Old Turkish demons in new faces?

Hrant Dink..Adalet ( justice!) 8 years on, the government has failed to bring those responsible to justice. Demotix/J Kojak.One suicide bombing
after another, Turkey’s public is growing accustomed to images of carnage that no
longer originate from Syria or Iraq, but from their own capital. The twin
blasts that killed at least 102 people at a peace rally in Ankara on 10 October
follow a string of deadly explosions in Suruç in July and Diyarbakır in June,
and claim the unenviable title of being Turkey’s deadliest terror attack from
the Reyhanlı bombings of May 2013. The
astonishing series of intelligence and security failures has cast in a critical
spotlight the state’s ability or willingness to safeguard those citizens whom
the government views as a threat to its rule.

It is now well established
that these attacks are linked with Turkey’s disastrous involvement in the
Syrian civil war. The Ankara and Suruç bombers were two brothers, who, like the
perpetrator of the Diyarbakır attack, travelled to Syria to join ISIS and then
returned to carry out atrocities against Kurds, non-Sunnis and socialists. The
astonishing series of intelligence and security failures that have led to these
attacks – exposed despite the government’s media ban by a handful of stubborn
journalists, in particular in the daily Radikal – has cast in a critical spotlight the state’s
ability or willingness to safeguard those citizens whom the government views as
a threat to its rule.

Together with the escalating
conflict in the Kurdish southeast, it has also given credence to suspicions
that one of Turkey’s old demons – the so-called ‘deep state’ – has resurfaced, now
in alliance with the country’s beleaguered president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. It
might be useful to retrace some of the critical twists and turns in Turkey’s
maze-like political history to assess the credibility of these fears.

A history of violence

The term ‘deep state’
takes us back to the height of the conflict between the Turkish state and the Kurdish
militant group PKK in the 1990s, when mysterious terror attacks or high profile
assassinations sabotaged numerous ceasefires, dashed hopes for peace and triggered
periods of fresh violence. It would later emerge that many of these acts were organised
within the state in order to press on with a ‘dirty war’, which a shadowy network
of lawmakers, bureaucrats and organised crime bosses profited from politically
and economically.

In the course of that
decade, ultra-nationalist assassination squads secretly recruited by the
state’s security apparatus kidnapped, tortured and executed thousands of Kurdish
dissidents, including local politicians, activists, journalists and
intellectuals. Although mass graves still emerge in the blood-drenched
southeast of the country, many of the ‘disappeared’ are yet to be accounted for.

The 1990s is often labelled
the ‘lost decade’, but the history of state violence against citizens goes back
a long way in Turkey. A century ago, the pan-Turkist junta controlling the
Ottoman government enlisted the service of intelligence agents and Kurdish tribes
to commit mass atrocities against Ottoman Armenians. It is no coincidence that
some of the mass graves unearthed in the Kurdish provinces belong to Armenians killed
in 1915-16.

(In a twisted way, nationalist
propaganda in the 90s recognised this historical link, spreading rumours that
the PKK was being run by Armenians, not Kurds. Ominously, Erdoğan and his
supporters have been making frequent use of the same propaganda to rally nationalist Turks and conservative
Kurds against the AKP’s Kurdish opponents).

Squandered justice

In the early 2000s, as
Turkey embarked upon liberalisation reforms in pursuit of European Union membership,
the ‘deep state’ became a topic of heated public discussion. From the annihilation
of Anatolia’s non-Muslim populations and the forced assimilation of Kurds and
Alevis during the republic’s foundational era, to the crimes committed by state
agents which were then used as a pretext for military coups during the Cold
War, the state’s role in some of the darkest chapters of Turkey’s modern
history were scrutinised beyond the narrow confines of official historiography.
At the time, it was then Prime Minister Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party
(AKP) pushing the EU-backed reforms with the support of a liberal
intelligentsia, against the will of the secular nationalist military and
bureaucracy. But the court cases, known as ‘Ergenekon’
and ‘Balyoz’, soon turned into show trials intended to quash any real or
perceived opposition to the ruling Islamist coalition.

Between 2008 and 2011,
a string of investigations and court cases were launched with the stated purpose
of exposing and bringing to justice the criminal ultra-nationalist networks
inside the state. Briefly raising hopes for such a catharsis, the first wave of arrests targeted notorious former members of the
security establishment and ultra-nationalist mafia bosses with suspected links
to the extra-judicial killings of the 1990s, as well as to more recent
political assassinations, such as the murder of Turkish Armenian journalist
Hrant Dink in 2007.

