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Turkey - The Deep State

The Turkish Deep State, the behind-the-scenes machinery and power relationships among selected members of the military, judicial, and bureaucratic elite, has endured as an essential factor in political life and in citizens' wary calculations of their relation to the State. Now, however, Deep State supremacy is being challenged step by step with an openness rare in the history of the Turkish Republic. The "deep state" in Turkey is a vague, ill-defined network of like-minded people (including former military personnel and government officials) with ties to Turkey's ultra-nationalists that purports to provide an "alternative" to state power. Allegedly, this extra-legal grouping works to influence and deliver public support behind actions by overt state actors, often the military. To some, the workings and influence of the Deep State means primarily military domination of the Turkish system.

In the 1990s the phrase “deep state” (derin devlet) became a part of everyday political debates in Turkey. The existence of a collusive organization within the Turkish state is not new. Such an invisible establishment is not new to Turkish history; the existence of “deep-state” networks can be traced back to the final years of the Ottoman Empire. Some trace the origins of of the Turkish deep state to the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP, Ittihad ve Terakki Cemiyeti), the secret society founded in 1889 in Istanbul by medical students who supprted reform in the Ottoman Empire, who eventually led the Young Turk Revolution of 1908.

There is speculation the contemporary deep state has overlap affiliation with popularly termed Operation Gladio (after the Italian version), a Cold War "stay behind" network organized to resist possible Soviet occupation. Forces established in the 1950s as sleeper agents, once directed by the intelligence community, have come to feel immune from prosecution and are no longer controllable. Nationalist elements, traceable to Ottoman days, were responsible for incidents including the Istanbul riots of September 6-7, 1955, targeting the Greek minority. Then-PM Bulent Ecevit complained in 1974 of a "counter guerrilla" force operating outside the Turkish military chain of command. Former PM Tansu Ciller and former President Suleyman Demirel requested and received approval for a "deep state" mechanism in the 1990s.Deep state elements have taken part in efforts to eliminate the PKK.

Interviewed on CNN-Turk on April 17, 2005, former President Demirel said, "The deep state is the state itself. It is the military. The military that established the state always fears the collapse of the state. The people sometimes misuse the rights provided.... The deep state is not active as long as the state is not brought to the verge of collapse. They are not a separate state, but when they intervene in the administration of the state, they become the deep state." The deep state is shady, vague and ill-defined. Events like the 1955 Istanbul riots, Susurluk and Semdinli, the Dink 301 trial and subsequent assassinations have long haunted public life.

Turks are statists in that they have been inculcated to believe in an immanent, authoritative State power disconnected from, and superior to, the role granted by the constitution to elected politicians. At the same time, the great majority of Turks are frustrated, distrustful, even fearful of the State as an increasingly out-of-date, authoritarian, inefficient and unaccountable brake on their freedoms.

In describing this relationship, analysts distinguish between the formal, Kemalist State, whose unaccountability is problematic enough for the man in the street, and what Turks refer to as the Deep State (derin devlet). Turks use the latter concept to explain how real power is exercised -- through informal, para-judicial governance motivated by an expansive definition of national security. Deep State views, articulated through the military-dominated National Security Council (NSC -- constitutionally only an advisory body) and other organs, continue to shape the political landscape in Turkey.

The heart of the Deep State is the presidency (which on paper has limited powers), the military (which formally reports to the P.M.), and the (formally independent) judiciary. The elected government is only the Deep State's servant. While the Deep State influences government activity, the government has virtually no influence on the Deep State; if the Deep State really wants to keep someone out of power, that person will stay out.

The lack of accountability in the Kemalist State in general, and more specifically in the Deep State, is a legacy from three sources. First, centuries of Ottoman practice. Second, the tradition of Muslim brotherhoods (tarikats) and their emphasis on secrecy and discretion. Third, the cadre hierarchies of Marxism-Leninism and fascism, parallel to but more authoritative than institutions of the state; these models were prominent on the European stage in the 1920's as the founders of the Republic of Turkey set up their state.

A variety of political, academic, and journalists agree that this unaccountability of the Deep State manifests itself in different ways. Senior politicians from several parties have described the challenge Parliament faces in trying to keep track of all aspects of the Deep State's activities, including the budgets and expenditures of various military funds. At times the Deep State has relied on extra-judicial enforcement of its views. While this usually means use of hints or indirect intimidation, in the past it has also involved an unsavory nexus among security and intelligence services; the armed forces; and groups -- such as (Turkey's) Hizbullah and mafias -- fostered by them.

The Susurluk scandal, which broke in 1996, is emblematic of this aspect of the Deep State. The November 1996 Susurluk incident exposed a relationship between two public figures -- the Istanbul Deputy Police Commissioner and a parliamentarian from the southeast -- and a notorious Mafia figure and his girlfriend, when the car they were riding in was in a serious accident. The investigation of Susurluk [and Semdinli, another case where deep-state involvement was indicated], had been quashed by the military without legal consequences for any involved. The notorious Susurluk scandal gave the Turkish public a penetrating -- if fleeting -- glimpse at the then-prevalent connections among the armed forces, security and intel services, extrajudicial hit squads, and groups like Turkish Hizbullah.

The Turkish military has demonstrated its presence at the heart of the Deep State not through any provision of the constitution but through Article 35 of the Internal Services of the Turkish Armed Forces Law, which states that the military has the "duty to protect and safeguard the Republic of Turkey." It has carried out four coups in 42 years. The current (1982) constitution was drafted under military direction. Moreover, the military has expanded its oversight by penetrating in a significant way into the industrial and financial sectors through its officer pension fund Oyak. This monitoring function shows itself in other ways as well. The "West Working Group" was in the forefront of the "February 28 Process" under which the Islamist-led government of Prime Minister Erbakan was ousted in 1997. The group has been up and running under a new name since May 2002 "in monitoring mode for now."

