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A large-scale investigation is underway into an organisation known as "Ergenekon", which is alleged to have been planning a coup in Turkey. In a series of articles in the Radikal newspaper from 4 to 11 April 2008, İsmet Berkan charts the development of this organisation. Translated from Turkish by Tim Drayton.

Ergenekon's Recent History

İsmet Berkan

These articles have been slightly abridged to avoid repetition. (TD)

4 April 2008

The Istanbul Public Prosecutor’s Office is, as far as I am aware, conducting one of the most important investigations in the whole history of the Republic. Under this investigation, 47 people are currently being held in custody in various prisons. The prosecutor is expected to issue an indictment and take the case to court.

I have already written about Ergenekon quite a few times. I spoke of the “Big” and “Small” Ergenekons. At the risk of repeating myself, I wish to remind you of a number of points of which I am sure you are already aware.

There are those who trace the origins of the organisation named Ergenekon much further back, but in my view it was the autumn of 2001 which saw the birth of Ergenekon in the sense that we speak of it today. At that time, the country was in the grip of an economic crisis. Prime-Minister Bülent Ecevit was facing criticism for being too old and sometimes confusing his words. A group of retired soldiers, including that high-ranking soldier who had only retired on 30 August, made initial contact with the Istanbul business world. They proposed that Bülent Ecevit stand down, for reasons of age and health, and let his deputy Hüsamettin Özkan take over.

The business world conveyed this proposal not to Bülent Ecevit, but to Hüsamettin Özkan. Özkan said, “Let’s pretend that I never heard about this proposal” and put an end to the matter.

Following this, the retired officers made direct contact with Hüsamettin Özkan. A number of high-ranking soldiers who are still serving attended the meeting, which took place at the army recreational quarters in Bodrum. Özkan once again said that he would rather pretend not to have heard these things and that he could not approach Ecevit with such a proposal; this proposal would have to come from the latter before he would consent.

Following this, the soldiers provided a detailed account of these contacts to Radikal’s Ankara representative Murat Yetkin during a reception held at the Çankaya Presidential Residence.

When Murat passed this on to me the next morning, I told him to run it past Hüsamettin Özkan, based on the principle of confirming information with a second source. Murat approached Özkan and was able to confirm the story, but the matter did not end there. Özkan asked Murat to go with him to Prime-Minister Ecevit, and Ecevit thus learned of these contacts and proposals by the soldiers from Murat.

This initiative, of which it is virtually impossible for the Chief of the General Staff at the time, Hüseyin Kıvrıkoğlu, to have been unaware, constitutes in my view the first ‘coup’ attempt.

These developments, far from persuading Ecevit to step down, made him more determined to remain in office and led to Hüsamettin Özkan leaving the party together with as many as 90 deputies. In other words, this ended the relationship of absolute trust between Ecevit and Hüsamettin Özkan.

Subsequently, that is in July 2002 after Özkan had left and Şükrü Sina Gürel had become Ecevit’s right-hand man, Prime-Minister Ecevit proposed to Chief of the General Staff Hüseyin Kıvrıkoğlu, in view of the imminent war that the USA would wage in Iraq and the important events that would ensue, that he should extend the latter’s period of office.

Kıvrıkoğlu politely declined the offer on the grounds that this extension would require a law, and he doubted that the government was capable of passing such a law. In any case, President Ahmet Necdet Sezer did not look favourably on this proposal.

This did not happen, but Kıvrıkoğlu wished to establish the command structure that would follow him and told Ecevit and President Sezer, with reference to Hilmi Özkök who at that time as Commander of the Land Forces was being groomed to take over as Chief of the General Staff, “Do not make him Chief of the General Staff.” When asked for the reason, the reply was, “He is soft on religious fundamentalism.” President Sezer rejected this proposal and Özkök’s appointment as Chief of the General Staff was finalised. However, Kıvrıkoğlu, exercising the legal authority vested in him and without consulting anybody or seeking approval, nominated General Commander of the Gendarmerie Aytaç Yalman for the vacated post of Commander of the Land Forces, rather than, as custom dictated, Commander of the First Army Edip Başer, and Şener Eruygur to command the Gendarmerie.

