The arrest January 6 of retired General İlker Basbuğ, former chief of the general staff, marks yet another turn of the wheel against the Turkish military and a sign of how little fear the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has of moves against civilian rule that have haunted his country’s past.

After hours of questioning, a prosecutor formally charged Basbuğ with “heading a terrorist organization” and attempting to overthrow the government. He is the latest in a line of over one hundred ex-military leaders to be detained during the last two-plus years in connection with several alleged plots and conspiracies. Even just five years ago, the idea that any of these individuals might have been called to account by civilian authority for any actions, real or alleged, would have been unthinkable. No more.


Of potentially greater import was a request to the courts by another prosecutor on January 3 against the two surviving leaders of Turkey’s last full-fledged military coup in 1980. Under Turkish legal procedure, the court apparently has up to fifteen days to decide on whether to accept or reject the indictment. Acceptance seems a foregone conclusion. The detention of another former chief of the general staff, 94 year-old retired General Kenan Evren, who led the post-coup junta and then was elected president under the constitution that was essentially imposed by the military, should then follow shortly. It will be another and even more dramatic picture of the military hauled into the dock.

Moves against Basbuğ had been rumored for some days. Turkish newspapers reported January 5 on threats by the chief of the military academy, as well as the current land and air forces commanders, to resign if Basbuğ was arrested. At least the first two were Basbuğ protégés. All three have held their positions only since August 2011, following the resignation en masse of the country’s senior-most military commanders over the issue of civilian blackballing of peers up for promotion who were also accused of complicity in the same plots Basbuğ has now been associated with by prosecutors. That provoked a short-lived crisis that led to the appointment of a new military chief, General Necdet Özel, and a slate of other new commanders. The affair marked the triumph of civilian authority over the military, but was not the last chapter of military-government infighting that has marked Turkey since the first overthrow of elected government in 1960.

Whatever their merits with respect to the law, the cases against Basbuğ and Evren are important both as political theater related to the country’s mooted new constitution and as a settling of very real scores. Focusing public attention on these and other military leaders’ real or alleged misdeeds will help revive the ardor and momentum for constitutional change that have flagged in recent weeks and months. It will further backfoot those in the military, judiciary, and elsewhere who want to restrain such change – and to prevent overreach by the AK Party.

The 1980 coup led to the imprisonment of some 650,000 Turkish citizens, 230,000 of whom stood trial – including the deposed prime minister (and 1990s president) Süleyman Demirel, as well as former and future prime minister, the late Bülent Ecevit – in proceedings that few, if any Turks regarded at that time or since as fair or impartial. Military prosecutors won death sentences against over 500, and hundreds more died in custody due to torture or other undetermined reasons. Millions of Turks’ lives were touched in very dramatic and largely negative ways.

Calling the military to account for this dark period, on which most Turks had turned their backs until relatively recently, has widespread support. The legal change that allows for civilian prosecution of military personnel dates only to the constitutional referendum of September 2010. However, it is interesting to note that while backing these steps to deal with the past, Erdoğan and most in his government have shown support in recent days for a military under fire for airstrikes carried out December 28 in the country’s east that killed some 35 suspected militants of the terrorist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) who turned out to be local villagers whose gravest crime may have smuggling. Another sign of support for the military on defense and security matters was the government’s approval this week of plans to purchase the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

Basbuğ certainly held senior military positions during periods in the 2000s when ruminations and genuine pressure, if not actual plotting, against the government in various quarters was an open secret. However, the image he fostered as the country’s top military chief was one of an honorable general who was deferential to civilian authority. He spoke out publicly on the need to deal with PKK terrorism not just with force, but also with political, economic, social, and other strategies. He understood the need to modernize the Turkish military, but accomplished little toward that end during his two years as top commander. Many in the military believe that Basbuğ’s toning down of his predecessor’s open hostility toward the AK government degraded the military’s standing in the public and squandered the last opportunities it had to outmaneuver and/or restrain the ambitions of Erdoğan and allies. His departure as military chief was not mourned in the ranks. Most in the Turkish military and society at large will likely see his prosecution now as just another unfortunate story, probably not one with an obvious early end, but also not something new or perhaps even that important.

The country’s challenge with Basbuğ and Evren will be to both come to terms with the past and render justice fairly, impartially, and swiftly. Slow progress on all the rest of those now accused of complicity in plotting against the government suggests this may not be the case – and that is a stain on Turkey’s reputation that Erdoğan and his colleagues should correct.

Ambassador Ross Wilson is the Director of the Patriciu Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council. As a U.S. diplomat, he served as American ambassador to Turkey in 2005-08 and to Azerbaijan in 2000-03, and he was posted to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow in 1980-82 and 1987-90.

Related Experts: Ross Wilson