But the court cases,
known as ‘Ergenekon’ and ‘Balyoz’, soon turned into show trials intended to
quash any real or perceived opposition to the ruling Islamist coalition: the AKP
and its former ally, the Hizmet movement of US-based cleric Fethullah Gülen. An
entire generation of military officers of all ranks were rounded up, together
with journalists and civil society activists, and handed lengthy prison
sentences behind closed doors on the basis of flimsy or fabricated evidence.

A rare opportunity to
face a troubled past and present was thus squandered in the hands of a group of
men driven by power rather than a commitment to justice. In the process, the
‘deep state’ started to sound more like a tall tale manufactured by the Islamists
to wrest control of the state, rather than a historical reality Turkey had to confront.

A desperate new alliance

Ex-military officers protest for jailed colleagues, Ankara, 2014. Demotix/Piero Castellano. All rights reserved.The course of the
trials shifted drastically after the simmering power struggle between the two Islamist
allies reached boiling point in December 2013. Pro-Gülen prosecutors and police
officers – the very same ones who had conducted the deep state investigations –
launched a high profile corruption probe against Erdoğan, his family and senior
AKP figures. In response, Erdoğan’s government initiated a massive purge of suspected
Gülenists from the police and the judiciary. Pro-Gülen
prosecutors and police officers – the very same ones who had conducted the deep
state investigations – launched a high profile corruption probe against Erdoğan.

Elected president in
2014, Erdoğan was eventually able to turn the tables against Gülen, but the infighting
left him more deeply wounded, threatened and paranoid than ever. It also
deprived him of a resourceful ally at a time when he had precious few, in or
out of Turkey. In an attempt to tighten his tenuous grip over the state, he
sought new allies and loyalists, which he seems to have found in the darker
corners of the Turkish state.

Almost overnight,
Erdoğan went from being the self-declared ‘prosecutor’ of the ‘deep state’
trials to arguing that his government had been ‘tricked’ by the sinister ‘parallel organisation’, the
Orwellian label he coined for the Gülen movement, which has since been used
ubiquitously by pro-AKP media. Within weeks, retrial of all the cases had
started. Since then all the verdicts have been overturned and every single
suspect has been acquitted.

Old demons resurface

As the witch-hunt
against the Gülenists intensified, the government started filling the ranks of the police force with religious-nationalist cadres ideologically closer to the far-right
Nationalist Action Party (MHP). There are widespread rumours (which cannot be
verified unless one has eyes and ears deep inside the state) that former
security agents with involvement in the counter-guerrilla operations of the 90s
have been active in the recruitment and organisation of these cadres into
paramilitary units.

The fragile peace
process between the government and the PKK unravelled in the aftermath of this
year’s 7 June general elections, when the Kurds deserted the AKP en masse for
the pro-Kurdish leftist Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). The outcome of that
poll denied the AKP the chance to form a single-party government for the first
time in 13 years, and deprived Erdoğan of the chance to change the constitution
and implement the powerful presidential system he has long wanted.

Instead of settling
for a coalition government, in which the AKP could lose control of key
ministries and agencies, the president opted to push the country into
re-election under radically altered circumstances. The killing of 33 young
socialists in Suruç on 20 July was followed by the mysterious murder of two
police officers in Ceylanpınar, for which the PKK first claimed, then denied responsibility.

Either way, it soon became
clear that some battle-hardened members of the PKK were also not too thrilled
with the electoral success of the HDP. It soon became
clear that some battle-hardened members of the PKK were also not too thrilled
with the electoral success of the HDP. Reluctant to give up the
leadership of the struggle to a bunch of young civilians untested on the battlefield,
they responded to the government’s provocations in kind. Within days, the
country was at war again.

In the ensuing
conflict, paramilitary police forces descended upon Kurdish towns and villages
with tactics and cruelty all too familiar to those who lived through the 90s: killing squads driving unidentifiable vehicles in cities under
curfew; children and the elderly shot by sniper fire; dead young Kurds being dragged behind armoured police vehicles; the violated corpse of a female PKK fighter; fascist graffiti adorning the bullet-sprayed walls of besieged Kurdish towns…

In the polarising
environment of the conflict, shadowy ultra-nationalist figures have started
featuring more prominently in everyday public life. A particularly controversial
figure who has re-emerged as a die-hard supporter of President Erdoğan is the pan-Turkist
mafia boss Sedat Peker. A convicted criminal who first rose to fame during the
90s, Peker initially received a 10-year prison sentence in the Ergenekon trial but
walked free soon afterwards.

