Cherif Ali, Iraq
Huseyin Kivrikoglu is not a name any but the keenest observers of Turkish politics will be familiar with. Yet according to protocol, Kivrikoglu ranks only fifth in the Turkish state's hierarchy, behind the President of the Republic, the president of the constitutional council, the president of the national assembly and the Prime Minister. In fact, this general, because he is a general, is the "J-1", the chief of general staff, arguably the most powerful man in Turkey, in charge of an armed force of 800,000 men and 35,000 officers.
His predecessors have orchestrated three coups in the last 40 years (in 1960, 1971 and 1980); and also staged a 'blank coup' in February 1997 when they called for the resignation of Necmettin Erbakan, the prime minister, an Islamist but also an official nominated by the president of the Republic and a man who had gained a vote of confidence from the Assembly.
Last June, during the monthly meeting of the "National Security Council", the chief of staff and his colleagues shook the power of Bulent Ecevit, the new prime minister, by requesting that he bring to an end the activities of Fethullah Gulen, the head of an Islamic network with many powerful financial connections.
At NATO's supreme council meetings, the Turkish chief of staff does not sit behind his defence minister, but at his side - clearly illustrating that he is not his subordinate but at least his equal. Unlike the other NATO armed forces the Turkish army does not give the impression of being in the nation's service; in a strange way it seems to govern it, almost dictating its will.
How can this Turkish exception be explained? Paradoxically, there are few studies on the army which has played such a vital role in Turkey's political history. Turkish generals, even when retired, avoid meeting journalists. The few Turkish academics who do research on this subject are satisfied with generalities. The only exception is Mehmet Ali Birand, a Turkish writer who published Shirts of Steel, a book full of revealing details on the working of the Turkish armed force.
From the beginning of their career, when they enter a military school at the age of 14-15, for a period of four years, or a military academy, at age 18-19, also for four years, the future Turkish officers are instilled with the idea that they form an elite, living in a world apart, with a special mission.
To be admitted to these military schools and academies an applicant must fulfil all the conditions required from a student who applies to an elite school anywhere in the world: good marks, especially in sciences, good looks, good general attitude - and something a little more unusual - a rigorous investigation not only of the candidate's personality but also that of his family, including his parents' profession their political activities. Their entire history is extensively researched, and the existence of even a distant relative suspected of being a militant, a member of a leftist or Islamist party, or any organisation sympathetic to the Kurds, is enough to disqualify the candidate.
Personal investigation of the candidate's personality, background and personal circumstances continue throughout his career with rigorous examinations conducted at regular intervals and particularly before any promotion is considered.
Destined to play an exceptional role, the cadet lives in a special world: the quality of life in Turkey's military schools and academies has nothing to do with the often lamentable conditions prevailing in most of the country's high schools and universities: clean and comfortable classrooms, good food, good libraries, modern laboratories, computers, exceptional sports facilities, and especially well trained professors.
Throughout his academic career each student has a file, stored in a computerised system which records every mark, examination result, good conduct mark or disciplinary action. This allows Turkish military chiefs to assess the career and progress of any given recruit in seconds.
The programme of the military schools follows the basic study programme of Turkish high schools but with additions: intensive physical training, a basic military training, and a course of political education, including special attention to the study of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish Republic. Ataturkism fills about 20 per cent of the teaching given in Turkish military academies: exactly 160 hours out of a total of 960 hours in a year.
It is studied in several programmes - covering Ataturk's role in Turkish history, an analysis of his political doctrines, and the laws of the armed forces - which are based on his writings.
After eight years of such indoctrination, the new Turkish officer considers himself an exceptional human being and one responsible for preventing any new decline of Turkey. He is now a state appointed guardian of the Republic, assigned with the task of protecting it against all internal (Islamist or communist, subversion, or Kurdish separatism) and external (formerly Soviet, more recently Greek, Syrian or Iranian,) threats. And he also has the deepest contempt for the Turkish politicians, who he considers manipulate ignorant masses for their own ends.
He displays for his uniform and his flag an endless admiration: regularly, cadets, seized by an uncontrollable emotion, faint while saluting the flag, as they must do every morning.
Slowly ascending the hierarchy according to scheduled promotions - determined by his behaviour, his ideas, his marks - the Turkish officer is already deeply entrenched in a world apart, isolated from ordinary civilians, both physically and socially. While his pay differs little from the salary of a civil servant of a comparable rank, the Turkish officer enjoys many material privileges - he lives in superior housing, clean and well maintained, with gardens,
guarded day and night by sentinels, for which he pays a subsidised rent (six to eight times less than normal market rates). All his life unfolds in a special setting, from the American-inspired PX supermarket offering a wide range of goods at cheap prices, to the military hospital, where officers and their families are treated totally free of charge. But the more ostensible symbol of the officer's unique status is the "officers house", be it in Istanbul or in Diyarbekir, in Izmir or Van. Where he meets his colleagues and their families in a pleasant place, surrounded by greenery, and again at a price defying competition. Civilians are not admitted, except for the direct members of the officers' families, and the generals' guests. It is not unusual for members of the military - in a variety of countries - to enjoy special privileges but the treatment of officers in Turkey is exceptional.
Separated physically and socially from the wider population, the officers are also separated morally from the civilian society at large. This separation exacerbates the lack of understanding of a world the military hierarchy considers largely undisciplined, ignorant, ruled by money and without ideals, values and patriotism.
There are about 300 generals - the 'pashas' - and admirals in the Turkish armed forces. Promotion to this lofty rank finally arrives after some 30 postings in different places, of which several will have been "East of the Euphrates" (in Kurdistan).
Successful candidates are nominated by the Supreme Military Council, a body of 18 members set up after the 1971 coup which usually meets in August. The prime minister and the minister of defence are members of the council, but they are not allowed to speak during its meetings. It is the chief of general staff who selects, with the chiefs of the different services (land, air, navy and gendarmerie), the names of the 30 to 50 colonels who are promoted each
year, after long investigations more meticulous than all the previous ones. This decision, eminently political - some generals in Turkey exert a power comparable to the power of many heads of small states - is totally outside the control of any civilian power.
President Suleiman Demirel, who was overthrown twice while he was prime minister by the Turkish army (in 1971 and 1980), is well aware of the exceptional power of this army-and it is clear that, whatever directives might come out of Europe, if a man by the name of Huseyin Kivrikoglu decides in favour of carrying out Abdulla Ocalan's death sentence, he is going to yield.
(The Middle East magazine, February 2000; LEvènement, 8 Juillet 1999)
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Droits de Reproduction strictement réservés © Chris Kutschera 2012