Reforms Curb Turkey's Armed Forces; Military Holds Unique Role as Nation's Guardian but EU Membership Requires Change

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), June 26, 2005 | Go to article overview

Reforms Curb Turkey's Armed Forces; Military Holds Unique Role as Nation's Guardian but EU Membership Requires Change


Byline: Seth Rosen, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

ANKARA, Turkey - To strengthen this country's chances of joining the European Union, its armed forces have undergone painful reforms over the past year that have curtailed their influence and increased the autonomy of the civilian government.

But analysts say a growing chorus in the ranks of the military insists that the European Union is demanding too much, too quickly, and not accommodating Turkey's unique military-civilian relationship.

The Center for Eurasian Strategic Studies (ASAM) announced last month that it would no longer support the findings of a forthcoming study on the future role of the armed forces, on which ASAM collaborated for the past year and a half with the Center for European Security Studies (CESS) in Groningen, the Netherlands. The report has been delayed indefinitely.

"Turkey has many threats, and our security organization can't be made comparable to European armed forces" said retired Maj. Gen. Armagan Kuloglu, vice president of ASAM, pointing to a map of the Middle East that occupies a prominent location in his office.

The main source of contention was a recommendation from CESS that Turkey's armed forces be made accountable to the defense minister, as in most EU countries, thereby ensuring greater civilian control. Currently, the military reports directly to the prime minister, which reduces transparency and prevents democratic decision-making, said Peter Volten, director of CESS.

Following the demise of the Ottoman Empire after World War I and the creation of the Turkish republic in 1923, the military has viewed itself as the guardian of the secular state and it is often criticized as being a parallel government. Since Gen. Mustafa Kemal, called Ataturk, transformed the country into a modern, Western-oriented nation, his military successors have guided it on a tight rein.

Army as "backup"

Three times troops have toppled democratically elected governments - in 1960, 1971 and 1980. In 1997 pressure from the general staff compelled an Islamist government to resign in what was called a "postmodern" coup.

"The military is regarded as a backup system," said Gareth Jenkins, a senior consultant for the International Institute for Strategic Studies. "It doesn't want to run the country, it just wants it to be governed in an acceptable way."

The recent reforms have been nothing short of revolutionary. The National Security Council (NSC), the military's vehicle to pressure the government into implementing policies it favors, was stripped of its executive powers and reshaped into an advisory board. A civilian majority sits on the NSC and in August 2004 a civilian - former Ambassador to Greece Mehmet Yigit Alpogan - was appointed secretary-general for the first time.

Last year, military representatives were removed from the High Education Board and the High Audio-Visual Board. In 2004, education spending exceeded defense expenditures for the first time in the nation's history, and from next year on, parliament will have more oversight of the defense budget.

All the reforms were "a psychological blow to the untouchable status of the military," said Umit Cizre, a military analyst. "The balance is tipping toward elected civilians."

The insular culture of the armed forces is becoming more transparent under the leadership of the liberal Gen. Hilmi Ozkok. In the past, officers accused of corruption rarely were prosecuted.

Last winter, Turks viewed powerful television images of former Adm. Ilhami Erdil on trial for illegally obtaining military contracts for his daughter's company and for improper use of military funds.

It is a warning shot to officers that the skullduggery of the past no longer will be tolerated.

Trial sent a message

"The trial has important symbolic value," said Burak Bekdil, who covers the military for Defense News. …

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