In recent months, he
has been touring the country and attending various pro-government events and functions,
at times flanked by government-provided security guards. In June, he was spotted chatting
cordially with President
Erdoğan at the wedding of an infamous AKP social media troll. His name was then
linked to the beating up of columnist Ahmet Hakan, an outspoken critic of the president and the
government, which has left Hakan with broken ribs and nose. (Peker has denied
involvement in the attack).

One day before the
Ankara bombing, Peker organised an ‘anti-terror’ rally in Erdoğan’s hometown of
Rize, where he threatened the enemies of the state with “rivers of blood” before praising Erdoğan and asking the crowd
to vote for the AKP in the upcoming election. The rally took place under tight
police protection; a stark contrast with the demonstrations held by opposition
parties, especially the HDP, where the police, if at all present, tend to be a source of
rather than safety. Paramilitary police forces descended upon Kurdish towns and villages with tactics and cruelty all too familiar to those who lived through the 90s.

Is the worst yet to come?

While this picture reinforces
the sense that Turkey is returning to the dark days of the 1990s, there are two
reasons why the country’s current predicament is also different, and much more
dangerous, than it was two decades ago. The first is the environment of regional
chaos and instability stemming from the Syrian civil war, which is unlike
anything the Middle East has experienced since the fall of the Ottoman Empire a
century ago. Turkey is caught in a vicious circle, whereby domestic tensions
and polarisation expose it to the most destructive dynamics of the Syrian
conflict, which in turn further exacerbate these tensions and polarisations.

Secondly, perhaps for the
first time in Turkey’s recent history, the ‘deep state’ is not controlled by a tutelary
actor, such as the military acting as the guardians of the Kemalist republic or
as NATO’s anti-communist bulwark, when it still functioned with a bureaucratic restraint
and predictability, despite being incredibly ruthless. Instead, it is now associated
with the country’s (still) most popular, polarising and unpredictable elected
official, who is increasingly trapped in a ‘fight or die’ mentality.

With the help of a
sycophantic media and a massive social media operation, Erdoğan has transformed
many (though, crucially, not all) of his supporters into die-hard loyalists who
are convinced that the downfall of the ‘Great Master’ (Büyük
) means the fall of the state, the nation and
even the religion. His ever more aggressive, xenophobic and conspiratorial
rhetoric has been exploiting Turkey’s historic cleavages in ways that no leader
before him has dared, with already disastrous consequences.

As a result, Turkey
today is in uncharted waters. Its old demons have resurfaced in an environment
of unprecedented volatility and polarisation. Its already troubled parliamentary
democracy has been rendered dysfunctional in the aftermath of the 7 June
election. Erdoğan’s refusal to accept results that are unfavourable to him or
his party dims hopes for the restoration of democracy after the re-election on
1 November.

How to move back from the brink

Whatever the outcome
of that election, it is imperative that voices of moderation and reconciliation
on either side of the political divide and within every major political party
come together to pull Turkey back from the brink of the abyss that has swallowed Syria and

On this front, there
is still hope: opinion polls show that Kurds have not given up on the promise
of parliamentary democracy, now symbolised by the HDP, despite seeing their
will ignored both by Erdoğan and the PKK. There is also a growing number of
senior AKP figures marginalised over the past couple of years, who are utterly
dismayed by the recent direction of the party and the country and may yet
spearhead an alternative movement open to socio-political reconciliation.

Once the flag bearer
of rigid authoritarian secularism, the CHP is much more inclusive and
pluralistic today than it was a decade ago and may play a mediating role in formal
or informal coalition scenarios. The far-right MHP, under its long-time leader
Devlet Bahçeli, who has a habit of blocking every constructive proposal, looks
rather hopeless, but should still be included in any reconciliation effort.

The first goal of such
a coalition should be to elect a non-AKP speaker for the new parliament after 1
November. That would give the opposition a crucial leverage over setting the
parliamentary agenda, which is now effectively hijacked by Erdoğan. He is
likely to see such a move as another plot against him and resist in a familiar
fashion. So be it. It is now ‘fight or die’ time for Turkey’s democracy.

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