Adrift amid the recent currency crisis, Turkey sails into uncharted waters. The current financial turmoil furnishes a glaring example of the vicious circle. The more authoritarian Erdogan’s regime gets, the further away the country drifts apart from Europe, the U.S., and NATO. As it sails away from the safe ports of the rule of law, democracy, and freedoms, the conditions of journey become more alarming. Let’s start with a brief look into the Turkish currency turmoil and then see how an analogous case takes place within the Turkish Military.
It does not take a genius to predict that Turkey will search for outside money to finance its annual external financing requirement of about $218bn–according to the recent FT report–in the face of plummeting currency. If the West is not an option, the East would be an alternative. In the late July of this year, The Treasury and Finance Minister Berat Albayrak, Erdogan’s son-in-law, announced that Chinese financial institutions would provide a $3.6 billion loan package. The case resembles the situation in Pakistan, which borrowed a considerable loan from China and tried to pay back by borrowing from the IMF, a strategy which seems unlikely to be received well by the Fund. A same dead end might wait for Turkey. Even a worse scenario might be Sri Lanka’s path through which a sovereign country had to renounce one of its strategic ports to China for quite some time. Some scholars call this situation, China’s “debt trap.” Turkey already announced that China would build the third nuclear plant in the country, which signals a similar path to the one Sri Lanka took when that country decided that China would have established a port. This turns into a vicious circle: once a state moves away, reversing the course back to the democratic world becomes increasingly difficult.
When one digs deep into the changes taking place within the critical institutions in Turkey, a tumultuous destiny for the county surfaces up. For instance, Turkey’s economic trajectory reverberates in its Military. In June 2014, Erdogan politically intervened and forced the release all the suspects and culprits of the Sledgehammer plot from the prison. The intervention coincided with his decision to part his way with the Gulen movement following the corruption scandal that involved Erdogan’s cronies and close circle. Moreover, Erdogan dismissed the Kurdish peace process, a.k.a a democratic solution to the issues related to Kurds, which was started by him and perpetuated until September 2014. He designed the process to garner support from the Kurdish population for transforming the constitutional system into an executive presidency. After Erdogan forged an alliance with the Sledgehammer culprits and relied on far-nationalist votes in the presidential election, he started a full-scale war against Kurds both domestically and abroad.
In March 2015, Erdogan and his supporters in the Judiciary acquitted all Balyoz suspects after the appointed prosecutor’s arguments of fake evidence in the file. Erdogan’s intervention in the Balyoz case was related to his efforts to forge a coalition with the ultra-nationalists, also known as Perincek group. Perincek’s statements at a press conference in Iran, over massive purges in the Military, is a confession of the arbitrary dismissals: “Turkey goes through a surgical operation. NATO’s tumor is being removed from the country’s body through mass arrests and dismissals in the Military.” Foreign Policy magazine describes Perincek’s group as the ‘Eurasianist clique’ and argues that an April 2003 cable, released by WikiLeaks from the U.S. Embassy in Ankara referred the Eurasianists as a group of officers within Turkish Military “who have long sought an alternative to the U.S. and are considering closer relations with Russia.” The same cable also reported the existence of a rival group ‘Atlanticists’ in the Military and portrayed them the ones “who believe Turkey’s strategic interests lie in its ties with the U.S. and NATO.”
Erdogan’s recent intervention in the military promotion system is striking. The Supreme Military Council (SMC; in Turkish: Yüksek Askerî Şûra – YAŞ), which for decades acted as a committee of top civilian and military officials, convenes to decide on crucial military issues including promotions and layoffs. In the wake of the country’s transition to an executive presidency, Mr. Erdogan has issued presidential decrees which consolidated his control over the Military through the SMC. He appointed his son-in-law Berat Albayrak, the Treasury, and Finance Minister, along with the Minister of Education and the Vice President(s) as the new members of the SMC. The reorganization allowed Erdogan to award an extra star to any general irrespective of the required experience or standards. Although he advocates the new SMC as a firm step to “increase democratic control over the Military,” what happens practically is “Erdoganization.”
The SMC convention takes place two times a year once in December and once in early August. The August convention is more significant as the council determines promotions and dismissals in the senior ranks of the military. The August 2018 SMC took place in the Presidential Palace under the new presidential system. Nine generals were promoted to higher levels, 41 colonels became generals and admirals, while 12 generals retired. The Commander of the Second Army Ismail Metin Temel is a prominent example of the politicization in the Military. Temel was recently publicized for his enthusiastic applaud for the political comments of Erdogan on his rival Muharrem Ince during the Presidential election campaign. Vice Admiral Ozbal’s promotion to a higher rank and his appointment as the Chief of the Navy is another example of politicization. Four admirals, who were superior to him in rank and experience, were retired to facilitate Ozbal’s steep ascension to the peak of the Navy. His rivals, Admirals Veysel Kosele, Serdar Dulger, Hasan Usaklioglu, and Sukru Korlu, were known for their pro-democracy and pro-NATO sentiments.
Another major takeaway of the August SMC meeting was the arbitrary promotions of the officers who are known for their Eurasianist and anti-NATO sentiments. Several years ago, these officers had been prosecuted and sentenced to varying prison terms for their involvement in the Operation Sledgehammer (Turkish: Balyoz Harekati) plot against Erdogan. Several promoted generals and admirals are known for their infamous roles in torturing the military suspects of the coup attempt. These torture culprits would eventually land to NATO positions bringing their shameful human rights records.
Another notable group cherished in the early August SMC comprised the officers known for their far-nationalist stances. Umit Dundar for example, who was assigned as the chief of Army, was an accomplice in Erdogan’s July 2016 coup plot. Besides Dundar, many far-nationalists officers took Mr. Erdogan’s side during the controversial coup attempt. Dundar is also known for his close relations with the leader of the Nationalist Movement Party (NMP; in Turkish: Milliyetci Hareket Partisi – MHP) Devlet Bahceli. Bahceli has allied with Erdogan after the July 15 Self-coup.
A common denominator which brings Eurasianists with far-nationalists in the Military is their aversion to the promotion of liberal democracy in Turkey. Both groups detest the Kurds and hate granting them democratic liberties. Erdogan seems to be well aware of the Eurasianists’ and far-nationalist partners’ sensitivities and behaves accordingly. Both Perincek-led Eurasianist group and far-right nationalists reject the so-called ‘subordination’ to the West via NATO and advocate leading Central Asian Turkic nations with a Eurasionist vision. They advocate partnering with Russia, China, and Iran to confront NATO, EU and the U.S.
Erdogan tries running the gamut acting as the country’s second founding father after Ataturk. He has a lot to lose if the power slips off his hands. Erdogan’s decision to purchase S-400 missiles from Russia indicates how his ideological departure may end up in radical choices. The economic and military turmoils speed up the country’s divorce from the West, NATO, EU and the U.S. If a divorce happens, no one knows when a reunion might be possible. As long as Erdogan keeps his grip on Turkey, such an event would be doomed to stay as a mirage.