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April 6, 2021

Europe

TURKEY: Open letter by former officers: A perfect gift for Erdogan

BY Wolfango Piccoli

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( 4 mins)
  • An open letter penned by retired military officers has created an ideal opportunity for President Tayyip Erdogan to manipulate the public debate and distract attention away from a long list of negative developments.
  • Leaving aside the framing of public narratives, the risk is that the ruling coalition could exploit the controversy to crackdown on the opposition from the secularist camp.

A cabinet meeting scheduled for 3pm (local time) today could sanction new security measures aimed at cracking down on dissent as President Tayyip Erdogan labelled a declaration on the Montreux convention by retired officers as a “malevolent attempt,” saying it had “implications of a coup.” In a country still shaken by the failed 2016 coup attempt, the former officers’ statement has provided a perfect and well-timed opportunity for the ruling coalition to distract public opinion from a growing list of critical issues, such as the depreciation of the Turkish Lira, inflation acceleration and the worsening trajectory of the pandemic.

Given Erdogan’s unpredictability, there is also a possibility that the government will exploit the controversy to crack down on the secularist camp, represented in parliament by the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), and consolidate his support. The furious reaction by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its junior coalition partner, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), signals, once again, that they are deeply rattled and insecure due to their declining support despite the bravado usually shown in public. This acute sense of vulnerability means that policy-making will remain erratic and dictated by short-term tactical imperatives. As the AKP’s grassroots are shrinking in size Erdogan is also becoming more vulnerable to demands from his own conservative core voters.

Letter signed by former military officers triggers “coup” debate

In a statement published late on 3 April, 104 former senior Navy officers expressed concern regarding an ongoing debate in Turkey over whether the government would pull out of the 1936 Montreux Convention, which regulates naval traffic in Istanbul’s Bosporus Strait and was designed to prevent militarization of the Black Sea. In the second part of their short letter, the retired officers wrote that the Turkish Armed Forces should maintain the Constitution’s unchangeable values and the “modern path” drawn by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish Republic.

President Tayyip Erdogan and his allies reacted immediately by framing the open letter as a challenge to civilian government rule. Ten retired Navy admirals were detained on 5 April and four more signatories of advanced age were ordered to visit a police station for questioning within three days. The suspects were also reportedly stripped of their pension rights, including pension payments as well as government-issued lodging and security detail. The Ankara Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office announced that an investigation was launched on charges of conspiring against state security and the constitutional order.

More worrying is the attempt by the AKP and the MHP to implicate the main opposition CHP in the controversy. Devlet Bahceli, the MHP leader, publicly accused his CHP counterpart Kemal Kilicdaroglu of being one of the “invisible” signatories of the open letter. Minister of Interior and AHP heavyweight Suleyman Soylu has claimed that the retired admirals had connections with the CHP. Also, pro-government media outlets reported yesterday that that four of the 104 former officers are registered members of the CHP.

Erdogan’s “crazy project”

The fate of the 85-year-old Montreux Convention has become a matter of contention due to Erdogan’s plan to build the so-called “Kanal Istanbul” (better known in Turkey as the “crazy project”), a new waterway from the Mediterranean to the Black Sea. Last month, the government approved plans to develop the 45-kilometer canal project and, since then, the status of the Montreux Convention has become a hot topic.

Ostensibly, Kanal Istanbul aims to reduce the amount of international cargo ships that regularly traverse the congested Bosporus strait. However, critics argue that Turkish crony capitalism requires new mega projects like Kanal Istanbul to survive and that Erdogan must keep feeding his cronies to retain his grip on the country. The project has also drawn criticism from those who say it will wreak environmental havoc and pollute freshwater resources around the city of 15mn people. The estimated cost of Kanal Istanbul is USD 11-13bn, but experts warn that the ultimate cost will by far exceed that sum. The authorities plan to realize the project via the build-operate-transfer (BOT) model that will backed by Treasury guarantees.