The ‘cold war’ in Ankara heats up over EU reforms

It was no relief to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan when Turkey’s armed forces chief, Hilmi Ozkok, ruled out the possibility of a coup. The «cold war» in Ankara is getting hot these days as the forced coexistence between a government which traces its roots to a banned Islamist movement and a secularist military grows weary. The latest EU reforms Mr Erdogan’s government hopes to introduce shortly will be the real test of how long the coexistence could last. With a package of laws consisting of 19 articles in his hands and a letter from the military that objects to five of them, Mr Erdogan on May 26 woke up to a difficult week that opened with a warning from Gen. Ozkok and closed with another from the top commander’s deputy. Gen. Ozkok warned of concern «at all levels of the armed forces» over systematic government efforts to appoint religious radicals to important positions in the bureaucracy. The reference to «all levels of the armed forces» was a response to a recent media report of unease among «young officers» in particular. Mr Erdogan probably heard more about the military concern over appointments at a monthly meeting, on May 28, of the National Security Council, which brings together government and military leaders. «There is no abnormal situation,» he said, in his usual defensive way aimed at diffusing tensions with the establishment – the man has the habit of seeking to downplay talk of tension with the army. A bland statement released after the six-hour meeting said the leaders had discussed a likely new partnership document with the EU. In fact, the top brass expressed discontent with part of the EU reform plans – the part that scraps an anti-terror law; allows Kurdish language broadcasting on private television channels; ends military representation on a board supervising the media; allows venues for religious practice at private lodgings; and accepts foreign election observers in Turkey. Mr Erdogan claims the reform plans will go through a fully democratic process. But he, too, is uneasy over the reform file sitting on his desk. He may challenge the military and take the legislative steps promptly. But the more realistic option for him is to find a compromise. The next weeks will probably see a heavy toing-and-froing of messengers who will try to broker a deal. Here, Mr Erdogan faces a dilemma. If he waters down the reform package too much, he will not please the EU. On the other hand, if he insists too much on the original contents, he will risk fresh tensions with a military that already suspects his government of pursuing a hidden Islamist agenda. A compromise looks possible on ending military representation on the broadcasting watchdog and on foreign observers. The row over accepting observers, for example, is particularly nonsensical. Turkey has sent observers to Russia, Albania, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Montenegro, Moldova and Bosnia-Herzegovina since 1993. Why should it object to receiving them? The other three articles, however, will see tough negotiations. While the military mindset over the EU in general and the reform package in particular is fractured, the dominant opinion may be surprisingly liberal for an establishment that is notoriously conservative. Although he made no single reference to the proposed reform package, Yasar Buyukanit, Gen. Ozkok’s deputy, declared on May 29 that the military fully backed EU membership but, in a clear signal to radical Islamists and Kurdish separatists, said militants who had tried to exploit the EU reforms would fail. The boldest ever support from the military for EU membership came with quite a bold warning attached: «I want to spell this out in capital letters: The Turkish Armed Forces cannot oppose the European Union because the EU is a geopolitical and geostrategic obligation,» said Gen. Buyukanit. «It is inevitable that those who see the… Union’s high values as a means to reach their archaic and separatist aims will be disappointed.» In many ways, Gen. Buyukanit’s speech summarizes the military thinking about Turkey’s EU aspirations. In between the lines, however, it reveals a deep mistrust not just of the government, but also of the EU. Here is how Ankara Confidential reads Gen. Buyukanit’s remarks: 1. The military is for, not against, EU membership ceteris paribus, i.e. as long as membership would not threaten Turkey’s territorial integrity and its secular regime. 2. There is deep suspicion in the military that Mr Erdogan’s government seeks to use the EU as a publicly valid pretext to follow its Islamist strategy. For example, EU criteria might force Turkey to ease a strict secular code by allowing women to wear Islamic headscarves at state institutions – something Mr Erdogan sees as a basic human right but the military views as a step to Islamic rule. 3. The military expects some empathy from the EU as regards the speed of reforms. This expectation seems like a request for preferential treatment by the club one seeks to become a member of. All the same, the military believes, realism is necessary – no other candidate country faces equally dangerous threats of separatism or radical Islamic rule as Turkey does. 4. With some understanding from Brussels and efforts to allay Turkey’s security concerns, the reform process will gain pace and a settlement on Cyprus would come about surprisingly easily. 5. The military is genuinely concerned about the possibility of a «No date, we are sorry» response after it has supported the kind of legislation it considers may threaten Turkey’s national security. What if, the top brass fear, the anti-Turkish axis in Brussels comes up with new, unprecedented criteria to rebuff Turkish membership when it is too late to fight separatism and/or radical Islam?

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