The government did not take kindly to this fait accompli, but signed the decisions at the last minute to avoid a mass retirement crisis. The President added his signature at the last minute. This was the second coup attempt.

[…]

5 April 2008

[…]

Shortly after these appointments were made, in November 2002 the Justice and Development Party (AKP) won the elections and were able to form a single-party government. The movement of political Islam, which a mere five years earlier had brought Turkey to the brink of a military coup and which had been removed from power in a ‘postmodern’ coup, was now, even if in the meantime two parties had been closed, able to rule without coalition partners.

On the election night itself, all eyes were on the soldiers. Everybody wondered what the soldiers would have to say. Chief of the General Staff, Özkök, made his position clear with the words, “It is necessary to respect the election results.” This announcement set off a deep rumbling in the lower ranks and among retired soldiers. It was against this backdrop that the famous “Young Officers Restless” headline appeared in the Cumhuriyet newspaper. Against the same backdrop, articles were penned by writers such as Emin Çölaşan in which they accused the Chief of the General Staff of being ‘soft’. The Chief of the General Staff was obliged to hold a press conference in response to the “Young Officers Restless” headline alone. “I am a democratic person, is that a crime?” he said!

By now it was 2003, and the USA asked for Turkish assistance in its occupation of Iraq and the government promised to assist them. One day before the bill authorising this measure was due to be approved by parliament, Commander of the Land Forces Aytaç Yalman gave an anonymous interview to Fikret Bila of Milliyet in which he said that he considered the bill to be incorrect. It remains a matter of debate as to whether this interview was instrumental in securing the rejection of the bill on 3 March.

There is more. At that time, United Nations General Secretary Kofi Annan proclaimed a plan for settling the Cyprus problem which bore his name, and invited the sides in the Cyprus dispute to the Hague in the Netherlands to discuss this plan.

Even though TRNC Prime-Minister Rauf Denktash had received instructions from Prime-Minister Abdullah Gül not to reject the plan out of hand, his first act on landing in the Hague was to proclaim, “I have come here so say ‘no’ to Annan”. Denktash was not acting alone when he spoke these words; he knew that he had support among certain quarters in Ankara who were encouraging him. The elected government of Turkey was unable to implement its own policy; to have it carried out. Certain parties had intervened in Ankara to prevent a clear government instruction from being carried out.

This was the third coup!

This coup opened the way for the Greek Cypriot sector, representing the whole island, to accede to the EU. For those planning and executing the coup, the Greek Cypriot sector’s EU accession was not a ‘loss’ but a ‘gain’. The Cyprus problem was thus destined to become insoluble and Turkey’s EU accession had been made more or less impossible. Indeed, the Greek Cypriots would be presented with a golden opportunity to further their goal of regaining the remainder of the island not through negotiations but by forcing the Turks into submission and turning the Turks into a minority, and would constantly exploit their veto card in the EU to force Turkey into concessions. Turkey would be unable to make concessions over Cyprus, so she would abandon her EU aspirations.

Since the government in Ankara was caught up in its own concerns and was devoting all of its efforts to making its leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, prime-minister, it was unaware of and incapable of comprehending the nature of the coup that had been pulled off against it and the threat that this posed to its own future.

When they realised that a coup had been staged, not merely against themselves, but against the Turkish people as a whole, who supported the EU goal, they reacted 'softly’, as they would later. Far from initiating a legal investigation, they did not even hold anyone to account in political terms. They did not even attempt to expose those who had supported Rauf Denktash when he disobeyed instructions and acted contrary to the government’s wishes.

[…]

6 April 2008

[…]

The Justice and Development Party government, following the dashing of the great hopes they had attached to the European Union summit held in Copenhagen in 2002 when the earliest date they were able to obtain for the commencement of accession negotiations was the end of 2004, realised that the impasse would only be broken if, apart from accomplishing the democratic reforms of the Copenhagen criteria, the Cyprus problem were taken into a settlement phase.

And as I explained yesterday, the government had helplessly looked on as the great Cyprus opportunity of March 2003 was lost and squandered. In January 2004, Prime-Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan took the reins into his own hands and, first of all, greatly boosted hopes when he told UN General Secretary Kofi Annan, who had reluctantly agreed to speak to him at Davos, “We consent to your arbitration in the Cyprus problem plan.” The Annan Plan had returned from the grave and was back on the negotiating table. Annan invited the sides in the Cyprus problem to New York.

