is trying to project abroad...."

....The big question now being asked is, once the government announces its plan, what are its chances for success? The [International Crisis Group's Hugh] Pope says an important element of the current debate, which may help any government initiative succeed, is that it is mostly domestically driven. "Ten years ago everyone in Europe would be lecturing Turkey about the Kurds. This current talk about a Kurdish opening is domestically driven, which makes it a lot more legitimate," he says. "Before, when Turkey was being lectured from the outside, it caused people to circle the wagons and stop listening."

Dogu Ergil, a professor of political science at Ankara University, says the Kurdish initiative could be hurt by what he sees a lack of consultation between the government and other key players - particularly the Kurds themselves - about how to best approach the problem. "We lack a definition of what we are trying to solve and some people have gathered behind closed doors and decided they have the solution," he said.

"For the Kurdish people in Turkey, it is still a state initiative," Ergil continued. "The method has not been democratic enough so far. ... That’s the problem. The whole thing is a mystery."

Some analysts suggest that the AKP government may find itself in a bind on the issue. "They are going to have to sell this to a skeptical public and the opposition is going to raise hell," noted Barkey.

Ultimately, the government’s main challenge may be to come up with a plan that is politically viable, but which also meets rising expectations. "The problem with things like this is that when you raise expectations so high and then you don’t do something, it’s like setting a match to a tank of gasoline," says Barkey.
You can read the full article here.