Interview with Erol Özkoray

"The Conflict between Civilians and the Military Is Rooted in the Constitution"

One of the greatest obstacles on the road to Turkish membership of the European Union is the influence of the Turkish armed forces on the politics of the country, says journalist Erol Özkoray in this interview with Attila Azrak

How are the tasks of the army described in the constitution?

Erol Özkoray: The 1982 constitution, which was adopted after the military coup, must be read in the light of two very different facts. It contains a civilian section, which describes the responsibilities and tasks of the government, the legislative, the executive, and the democratically elected parliament. The second part contains provisions regarding the National Security Council and the most important executive provisions, namely those relating to the office of president, which comes with a significant amount of power.

To my mind, therefore, the constitution can be divided into two sections: a civilian part and a military part. This is why the relations and conflicts between civilian and military life are rooted in the very principles and spirit of the constitution.

What are these conflicts about?

Özkoray: The election of a new president in 2007 will result in another conflict. According to the principles of the 1982 constitution, the office of president is an institution that is equipped with very specific powers to protect the lay republic.

The person who holds this office determines the members of the Constitutional Court, nominates the chairperson of the Council of Higher Education (YÖK), and can select its members. It is up to the president to nominate the members of the Supreme Court of Accounts, the Supreme Court of Administration, and other legal institutions. This means that by exercising control over the state like a catalyst, the president safeguards the survival of important institutions in the lay republic.

Were the person elected president not to fit the military's bill, this would cause major problems. This year's crisis surrounding the election of a president should be seen in this light.

The constitution doesn't actually allow such discrepancies to arise, but the function of the president is considered to be a continuation of the tasks and authority of the National Security Council. If, therefore, a person with an Islamic background is elected president, the army will consider this to be a hostile takeover of all the state's strongholds. This is the germ of the conflict.

In other words, this is a conflict that results from different interpretations of the constitution?

Özkoray: The conflict is, of course, the result of different evaluations. However, the appraisal of the National Security Council is very clear: the Security Council is anchored in the constitution. While I do not reject it, I do wish it was not an institution prescribed by the constitution. National Security Councils have no place in a democratic state because they can; under these conditions; exercise a superintendence of the state; can control, censure, and even dictate to the government the direction it should take.

To what extent does the army get involved in politics?

Özkoray: The character of the army changed dramatically as a result of the coup in 1980; the mutual relations between politics and the military were completely overhauled. Since time out of mind we have been told not to involve the military in politics because there is no mutual relationship between the two. Over the past 25 or 26 years, however, it has become clear that these were nothing more than empty words. The army is deeply involved in politics through the National Security Council and, in my opinion, operates like a political party.

I even believe that the Turkish armed forces are currently the biggest political party in the country. The armed forces formulate political demands and either implement them themselves or get others to implement these demands for them. Even though the chairman of the National Security Council was a civilian, he seemed to me to act like the country's secret minister president.

In particular since the Islamists came to power, many of the National Security Council's tasks and "secret missions" have been transferred to the General Staff. In this way, the subordinacy of the government to the military is continued. Let me state it quite openly once again: the real power in Turkey is in the hands of the Turkish armed forces. The elected merely form the government that sees to the day-to-day, routine matters of state. The fundamental problem with regard to the country's relations with the European Union arises out of this situation.

What are the reasons for the army's influential position?

Özkoray: There are undoubtedly reasons of an historical nature. The fact that the İttihat ve Terakki movement (Committee of Union and Progress, 1889-1918) grew out of the military and the fact that the army led the war of liberation (Kutuluş Savaşı, 1919-1922) shows how open the armed forces are to change and the extent to which the army had turned towards the West.

However, Turkey has had three military coups and, all told, almost thirty attempted coups. If we look in particular at the overthrow of 1980 in the context of the 1982 constitution, we can certainly see some changes in content. This constitution and the entire political system were shaped by the army alone. The model presented by the military was forced on the state and all its institutions, and this model still exists to this day.

It is a fact that Turkey's current constitution was born out of an overthrow, the effects of which are still felt in the country. It is the regime of a hidden coup d'état that continues to this day. The meetings of the National Security Council, which take place once every two months, are, in my opinion, a coup regime that continues to exist.