TRNC President Rauf Denktash was pressurised by Ankara into including Mehmet Ali Talat, who had won the elections and become prime-minister, on the delegation. But the remainder of the delegation was composed of old guard Denktash supporters. This time, Denktash was unable to say, “We have come to answer ‘no’” immediately upon landing at the airport, because for some reason the kind of support he was looking for failed to emerge from Ankara.

While they were in New York, strange things were going on in Ankara. Top ranking army officers, not least the two forces chiefs, were holding a whole host of semi-secret meetings with anybody from leading businessmen to media bosses. Media and public support was more or less openly being sought for a 28 February style postmodern coup.

Indeed, certain old-school politicians were strutting around claiming to be at the head of the insurrection. More curiously, these two forces chiefs had indeed spoken to these politicians and made certain requests of them. The most important thing for the Denktash delegation in New York was the question of accepting Kofi Annan’s arbitration. Denktash and his inner circle had not the slightest doubt that an ‘announcement’ would emanate from Ankara before things reached this stage. They waited in vain for such an announcement from Ankara. Finally, Denktash called Chief of the General Staff Hilmi Özkök, and received the reply, “That is as far as the constitution permits me to go.” Denktash realised that the two forces chiefs had failed and had been unable to go over Hilmi Özkök's head, and he too threw in the towel.

At this time, there existed certain parties who were encouraging the two forces chiefs and pushing them in the direction, not of 28 February, but of a 12 September style direct coup. In place of the previously compiled Sarıkız plan for overturning the AKP government, a direct coup was now desired. At one stage, an officer was reported to have let slip the comment, “I will pass into the annals of history.”

In the midst of all this confusion, at a time when following the conclusion of the Cyprus negotiations in New York news of the date of the meeting in the Swiss town of Bürgenstock was being awaited, I conducted a private interview with a very important member of the government. When I passed on rumours emanating from the military front to the minister whom I was interviewing, the same minister said, “We know all about it”. He actually used the code name Sarıkız. When I inquired as to what they were doing, he said, “Wait, plenty will happen.” Four years have passed and we are still waiting!

A connection is made between the lawsuit which has now been filed for the closure of the AKP and the Ergenekon investigation. In fact, in the first few days certain members of the government made explicit reference to just such a connection. This claim was made, but actually as far as I am aware the Ergenekon investigation has yet to catch up with those who were behind the days of turmoil in 2004, for instance.

The Ergenekon public prosecutor is said to have vouched for the authenticity of the diaries concerning those days, which supposedly belong to Commander of the Naval Forces Özden Örnek, and were published first on the Internet and then in detail in Nokta magazine. This means that the public prosecutor is at least in possession of the diaries, but is not yet acquainted with the information known to the important minister who confided in me at the time. The possibility that the investigation will stretch as far as the real coup attempt thus remains remote.

[…]

8 April 2008

[…] The Cyprus problem, or more specifically the way that the Annan Plan made it to a referendum, was a major turning point for the ‘formation’ that we today know as ‘Ergenekon’ and that I from time to time have described as the ‘let’s get rid of the AKP any way we can organisation’.

[…] Prior to Rauf Denktash’s departure for New York in order to negotiate with UN General Secretary Kofi Annan, the two forces commanders had assured him of their support, but they had then been unable to go over Chief of the General Staff Hilmi Özkök’s head and had in a way suffered defeat.

This sense of defeat left a very deep mark on one of these officers in particular. On the one hand, he accused his friend, whom he had until recently thought of as an accomplice, of ‘cowardice’, and, on the other, marshalled the resources of the critical position that he had held for the past few months into planning for the future. The first initiatives were taken as far back as January 2004, most notably with the drawing up of a list of ‘Traitor Journalists’ and the equating of support for a settlement in Cyprus and Turkey’s EU accession with treason. This was not some momentary emotional outburst; this was a carefully prepared psychological warfare tactic.

A nationalist front was created by means of branding as ‘non-national’ or ‘traitors’ both the ruling Justice and Development Party as well as a wide swathe of society consisting of those civil society organisations, representatives of the business world, intellectuals, and especially journalists, who supported Turkey’s EU accession aspirations, and thus favoured the raising of democratic standards, the implementation of human rights reforms and the following of pro-Western policies.

