The relationship between the military and the civilian authority has always been problematic in Turkey due to the military's constant interference and interest in politics. The Turkish Armed Forces (TSK), which used to see itself as the guardian of the regime, has toppled several democratically-elected governments throughout the history of the Turkish Republic. Ever since the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government took power in 2002, it has gradually taken steps to curb the military's power and send it back to the military barracks and concentrate on the nation's security alone. Just recently Turkey has seen some of the most radical developments toward the normalization of the military-civilian relationship, yet observers highlight the need for many more such changes so that the characteristic of the military-civilian relationship in Turkey can be like those in the truly democratic nations.
A photograph of Chief of General Staff Gen. Necdet Özel saluting President Abdullah Gül by bowing his head at Aug. 30 Victory Day celebrations early this week was like the summary of the developments taken for civilianization in the country. Contrary to past practices when the chief of General Staff received Victory Day greetings, this year, for the first time, the president instead received the greetings as the commander-in-chief of the Turkish military. The Victory Day is an official holiday in Turkey, which marks victory in the final battle in the Turkish War of Independence in 1922. The former practice was the subject of frequent debate in the country as top state brass including the parliament speaker, the prime minister and ministers were made to wait in a queue to offer their greetings to the chief of General Staff, who is not an elected authority.
Although Alper Görmüş, a journalist from the Taraf daily, said he has found the latest developments taken for civilianization in Turkey “very significant and meaningful,” he warned that these developments should not lead to excessive relief, preventing people from seeing the depth of the military tutelage in the country.
“The ideological roots of the military tutelage in Turkey lie very deep,” he said.
Görmüş said he will never feel at ease and say the military-civilian relationship in Turkey has returned to normal and it is out of the military to intervene in politics again unless a change in mentality takes place in the Turkish military, which he said could be achieved only through the revision of the curriculum, which has an anti-democratic and authoritarian content, at military schools and war academies.
“Without a mentality change, the military tutelage might at any time rekindle under appropriate circumstances in the country,” Görmüş told Today's Zaman.
In remarks this week, President Abdullah Gül described the newly endorsed Victory Day protocol as a natural process of a developing, democratizing nation, reiterating the invaluable position of the military among the public and the need for a powerful army.
“The strength of [the military] means peace, security and honor for everyone. But we need to see these changes as amendments of a developing, democratizing nation,” Gül responded to reporters on Wednesday when he was asked about Tuesday's new Victory Day protocol.
Gül said most of the protocols at the Supreme Military Council (YAŞ), the National Security Council (MGK) and various military ceremonies are products of amendments made during Turkey's interim, extraordinary periods.
“But Turkey has changed greatly. Turkey is now bringing its democracy, the rule of law, human rights and civil-military perceptions to the level of the most developed, democratic nations. In this respect, the latest changes must be considered natural amendments, normalization,” Gül added.
As Gül indicated, there have also steps being taken for normalization at YAŞ and MGK meetings.
Unlike past YAŞ meetings, in which the prime minister and the chief of General Staff sat together at the head of the table, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan sat alone at the head of the table at this year's YAŞ meeting in early August, which was interpreted as a strong sign of normalization in civilian-military relations in Turkey and as a sign of the civilian authority's superiority over the military.
The change in the seating order at YAŞ was followed by a similar development at the MGK meeting held in mid August during which civilian and military members of the council sat on both sides of the table in accordance with the order required by state protocol as opposed to previous years in which military members sat in a bloc on one side of the table.
At previous meetings, the General Staff and force commanders used to sit together on the left side of the table in accordance to their rank, while the prime minister, deputy prime ministers and state ministers sat on the right side. The former order was contrary to state protocol as state ministers, who actually rank higher than force commanders, were seated farther down the table than the military commanders.
Mehmet Altan, a columnist from the Star daily, said he found the latest developments taken for democratization in Turkey as “very positive and pleasing,” however, he noted that there is a need to make permanent and radical legislative changes to return the civilian-military relationship in Turkey to normal.
In this regard, he said he has found an action plan outlined by AK Party Deputy Chairman Hüseyin Çelik very useful considering that it was proposed by a civilian authority.
“I really congratulate Çelik for taking such a step,” Altan told Today's Zaman.
In an interview published in the Radikal daily on Thursday, Çelik revealed his 15-article action plan which could be a “roadmap” for the return of military-civil ties to normal.
Sharing his evaluations with the increasing civilianization of Turkey's politics, Çelik said Turkey still needs more drastic changes in how the relationship between the military and the civilian authority has been structured. His action plan proposes such changes as tying the General Staff to the Defense Ministry; abolishing Article 35 of the TSK Internal Service Law, which provided a legal basis for many coups d'état in the past; restructuring the gendarmerie command and its duties; and shortening the duration of compulsory military service.
In what could be seen as yet another positive step towards change in civilian-military ties in Turkey, the General Staff removed the highly controversial military memorandum from its website in the last days of August. Published online at www.tsk.tr close to midnight on April 27, 2007, the statement is more commonly referred to as the “e-memorandum” because it was an attempt by the Turkish military to openly interfere in politics. The General Staff announced on Monday that the website has been updated and that former statements had been removed. According to the announcement, only statements posted in the past seven days will remain on the website while older ones will be removed automatically.
Hasan Celal Güzel, a columnist from the Sabah daily, welcomed the removal of the April 27 memorandum from the website of the General Staff, which he said saved Turkey from being ridiculed by the democratic world; however, he said the removal of the memorandum is not sufficient alone.
“Legal action should be taken against [former Chief of General Staff Gen. Yaşar] Büyükanıt, who confessed to having written the memorandum,” said Güzel.