The Ergenekon case: the balance between democracy and authoritarianism?


By Alessandra Pezzati. In the early hours of January 6, 2012, General İlker Başbuğ (chief of the Turkish General Staff, 2008-2010), was arrested on accusations of “founding or directing an armed terrorist organization” and “inciting the overthrow of the government of the Turkish Republic or the prevention of it fulfilling its duties”[i]. For many, the arrest of Başbuğ on terrorist incriminations will be regarded not so much as underlining that the General staff is no longer untouchable, but also that the Fethullah Gülen Movement[ii] is influential enough to detain whomever it likes. However, it is no secret that in the past the Turkish General circles recurrently endorsed black propaganda campaigns against supposed menaces to the unitary, secular state. On the other hand, both the specific charges against Başbuğ and the conduct of the investigations so far, have already raised serious concerns about the credibility of the Turkish judicial system, along with increasing fears that the country is slipping into a new era of repressive authoritarianism.

The Ergenekon[iii] case began in June 2007 when twenty-seven grenades and other explosives were found in the home of an ultranationalist military officer (the word Ergenekon has since entered the Turkish vocabulary as an “ultranationalist clandestine network”)[iv]. Considering Turkey’s long history of attempted and actual military interventions and crimes committed by the state, it is not surprising that there is a hierarchically organized and deeply embedded criminal organization, which runs parallel to and above Turkey’s existing legal and security structures. Since it was first launched, the Ergenekon investigation has become the largest and most controversial court case in recent Turkish history[v]. What distinguishes the Ergenekon operation from previous cases is the high profile of the members and the extent of the activities. The suspects represent a wide spectrum of elite personalities, from senior military commanders and political leaders to columnists and academics. For many observers it is a historic opportunity to confront the long existence of covert networks within the state, supposed to be led by the military secular forces[vi].

More in particular, Turkey’s state security policy is based on a specific National Security Strategy titled the National Security Policy Document (NSPD), which is updated every five years and describes the perceived threats to the country’s security[vii]. For most of Turkey’s recent history, the NSPD was effectively drafted by the Turkish General Staff and then endorsed unchanged by the civilian prime minister. During the 1990s, the NSPD identified two main threats to domestic security: Kurdish separatism and what was named Islamic fundamentalism, which in practice intended to secure Turkey from any attempt to amend the established secular state. Accordingly, the current Turkish politics, which has major Islamist influences, has taken the chance to demilitarize the country from “this organized structure that committed crimes using the power of state”[viii]. In other words, this is an opportunity for the “Justice and Development Party” (AKP) to eliminate its secular opponents and to fight the country’s current threat: reactionaryism. This persistence has led to large-scale indictments without clear evidences of involvements.

Nowadays defenders of the Ergenekon case frequently argue that, even if it presents some faults, it is nevertheless essential in order to break the political power of the Turkish officer corps, that constitute a real caste. In fact, the investigation only started when the AKP was confident that the era of military protection was finally over. Since 2007, over six hundred suspected people have been charged in the Ergenekon case, including nearly four hundred serving and retired members of the military circles. From a historical perspective, the Ergenekon case investigation constitutes a milestone in Turkey: it represents the end of the immunity of military groups and it is definitely more important for democracy in Turkey in moral terms than in political dimensions. Although, according to the Turkey specialist Gareth Jenkins, the pervasive fear among Western analysts of Turkey is that Ergenekon “represents a major step, not, as its proponents maintain, towards the consolidation of pluralistic democracy in Turkey, but towards an authoritarian one-party state.”[ix]

In conclusion, the Ergenekon investigation is a product of its time. The impunity with which the accusers have arrested groups of outstanding secularists, including many retired members of the military, would have been unthinkable prior to the AKP’s complete success election victory in July 2007. It remains to be seen whether in the short-term period, Turkey is not going to waste the opportunity to realize what the Ergenekon investigation might bring out about its future, and the alarming questions it raises about the prospects for democracy and the rule of law in the country.

[i] See also:

[ii] The Gülen movement is a transnational civic society movement inspired by the teachings of Turkish Islamic theologian Fethullah Gülen. His teachings about hizmet (altruistic service to the “common good”) have attracted a large number of supporters in TurkeyCentral Asia and increasingly in other parts of the world. The movement is mainly active in education and interfaith (and intercultural) dialogue, however has also aid initiatives and investments on media, finance, and health. In Turkey, the Gülen movement tries to keep its distance from Islamic political parties, but the schools in Central Asia have been described as supporting a philosophy based on Turkish nationalism rather than on Islam.

[iii] The name Ergenekon comes from a mythical valley in Central Asia. There are different versions of The Myth of Ergenekon; however all versions share the theme of how a she-wolf “rescued” the Turkish nation. The myth is thus compatible with the prevalent discourse in Turkish politics about saving or rescuing the nation from the enemy.


[v] See also: Banu Eligür, “The Mobilization of Political Islam in Turkey”, Cambridge University Press, 2010, p.266

[vi] In this regard: Daniele Ganser, NATO’s Secret Army. Operation Gladio and Terrorism in Western Europe, Routledge, 2005, ch. 17.

[vii] See also: Betül Urhan and Seydi Çelik, Perceptions of “National Security” in Turkey and Their Impacts on the Labor Movement and Trade Union Activities, in European Journal of Turkish Studies, 11/2010,; Gencer Özcan, National Security Council, Associate Professor, Yıldız Technical University, Faculty of Economics and Administrative, Sciences, Department of Political Science and International Relations.

[viii] See also: Open Source Center Report, Turkey, Guide to Ergenekon, 19 March 2010

[ix] Gareth H. Jenkins, “Between Fact and Fantasy: Turkey’s Ergenekon Investigation”, 2009 Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program – A Joint Transatlantic Research and Policy Center,

About Author

Alessandra Pezzati

Alessandra Pezzati is contributor at the International Security Observer. Alessandra is collaborating with the office of an Italian MEP in Brussels. Before working at the European Parliament, she was a trainee in the European Commission Delegation in Ankara, where she completed her Master thesis on Turkey and its negotiations process to join the European Union. Alessandra’s interests lie with social and political developments of Turkey and other Mediterranean countries. She holds a Master degree in International Affairs and History of the European Integration. She is fluent in English, French and Italian native speaker.

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