Turkey and the Ergenekon Secret Network

The Men in the Shadows

It is not Islamists or members of the military or the old elite that pose a threat to the Turkish state. Its real enemies operate under cover, as Ahmet Altan, one of the country's most successful authors, explains

People protesting against Ergenekon in Istanbul (photo: dpa)
Fear of the "deep state": an anti-Ergenekon protest in Istanbul

​​ Turkey is like a hell in the middle of paradise. It is a country of seas, mountains, valleys, forests, flowers, waterfalls, traces of different cultures and religions, churches, mosques, castles, fortresses, and Byzantine and Ottoman palaces.

In short, it is a jewel created by God and man with a rather strange yet incomparable culture, the result of the mingling of many different influences. In the midst of this paradise, a hell has been created.

Death, murders, assassinations, gangs, bombs, political traps, racism, religious conflicts, power games and lawlessness repeatedly cause terrible suffering. The Turkish hell is like the hell that the Italians experienced not too long ago, feeling its fires burning within them.

Valley of the putschists

To understand what Turkey is going through, it helps to think back to the Italian Masonic lodge "Propaganda Due" (P2), an organisation that was involved in assassinations, attempted coups and terrorist campaigns in the 1970s and 80s, and which counted numerous prominent members from the worlds of politics, the military, business and the secret services among its members.

Turkey's Ergenekon operates along similar lines to this secret society. Its name comes from the mythical valley where the Turks found refuge after escaping central Asia.

A Turkish policeman outside Silivri prison, Istanbul (photo: dpa)
A policeman stationed outside Istanbul's Silivri prison: security was stepped up at the prison before the launch of the Ergenekon trial in October 2008

​​ According to the public prosecutor, the ranks of the conspirators include members of the army, judiciary, bureaucracy, the business sector and the media, who attempted to provoke a putsch by criminal and terrorist means. The coup was set to take place in 2009.

In a major operation, the public prosecutor has had a large number of the network's members arrested since January 2008. Although over 80 defendants, including former army officers, lawyers and journalists, have been on the bench since 20 October last, many members of the secret society are still at liberty.

Parallels with "Gladio"

The Turkish press has also compared Ergenekon with Gladio, the clandestine paramilitary organisation operated by NATO, CIA and MI6 in Western Europe, Greece and Turkey during the Cold War from around 1950 to 1990. In the event of an occupation of Western European countries by Warsaw Pact troops, Gladio cells were to carry out guerrilla operations and sabotage.

Like Gladio, Ergenekon was founded as a "state within the state". Over the years it has grown into a nationalist organisation that is opposed to the West: it is against hostile foreign powers that allegedly wanted to split Turkey up, against Kurdish separatists and against Turkish intellectuals who aid their opponents.

The nationalist structure only emerged when part of the Kurdish population was no longer prepared to put up with state repression und withdrew to the mountains for an armed struggle. It was at this point that Ergenekon's battle against the Kurds began.

Vigil for the three Christians murdered in Malatya in Istanbul (photo: dpa)
Remembering the victims of Malatya: seven men are currently on trial, accused of having attacked, tortured and murdered the German missionary Tilman Geske and two female Turkish converts in April 2007

​​ State investigators accuse the organisation of serious crimes, but the men pulling the strings remain at large.

Ergenekon is suspected of involvement in the murders of three Christian missionaries in Malatya in 2007, the murder of the Armenian journalist Hrant Dink in the same year, the murder of a Catholic priest in Trabzon in 2006 and an explosives attack on the newspaper Cumhuriyet.

Attempted assassination of Pamuk and Zana

The organisation allegedly planned attacks on Nobel laureate for literature, Orhan Pamuk, the Kurdish politicians Ahmet Türk and Osman Baydemir, the former member of parliament Leyla Zana and the columnist Fehmi Koru.

Ergenekon was also involved in drug dealing and adopted mafia-like structures. Support from the state boosted its power and influence, leading to further crimes. Although several members have now been arrested, the main cadre has so far gone untouched.

When Turkey started taking the prospect of European Union membership seriously, Ergenekon tried to provoke a meticulously planned coup, aimed at capping Turkey's links with western states and preventing the advent of democracy in the country. The greatest fear of this "state within the state" – known as "Derin Devlet" or "deep state" in Turkey – is democracy.

Ergenekon's view is something along these lines: Turkey is a republic founded by generals. This means that the army still plays a central role in politics.

Obligatory military approval

Although civilian governments are elected, they cannot decide on key matters without permission from the military. The public does not find out how much is actually spent on the military, military issues are a taboo subject, and the army can bring down the government whenever it chooses, partly because it has the unquestioning support of the media and the judiciary.

Soldiers in the Turkish army commemorating Republic Day in Istanbul (photo: AP)
"The army can bring down the government whenever it chooses, partly because it has the unquestioning support of the media and the judiciary"

​​ The rapprochement with the European Union disturbed the delicate balance of the country's structures; reforms were passed and laws amended. This prompted concern among the military men and bureaucrats within Ergenekon over their political influence.

From local to parliamentary level, the conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP – Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi) won election victories on the strength of the economic situation. The country's advances towards the EU also played a major role in this development.

The religious conservative establishment

Industrialists in Turkey's heartland of Anatolia started producing television sets, refrigerators, cars, textiles and replacement parts and selling them around the globe. Anatolia grew richer. While production met western standards and the natural partner of this religious conservative class was the western world rather than the Turkish state, the lifestyle of these religious conservative entrepreneurs remained different to that of the Europeans.