The formation which we at Radikal dubbed the ‘Red Apple Coalition’ (the coalition members immediately adopted this name) more or less took shape in one day, as dictated by the careful and detailed top-down planning that had been conducted in accordance with the requirements of psychological warfare strategy.

Later, thanks to the plans and strategies into which this officer had marshalled state resources prior to his retirement, there sprang up a huge number of ‘civil’ society organisations all of whose top echelons were filled by various high-ranking pro-junta retired officers who had greatly desired to pull off a coup in January 2004. The main aim was to broaden the ‘Red Apple Coalition’ and to bring all of the anti-AKP forces within this coalition. For this very reason, especially in rural areas, MHP supporters began to hold receptions for CHP leader Deniz Baykal, as did CHP supporters for Devlet Bahçeli. The Ataturk Thought Association was active everywhere.

However, the house of cards soon collapsed. The CHP and MHP had no wish to be part of a scenario which they had had no part in writing. The coalition shrunk until only the ATA and certain marginal youth organizations remained. Nowadays their activities have virtually hit rock bottom.

Nevertheless, a certain momentum had been attained and positions began to be filled in what one of Turkey’s most important security officials called the ‘national salvation lions’ movement, and illegal organisations were formed under the guise of legality.

The plan drawn up at the headquarters of that officer who retired in August 2004 was still in place, despite the emergence of a few hitches. In broad terms, the plan was as follows: In January 2004, due to a lack of cooperation on the part of the ‘mercenary and traitorous media’, it had proved impossible to stage a 28 February style coup and overthrow the AKP government, but this time the media would be besieged from the outside and forced into a corner from which it would come out in opposition to the AKP and meanwhile activities would be staged aimed at gaining mass support and pressure would be brought to bear, initially on the media, and then on the government. This was how the psychological warfare had been planned.

First there was the Council of State attack. An assailant named Alparslan Aslan went on a killing spree in the Council of State building, and he was later apprehended. The assailant had taken up arms in response to rulings forbidding headscarves; the action was thus ‘anti-secularist’. The assailant had in fact recently spent his time mainly in the company of nationalists; be that as it may, the masses believed what they wished to believe. The well attended funeral ceremony was the largest pro-secularist, i.e. anti-government, demonstration in recent years.

Much larger things were on their way in the shape of the Republic meetings.

The brain behind the meetings was the former officer Şener Eruygur, the architect of all of these plans.

[…]

9 April 2008

I remember this time last year. First a bomb was thrown into the Cumhuriyet newspaper’s garden, and when that failed to go off another one was thrown a few days later. Then there was the Council of State attack. The funeral ceremony, attended by hundreds of thousands, turned into an anti-government demonstration and pro-secularist gathering. The Prime-Minister was booed, the Minister of Justice was attacked in the mosque courtyard and army officers were roundly applauded.

The question of secularism, which had apparently been off the agenda for some time, was suddenly on everyone’s lips. All eyes turned to the Presidential election process that was set to begin in mid-April. Prime-Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan kept everybody guessing as to whether he would stand; in his own words, he began to play cat and mouse with public opinion. As I write I cannot help thinking that these events took place in the distant past. But, no, these things happened just last year.

* * *

In the immediate wake of the Council of State attack, Foreign Minister at the time, Abdullah Gül, requested in his capacity as deputy prime-minister a briefing with the General Directorate of Public Security and the intelligence organization, MIT. Both bodies presented Gül with the information in their databases about the assailant and his close acquaintances. The presentation made by the police included a diagram. This diagram included all the Ergenekon suspects who today are in jail, including the Council of State assailant. They were not the only ones to appear in the diagram. There are the names of other retired officers apart from Veli Küçük.

However, it proved impossible at the outset to establish a concrete link between the Council of State attack and the Ergenekon investigation which would begin later in Istanbul. The police were unable to corroborate and pass on to the public prosecutor the intelligence supporting the existence of such a link that was placed in front of Abdullah Gül on the first day. (Indeed, according to an allegation that has yet to be officially substantiated, one of those convicted of the Council of State attack has made an important statement to the Ergenekon public prosecutor in Istanbul concerning a direct link between the Council of State attack and Ergenekon. That means that if the existence of such a link has been established, this is a recent development, and it is only based on one person’s testimony.)

