Ergenekon and the Turkish Deep State  

The long-awaited verdicts in the Ergenekon trial were announced last week. 254 currently-serving and retired military officers, retired police officers, journalists, politicians and academics were convicted of various crimes, essentially all centered on the clandestine Ergenekon network which, supposedly, formed the backbone of the infamous Turkish deep state.

The case started on June 12, 2007, when the Turkish police, following an anonymous tipoff, discovered arms and grenades in an apartment in a poor neighborhood of Istanbul.

Ergenekon, a mythical valley and homeland for Turks in the Altay mountains according to Turkish nationalist legend, became the label Turkish prosecutors gave to the network which, they argued, comprised of a motley crew of characters, and worked to foment instability and prepare Turkey for another military coup.

Much has been written in the international press on the Ergenekon case, but there is still much confusion.

On the basis of what we now know, Ergenekon appears to be a major miscarriage of justice. Few people have read the indictments which run to over 5000 pages, with more than one million pages of supporting documents. But the little that we have seen shows the case is marred in internal inconsistencies, and most of it was not just poorly put together but was based on hearsay or even less.

The nadir of the indictment’s logic comes when it bunches together policemen and former military officers who have spent most of their careers killing and torturing leftists together with leftists in a secret organization.

Perhaps the most damaging effect of the case will be on the rule of law in Turkey.

As we argued in an earlier post, at the root to the weakness of Turkish democratic institutions lies the total lack of independence of the state bureaucracy, especially the judiciary, from the politicians (and often the military) then controlling political power.

Of course, the rule of law will be absent in such an environment. The law is certainly not applied equally — those in political power are never prosecuted and can break the law with bloodcurdling impunity. What’s worse, the law is often an instrument for those in power to suppress and cow into submission the rest of society.

The Ergenekon case, rather than addressing this fundamental problem of Turkish politics, has just confirmed it for all to see.

What’s worse, it has made it clear that the Turkish media and public have totally internalized this lack of rule of law. The modal reaction of well-informed Turks seems to be that the Ergenekon trial is a sham, but many, if not most, of those now convicted of serious crimes were actually guilty — of something.

This does make a mockery of the rule of law: if they were indeed guilty, they should have been tried for the appropriate crimes, equally importantly, they should have been given an opportunity to defend themselves against these charges.

Nothing of the sort has happened — even though some of the defendants were clearly involved in terrorist activities and vicious crimes against humanity.

If the rule of law in Turkey is the first casualty of Ergenekon, the second is the unique opportunity to finally confront the Turkish deep state.

Though the Ergenekon trial is a clear miscarriage of justice, there should be little doubt that there is a very powerful Turkish deep state that has a history going back more than 100 years, that has been involved in crimes against minorities in the past, that has killed journalists and politicians, that has been at the forefront of murders, repression and countless crimes against humanity in the Kurdish areas of Turkey, and that may have even been involved in military coups.

So what is the deep state and where do its origins lie?

By its nature, the deep state is shrouded in secrecy, so we know relatively little about it. The best source on it seems to be the journalist Gareth Jenkins’s article.

In the narrowest sense, the deep state is a decentralized network setup by NATO in the 1950s as a “stay behind” force, similar to Gladio in Italy. This secretive network was often recruited from members of the security forces, particularly those sympathetic to a nationalist, or in fact ultranationalist, agenda.

The deep state is not unique to Turkey, but it appears to have become during the politically turbulent years of the Cold War in Turkey uniquely powerful and well positioned to play a defining role in the political trajectory of the country.

We are far from being experts on the Turkish deep state, but its exceptionally powerful role in Turkish politics probably has several reasons.

First, the origins of the deep state network goes much farther back than the NATO efforts. It was first formed by the government of the Committee of Union and Progress (İttahat ve Terakki), under the title of “Special Organizations”(we discussed this period of Ottoman history briefly here). These organizations were used to fight, murder and terrorize non-Muslim minorities. As World War I drew to a close and Ottoman defeat became clear to all, these organizations were instructed to act as local guerrilla networks to defend Anatolia against occupation. They formed the backbone of the forces that would fight the Turkish War of Independence under Atatürk’s leadership. The second coming of deep state network under NATO’s aegis could probably take stronger roots in Turkey than elsewhere by tapping into this history.

Second, this network came to play a much more important role during the Cold War in Turkey than elsewhere because leftist student and guerrilla organizations became much stronger in Turkey, committing countless murders and triggering a low-level civil war, especially in the 1970s. Though the role of leftist groups in this carnage and turmoil was central, many argue that the deep state network also played a defining role from the beginning, notching up the violence.

Third, the network likely received ideological and material support from the Turkish state given the strongly nationalist ideology and rhetoric of many politicians and branches of the state.

Fourth, after the 1982, it appears that parts of this network became involved with smuggling and other mafia-related activities, enabling its continued survival.

Fifth, the network was further supported by the state and several nationalist and opportunistic politicians during the 1990s to conduct a whole slew of extrajudicial killings, intimidation and repression in the Kurdish areas, as a counterweight to the PKK (Kurdish Workers Party), which was then fighting to create an independent Kurdish Marxist state. Especially under Tansu Çiller’s disastrous and hugely corrupt administration, the government appears to have explicitly worked with parts of the deep state network to terrorize its Kurdish population. (Some of this came to light in the infamous Susurluk incident, when a deadly car crash revealed that a wanted ultranationalist killer, likely with deep state connections, Abdullah Çatlı, was traveling with government-issued false papers and a cache of guns, accompanied by a former deputy chief of police of Istanbul and a member of parliament of Çiller’s party).

What is not known (at least to us) is how involved the deep state was in some of the military coups (a real possibility). It is also not known whether after the events in the 1990s, especially its role in the events in the Kurdish areas of Turkey and links with Çiller’s government, this decentralized network became more centrally organized. (Even if it did become somewhat more centrally organized, it would strain credulity to think that it contained within a single cell academics, journalists and serving generals as the Ergenekon indictment maintains).

So the deep state does indeed exist, and it may even be more powerful than many suspect. But it’s very unlikely to be the Ergenekon network, and the case that prosecutors put forth does not seem to have scratched the surface of the deep state.

What is perhaps more important than the Ergenekon case, however, is this:

Unless Turkey confronts the deep state, it cannot truly institute the rule of law, and the development of Turkish democracy, already facing significant challenges, will continue to be seriously hampered.

It has unfortunately squandered this opportunity to atone with its past.

It seems that the vicious circle we’ve emphasized in Why Nations Fail implies not only that extractive institutions will re-create themselves, but that society will miss many opportunities to break away from its past sins.

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