Their wives generally wore headscarves and they disliked the European lifestyle. But the nouveau-riches also wanted a share of political influence, a move the army resisted.

Carpet-weaving factory in Kayseri (photo: DW-TV)
The city of Kayseri is the traditional heartland of the conservative religious business elite in Turkey, home to the so-called "Islamic Calvinists"

​​ The only means available to the Anatolian industrialists therefore seemed to be genuine democracy, which could only have been established with the aid of the EU. Paradoxically, it was Turkey's "conservatives" who were in favour of EU accession. And it was the party of these "conservatives", the AKP, which took the necessary steps in this direction.

No support from Europe or the USA

During this time, a number of army generals drew up plans for a coup with Ergenekon's support. Without US and European aid, however, the plans fell through.

Europe and the USA wanted a democratic and prosperous Turkey, as this could have been a signal to the poor and instable Islamic world that a democratic Islamic country is capable of achieving wealth and stability.

On top of that, Turkey had to build up its wealth so it could buy western goods, computers and electronics. With a population of 70 million, the country was an important market for Europe and the USA.

The result was a conflict between the "conservatives", who had the support of the West, and those who wanted to see the army in the driving seat.

The majority of Turks with western lifestyles, western education and western literary tastes, who enjoy going out and dancing – in short: those whom a European in Turkey would be more likely to befriend – were against western democracy.

They feared that if everything were to work on a democratic basis, the army would have to step down from power and the "conservatives" might found an Islamic state. Some of them were genuinely afraid, while others did not want to jeopardise their cooperation with the army and the economic advantages and social status that came with it.

Caught between two fronts

The outcome was a rift between those who did not lead western lives, but called for western-style democracy, and those who behaved like the West, but were against such a democracy.

Large parts of the army, the bureaucracy, the intellectual elite, the urban population and the media took an anti-democracy stance. They supported the idea of a coup and stood for a coalition with Russia and Iran.

The pro-democracy camp, in contrast, consisted of the "conservatives" with US and European backing and a part of the state bureaucracy, which saw the state drifting into mafia-like structures through Ergenekon's influence, sections of the intellectuals and also the Kurds. This was the first time the Turkish Republic had experienced such a confrontation. Turkey might actually be facing structural change, with power genuinely falling into new hands.

President Abdullah Gül with army generals (photo: AP)
Unpopular with the military: champions of the republic saw in Abdullah Gül's election as president the loss of one of its last bastions

​​ On 27 April 2007 the army general staff announced on its website that the armed forces were determined "to protect the inviolable characteristics of the Turkish Republic". The motivation was to prevent a man whose wife wore a headscarf from being elected head of state.

In itself actually rather ridiculous, this justification was the outcome of ongoing power struggles. The government was unimpressed and in August 2008 appointed a president whose wife covers her head. The constitutional court, however, went on to overturn the parliamentary decision, at which point early elections were held.

Blow for the "Guardians of the Republic"

The results were another blow to the Turkish judiciary and army in their struggle for power: the AKP was re-elected with 47 per cent of votes. Now the positions were entrenched, and another thing became clear: as long as the country is under democratic rule, the "conservatives" may win out.

Supporters of the AKP celebrate after the elections in 2007 (photo: AP)
First victory in the battle for power: Erdogan's AKP received 46.7 per cent of votes cast in the 2007 parliamentary election, over 13 per cent more than in the elections five years previously

​​ Following the elections, the AKP passed a law enabling women students to attend university lectures wearing headscarves, which had previously been banned. Again, the constitutional court intervened, overturning the legislation.

Turkey's chief public prosecutor opened proceedings to ban the AKP, with the argument that the party was opposed to secularism, one of the founding principles of the country's constitution.

It was obvious that the opponents of democracy would not give up their fight. Meanwhile, members of the secret society Ergenekon were arrested. In the wake of months of investigations, former generals were put behind bars – a first in the history of the Turkish Republic.

After the Ergenekon charges were read, a bomb exploded in a busy part of Istanbul, killing 17 and injuring 150. The PKK was accused of having committed the attack, but there is no evidence to this day of its involvement despite the fact that a number of activists have been arrested.

The constitutional court meanwhile arrived at the verdict that the governing AKP was actually opposed to secularism, but refrained from banning the party. Effectively, this step made the government a hostage; the court now has a card up its sleeve with which it can ban the party at any time.

The government as a hostage

And so Turkey gradually subsided into chaos. To regain control of the situation, the government must pass reforms at top speed and implement the EU's democratic standards. But how can a government held hostage by the courts take such steps? If the reforms are not tackled in the near future, the "conservatives" will soon abandon ship for another party.

Turkey is in a state of uncertainty. In view of the global situation, it looks as if democracy will eventually emerge victorious in the country. Whether new assassinations or judicial tricks will accompany it along the way is, however, unclear. The majority of the population is now opposed to Ergenekon, aware of the organisation's putschist structure.

Grassroots AKP supporters in particular despise Ergenekon. However the Kemalists, a minority in comparison to the AKP's support base, are not amongst the group's opponents. They regard the secret society as a Kemalist organisation capable of bringing down the AKP. For them, the foremost goal remains to remove the AKP from power.

Whether the AKP is toppled by organised crime or a coup is of no concern to them. We are living in the middle of a paradise, but in constant fear that the flames of hell's fires will be fanned anew.


Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire

Ahmet Altan, born in Ankara in 1950, is one of Turkey's most successful writers, publishing five novels and two volumes of essays since 1982. He now lives in Istanbul and is editor-in-chief of the Turkish newspaper "Taraf"

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