* * *

Following the Council of State funeral, all eyes turned to the ‘Republic Meeting’ due to be held in Ankara on 14 April. The meeting was the brainchild of the Ataturk Thought Association, and was organised by certain ‘civil’ society organisations whose genesis I tried to describe in yesterday’s column. Heading the Ataturk Thought Association was former Gendarmerie commander Şener Eruygur, who is named as the ‘coup leader’ in diaries which purport to belong to the former Commander of the Naval Forces Özden Örnek.

It is alleged that plans codenamed ‘Moonlight-Phosphorescence’ which, following the failure of the attempted coup codenamed Sarıkız planned for 2004, envisaged removing the Justice and Development Party from power by means of ‘acquiring mass support engendered by civil society pressure on the media and the government’ had been drawn up at the headquarters of a forces commander. The same sources allege that the time frame for these plans essentially dated from 2004, the year in which Eruygur retired.

For those privy to this information, there was something suspect about the Republic meetings whose attendance was measured in hundreds of thousands. The participants at the meetings were totally genuine and, wishing to vent their concerns and avail themselves of their right to protest against the government, had picked up their banners and poured onto the streets. In any case, the Council of State attack was evidence in their eyes that secularism was in danger.

However, the speeches made at the meetings did far more than simply reflect these genuine feelings and had a much narrower and more marginal subtext: The government was ‘non-national’ and was ‘selling’ Turkey to the EU and the USA; the media, too, was ‘mercenary’ and did not print the truth but sat on the government’s tailcoats. The Ankara meeting was repeated in Istanbul and Izmir, and the same message kept being passed down from the rostrum. That the government and its supporters were traitors.

[…]

10 April 2008

[…]

The aim of a great many of the meetings’ followers and participants was to prevent the Justice and Development Party from securing the election of one of its own as President, or at least to protest against such an initiative. However, this was not the basic aim of the meeting organisers. What was essentially being aimed at with the meetings was the gradual creation of a similar atmosphere in Turkey to the one that had prevailed in the run-up to the 27 May coup; to heighten polarisation and tension within society so that they could sit back rubbing their hands and wait for this tension to spill out into the streets, providing them with a pretext for staging a coup. The meetings were the first stop on this road.

With the meetings underway, the timetable for the Presidential elections envisaged by the Constitution began to run. One day before the deadline for candidacy applications, Prime-Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said, “Our brother Abdullah is our candidate.” The first round of voting took place on Friday 27 April, and Turkey was then thrown into turmoil by an announcement placed on a web site just before midnight by the Chief of the General Staff.

This was the fifth coup.

The General Staff’s announcement, which could be construed to read, “If the Constitutional Court does not annul this election, I will stage a coup” set off a chain of events which would spoil all calculations in Turkey.

This time the government kept its nerve and the following day issued what was arguably a firm statement. It did not stop there, and took measures which would both bring about an early general election and pave the way for the President to be directly elected by the people.

The sudden prospect of a general election upset Ergenekon’s applecart because they thought that the election would be held at the normal time, in November 2007, and their plan of action was based on this expectation. With the General Staff’s announcement pointing to the ‘clear and immediate’ threat of a coup, quite a few people changed their minds, including a significant section of the Republic Meeting participants: Yes, secularism was important and they did not like this government, but they did not want a coup, either.

In other words, whether intentionally or not, the 27 May announcement spoiled Ergenekon’s calculations and robbed the military coup of legitimacy. On top of this, the AKP won 47% of the vote in the 22 July election and, with the parties supported by the meeting organisers, the CHP and MHP, failing to make the expected headway, Ergenekon’s plans were left in tatters.

Anyhow, in the course of an investigation into hand grenades found in a house in the Ümraniye area of Istanbul, light was beginning to be shed on Ergenekon’s armed action wing. This is the very investigation we are discussing today.

One of the most important discoveries made by the investigation has been the establishing of a link between the bombings of the Cumhuriyet newspaper prior to the Republic meetings – the Council of State attack – the Ümraniye bombs. For we knew that it was the same people who had bombed Cumhuriyet and attacked the Council of State; what we did not know was whether these assailants with ‘religious-nationalist’ leanings were actually taking their orders from another ‘neo-nationalist’ gang whose aim was to get rid of the AKP at any cost; we now know that this was the case.