While Chief of the TGS Gen. Ozkok showed patience at the beginning of AK's tenure, by 2002 institutional interests, pressures from younger officers to take a harder line, and suspicions of some senior commanders that Ozkok was "too liberal" made their presence felt in the military hierarchy. That said, the upper policy-making levels at TGS appeared to share Ozkok's perspective. At the same time, the military leadership was watching AK carefully. The generals had three red lines: Kemalism, "secularism", and territorial integrity.

The judiciary is not independent, but a subordinate, albeit important, part of the wider machinery perpetuating the Kemalist status quo. The legal educational system is set up to produce unimaginative, narrow-minded judges and prosecutors indoctrinated with the State's official Kemalist ideology. More important, judicial fealty to Kemalism and to the Deep State is the result of a fear so pervasive that it is difficult for Americans to appreciate. Mindful of the threat of force implicit in the Deep State's orders to civilians, judges and prosecutors fear that if they deviate from the orthodoxy they will be entangled in career-blunting reprimand procedures, demoted, hounded out of office, or worse. Those relatively few judicial officials willing to resist such pressure usually are transplants to the judicial bureaucracy from outside that system.

While the Deep State can make its views clear by directly communicating them through "telephone justice" to judicial officials, word is most often promulgated indirectly through the National Security Council, and by senior journalists who are known to have special relationships with the powers-that-be: Sedat Ergin of mass circulation "Hurriyet" was an exemplar (others speak in similar terms about "paid agents" in the press such as "Hurriyet"'s Fatih Altayli). Deep State pressure and influence transformed Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer, who was much more willing to promote democratic freedom and human rights during his tenure as Chief Justice of the Constitutional Court, where he served before becoming Head of State. As President, however, Sezer was pressured into adopting the more restrictive line set by the military-dominated NSC.

In every bureaucracy and every ilce (provincial county), the Deep State has individuals it can rely on to (1) keep tabs on internal developments and (2) to make clear the Deep State position on particular issues that concern national security. This system involves not only ministries, such as Interior, that traditionally have been associated with maintaining domestic peace and order, but Education and others deemed to play an essential role in maintaining the dominance of Kemalist institutions and ideas. Someone in each ilce will have the keys to the local arsenal (which is how the right-wing nationalist MHP supporters got their guns during the murderous clashes of the late 1970's). A local Education Ministry rep will know that he is slated to become rector of a certain university some years down the line if he carries out his Deep State functions well.

Deep State views continue to exercise leverage over the political game in Turkey, and as such constitute a major obstacle to democratization and reform. However, Deep State supremacy is not all-efficient: as one staunch secularist put it, "the Deep State is very, very deep, like a diver under the sea" (i.e., so deep it's unable to move in a supple way in the faster-paced contemporary world). And the Deep State is beginning to be challenged with an openness rare in the history of the Turkish Republic. The push is step by step. It must contend with centuries of ingrained habit and fear. But various political strands, tapping the growing popular dissatisfaction with the Kemalist status quo, are slipstreaming behind Turkey's formal bid for EU membership to push for sweeping changes in the status of civilian-military / individual-State relations and to challenge other Kemalist verities.

The deep state goes beyond certain factions within the Turkish military and percolates into various facets of the state machinery. Successful prosecution of a deep state network would strike a blow against nationalist impunity and demonstrate a strong commitment to rule of law. Though not necessarily corrupt, Turkey's judiciary had large numbers of "illiberal" judges, more focused on protecting the state from the individual than in promoting individual rights, and who firmly believe any means should be used to protect the state. Insofar as the deep state's purported intentions are to protect the state (as that group defines it), they may be able to find common cause with some in the legal system who could shield them from the full brunt of prosecution.

The widening scope of the Ergenekon investigation has divided Turkish society into two increasingly hardened camps: those who see the case as a courageous step to bring Turkish society under the rule of law, by uncovering and then holding accountable the gangs responsible for hundreds of unsolved mystery killings and disappearances; and those who see a politically manipulated investigation that targets only opponents of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). The continuing progression of the investigation and trial, steps that would have been unthinkable just several years ago in Turkey, demonstrates a shift in balance of power away from an entrenched elite that includes the military, bureaucracy, and the Republican People's Party (CHP) to a body of elites that has newly emerged on the political scene.

The Ergenekon investigation may be the most important event in Turkey since the Turkish Republic was founded in 1923. By 2008 PM Erdogan had the evidence he needed to expose and close down or seriously damage the widely rumored "deep state" apparatus that worked outside the rule of law, often in the service of ultra-nationalist causes. However, prosecution would only be successful with the cooperation of Turkey's deeply conservative judiciary. That would be the test; passing it would have positive implications for strengthening and extending democracy and rule of law in Turkey.

Liberals fear that the so-called “deep state”, the secret cabal of soldiers, police and bureaucrats dealing in assassination and disappearances, is still in business, stalking its enemies and protecting its hitmen. Weak rule of law and the impunity with which privileged operators were long been able to subvert Turkey's legal system created an environment in which rumors of the deep state's existence have been enough to give the concept a life of its own. Fear of the deep state's omnipotence combined with an unshakable belief that it exists, imparts much of its power.

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Page last modified: 30-07-2013 13:27:21 ZULU