Does the constitution subordinate the army to the control of any institution?

Özkoray: I think the army has become its own caste; in other words, it is its own boss. There are, of course, relations with the United States of America, but there are reservations on both sides. The army constitutes power in itself. Moreover, it also has significant economical clout. With the exception of Brazil and Turkey, this phenomenon does not exist anywhere in the world.

You see, the army holding, OYAK, is one of the five biggest company holdings in Turkey. It cannot be legally controlled; it has its own holding rights. Its budget is controlled by no-one. It imposes its budget on the government.

According to official sources, its budget amounts to 11 per cent of the state budget. According to foreign sources, this figure is 30 per cent. Its budget can not be audited by the Supreme Court of Accounts. This means that it is a social, economic, civil, and political power.

You said that the army is western in its orientation. So what is the source of the problem with the European Union?

Özkoray: The pro-western stance of the armed forces has its origins in Atatürk and Kemalism. It is justifiable to doubt whether much of this orientation still exists. I think that in terms of accession to the European Union - the only one of Turkey's projects to which there is no alternative - the army's attitude is very negative.

Up to about two years ago, between 75 and 80 per cent of the population was in favour of the European Union and because the armed forces could not suddenly reverse public opinion, it kept quiet. While they outwardly appeared not to want to get involved in the European project, they were in fact trying to sabotage it all the time.

During the coalition of the Milliyetçi Hareket Partisi (Nationalist Movement Party, MHP) and the Demokratik Sol Parti (Democratic Left Party, DSP), nothing whatsoever was done to further accession to the EU over a period of approximately 18 months to two years. At that time, Turkey had no date for the start of negotiations. The Cyprus crisis was then gradually pushed to the forefront of the debate.

I predicted this situation in an article I published in 2001 entitled "What purpose do the armed forces serve?" In this article, I expressed the opinion that the army would use Cyprus as a pretext in order to manoeuvre the project of acceding to the European Union into a dead end.

And that is exactly what happened: in 2006, Turkey had to address the Cyprus issue. The Turkish armed forces intentionally did this because over the past few years, they have entered the fray - even though the public was not entirely aware of it - both in the media, in their own statements, and together with a select group of people who are well disposed to them.

Through their actions, they succeeded in reducing the number of people in favour of joining the European Union to its current level of 40 per cent. The army fears that it will lose its power entirely as a result of the European project.

Are the armed forces at loggerheads with any other power?

Özkoray: There are only a handful of people. One of the most important aims of the coup in 1980 was to halt the rise of the left wing in Turkey. And when I say "the left wing", I mean all shades of left-wing politics. One cannot say that there is a serious left-wing movement in Turkey; one cannot claim in any way that there is social democratic or a democratic socialist movement, because if we look at the most important proponents of the left wing in Turkey, the opposition party Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi (Republican People's Party, CHP), it is unfortunately quite military in its stance and addresses nationalistic issues.

Neither the trade unions nor civil and social groups are bringing forward a strong opposition to the army. There are only a few very inadequate, weak initiatives. They are considered to be so weak that they are tolerated by the regime, as they would be in any totalitarian country. If we compare the situation with that in Russia, there are such groups in Putin's Russia; but as long as they do not influence the public, they are not considered a danger by the regime. However, as illustrated by the case of Anna Politkovskaya, anyone who raises his or her voice, is eliminated.

You have a very pessimistic view of the situation.

Özkoray: Actually, I would like to see everything optimistically, but I am a realist and must place the army at the centre of this very real problem. As long as this question is not resolved, as long as the civilians do not make sure that the soldiers return to their barracks, as long as political power is not taken away from the army, as long as a new, civilian constitution is not adopted, and as long as a new political class does not emerge from the heart of society and new political leaders and parties do not arrive on the scene, it will be very difficult to eradicate these problems.

Turkey cannot expect a bright future because the only future for Turkey would be to accede to the European Union. Some people think that it would not be the end of the world if Turkey didn't join the European Union. It would be for us; the world would end for us!

Interview: Attila Azrak

© Qantara.de 2007

Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan

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