[…]

11 April 2008

There is no shame in disliking Justice and Development Party rule, in wishing for that rule to end and for some other party, or your own party, to rule in their place; this is not forbidden. Quite the reverse, the existence of an opposition is one of the prerequisites of a pluralistic democracy.

However, what we have been speaking of for days in this column is not a legal and democratic opposition of this sort, but rather a ‘junta’, a kind of underground organisation, which has made use of state resources, public money assigned for very different purposes, along with state planning capabilities and whose aim is the overthrow of the governing party from behind closed doors and by clandestine and antidemocratic means, regardless of the cost and, if necessary, at the expense of spilling blood.

An opposition party is entitled to consider any action by the governing party, or the very existence of this party, to be ‘contrary to the national interest’, and may strive to propagate this message, and try to win public opinion over to its view.

However, if certain public servants who receive their salaries from the state attempt to do the same thing and, moreover, use money from the state budget so that their ideas may prevail, this is a very different matter.

In a democratic country, there are legitimate means for bringing down governments and changing the ruling party. Staging coups, or engaging in provocative acts designed to pave the way for a coup, is not, cannot be and must not be one of these legitimate means.

This is precisely what differentiates ‘Ergenekon’ from political opposition.

There is no need to labour the point. AKP rule has fundamentally unbalanced the form of rule in Turkey known as ‘state rule’. And certain public servants who believe themselves to be representatives of that ‘state rule’ consider the measures taken by a government which, having presented its programme to the public, was democratically elected, and particularly its European Union reforms, to be ‘non-national’ and have done all they can to prevent their implementation.

This is precisely why Cyprus policies lie at the root of everything. For the same reason, opposition to the EU is the main thing held in common by the strange bedfellows who have created Ergenekon, or have come under that conceptual umbrella. A further thing they hold in common is a wish to get rid of the AKP ‘at any cost’. Once the phrase ‘at any cost’ comes into play, democracy naturally enough goes out of the window. What possible connection can there be between democracy and planning military coups, throwing bombs left, right and centre, mounting armed attacks on supreme judicial bodies, planning assassinations etc?

Their aim being to ‘get rid of the AKP’, all the means that they use begin to lose their real significance and appropriateness.

Take the law.

The figure of 367 was plucked out of the air during the presidential elections. Apparently ‘reconciliation’ was needed in order to elect a president. All well and good, but if there existed such a need the Constitution would not have reduced the required number of votes to 276 following the second round of voting.

No, once the aim became ‘getting rid of the AKP’, once sight of all else was lost, the law and the Constitutional Court became MEANS to an end, and consequently the Constitutional Court succumbed to the pressure placed on it by the General Staff with its announcement that could only be construed to read, “If you do not annul this election, I will stage a coup” and annulled the election. A legal coup was staged against parliament in Turkey.

And this was the sixth coup that we have experienced since 2001.

The question now is whether the lawsuit filed for the closure of the AKP will turn out to be the seventh coup. Will the constitutional court, as in the case of its ‘367 ruling’, side with those who seek to use the law as a means to an end, or will it act in the consciousness that we will not be a free and democratic country by means of the law alone?

In the view of most observers, the Constitutional Court will this time behave in the same way as it did when passing the ‘367 ruling’, and will rule against democracy and freedom and in favour of those who say ‘it is necessary to get rid of the AKP at any cost’.

If the Constitutional Court passes such a ruling and closes the AKP, this will be a very different coup from all of the coups, without exception, that have been experienced in the past, because this time the coup will have been staged by legal means and the law will have become a vehicle not for expanding, but for restricting freedom. Undoubtedly 27 May, 12 March, 12 September and 28 February harmed Turkish democracy. But this time, an incomparable degree of harm will ensue in comparison to the coups of the past. For, after each of the past coups, there was a return to a version of democracy within a certain period of time. However, this time there may never be a return to democracy in the Western sense and our country may have to pay a high price for this.

The consequences of the expected final coup may be grave indeed.

Archive of Turkish press translations by Tim Drayton