Turkey commemorates traumatic coup attempt amid tensions with EU
Friday, 19 July 2019
Jubilant civilians on Bosphorus Bridge, Istanbul on Saturday 13 July 2019.
On Monday Turkey remembered the attempted military coup on 15 July 2016 which took the lives of 250 civilians and security personnel and left thousands of people injured.
The coup plans were discovered in time and foiled but the traumatic event is still hunting Turkish society and causing tension in the relations between EU and Turkey.
This become clear on Tuesday (16 July) at a commemoration with the Turkish community at Press Club Brussels aiming at shedding light on what happened three years ago and discussing the nature and role of the Gulenist movement in orchestrating the coup. An exhibition featuring photographs taken by Anatolian Agency during the night of 15 July was also opened.
“Turkey has had its fair share of military coups but this time it was different since the coup was carried out by a criminal network that wanted to change the regime completely,” said Levent Gumrukcu, Turkish ambassador to Belgium.
He was referring to an organisation named after a charismatic imam, Fethullah Gulen, who lives in exile in the US. His organisation has been active in the social-economic life of Turkey and even cooperated in the past with president Erdogan and his governing party (AKP) in the country’s reform process until relations between them deteriorated into a power struggle.
In the west, the organisation was seen as a civil society and charity organisation, which apparently developed ties with the US, EU and some of its member states. In fact, according to the Turkish ambassador and other speakers, the Gulenist movement is a sinister cult and terrorist organisation which infiltrated for years the Turkish public administration and its armed forces.
EU of course condemned the coup and has repeatedly expressed its solidarity with Turkey. “We were probably the first ones to react in defence of the legitimate and democratically elected institutions, starting from the Parliament,” EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said in September 2016.
Her spokesperson told The Brussels Times that Mogherini called the Turkish foreign minister on Monday to reiterate EU’s solidarity with the country. Asked if the EU has assessed the Gulenist movement, the spokesperson referred to the annual progress or country reports on Turkey. They deal mostly with Turkey’s backsliding in the reform process and the state of emergency after the coup.
Notwithstanding these expressions of solidarity, Turkey felt abandoned by EU and expected EU leaders to pay visits to the country immediately after the coup to express their solidarity. It is still eager in convincing EU about the undemocratic nature of the Gulenist movement or, as it is called in Turkey, the Fethullahist terrorist organisation (FETÖ).
EU on its part felt at unease with the wave of purges and arrests in the civil service, judiciary and education system in Turkey following the coup.
Turkey defended its actions as counter-measures against people belonging to the Gulenist movement that allegedly had been involved in the coup or had supported it. However, it was difficult for EU to understand such sweeping measures where tens of thousands of people were rounded-up, including journalists and lawyers, apparently for their views and not for any involvement in the coup.
At the press club, political science professor Dries Lesage from Ghent university described the coup as an assault on democracy and a massive human rights violation. He concurred with his Turkish colleagues about the nature of the Gulenist movement but also criticised the Turkish government for its crackdown after the coup:
“It must be said that the role of the Turkish government itself complicates the search for a generally accepted truth. The credibility of the Turkish judiciary has been affected by growing politicization. The high numbers of arrests overshadow the debate on the responsibility for the coup. With such numbers, dramatic mistakes can be made, and procedures abused,” he said.
He told The Brussels Times that the situation is complicated. “There is probably a core cadre of a few thousands Gulenists, both military and civilians, who abused power in the state or were involved in the coup but in principle everyone linked to the Gulenist movement could be incriminated by the coup attempt, arrested and lose his job.”
He points out that the situation has improved lately with the introduction of appeal procedures where many defendants have been acquitted. “To sentence so many people would undermine the government’s case. It doesn’t make sense to arrest someone because he or she studied at a Gulenist run school or had an account in a Gulenist owned bank,” he says.
That said, he thinks that EU has been inconclusive about the perpetrators behind the coup and ignored available information. “The Gulenist movement was known in Brussels and developed ties with the EU institutions during the years, inviting MEPs and officials to visit Turkey,” he says. “Just a tiny minority of Western actors is interested in knowing who was behind the coup.”
“From 2007 onwards, during the height of cooperation with AKP, the undemocratic nature of the movement became known. Gulenist police and prosecutors had started to round up hundreds of secularist military, journalists and Kurdish activists. Critical journalists and opposition pointed at the flawed or fabricated evidence.”
During those years the Gulenist movement was supported by both the US and EU that might have seen it as an ally in the reform process in Turkey and appreciated its pro-EU platform. The movement was considered as moderate and supported EU demands on putting the Turkish military under civilian rule.
All speakers at the press event underlined that the opposition parties in Turkey stand united with the government party on the assessment that the Gulenist movement was behind the coup while they may disagree with the extent of the crackdown.
What about the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), a Kurdish-Turkish party whose leaders have been deprived parliamentary immunity and arrested as if they were involved in the coup?
“In fact, the Gulenist movment and HDP were rivals in south-eastern Turkey where the Gulenists participated in the persecution of Kurds,” he replies. “It doesn’t make any sense linking the movement to the HDP, whose members were arrested for other reasons. The collapse of the peace process in Turkey has little or nothing to do with the crackdown on the Gulenist movement.”
Despite EU’s condemnation of the crackdown, it never severed ties with Turkey. The EU-Turkey agreement from March 2016, before the attempted coup, on stemming the flow of migrants and refugees via Turkey to Europe had to be implemented.The accession process continued, although it was put on the back burner.
After this week’s foreign affairs council, tension rose again. The Council decided to suspend high-level political meetings with Turkey and to reduce pre-accession aid to the country because of its drilling activities in Cypriot territorial waters.