Turkey's clandestine networks and Erdoğan's authoritarianism (4): purges as a dynamic of co-opting

In the post-July 15 era, political loyalty to President became a top priority in the recruitment policy of Turkish bureaucracy. This was most visible in the promotion of some officers, many of whom were convicted in the Ergenekon/Sledgehammer cases. Their verdicts were regarded as a symbol that disproved any affiliation with Gülenists. 

In the re-design of the bureaucracy, the AKP government has relied on several divergent groups: loyalists of Erdoğan from the party’s youth branch; nationalists who are ideologically closer to the far-right Nationalist Action Party (MHP), and members of several Islamic communities and pragmatists with no clear ideological or political identity.

More significantly, a number of ultra-nationalists and Eurasianists associated with Doğu Perinçek’s Patriotic Party (VP) have been finding their way back to the state’s security apparatus. The Eurasianist camp, which has members in various segments of Turkish society, military and media, has become particularly influential since the failed coup. Members of this school are accepted to be pro-Russian, at times pro-China and pro-Iran agreed with the notion of curtailing the U.S. military presence in the region. 

But the prerequisite for this policy was to cleanse the existing undesirable elements from the bureaucratic strata through purges. These, in fact, were part of the post-coup suppression, which was “legalised’’ with Erdoğan’s declaration of the state of emergency. Since 2016, the scale of the purges executed after the coup reached unprecedented levels including approximately 50 percent of all admirals and generals in the military, about 18,000 other officers, 4000 judges and prosecutors, more than 10,000 police officers, more than 8000 academics, around 28,000 teachers, and about 145,000 public servants in total. It must be noted that these purges were not only a tool of repression against dissenter groups that included Gülenists, but they also functioned as a reward for the co-opted factions.

In tailoring the purge lists, the regime needed a system of intelligence and information support about “who is who,” so as to decide who to dismiss and who to keep. The VP and its intelligence network provided the necessary feedback in this regard. A closer look at the names of the party members shows clearly the intelligence-intensive nature of the party. Former intelligence heads of the Turkish General Staff HQs, of the navy and also of the gendarmerie are the members of the party. 

The intelligence capacity of Perinçek’s party provided indispensable data for Erdoğan to enable his purge of dissenting cadres from the state apparatus before restructuring it. Two months after the coup, Perinçek safely stated that “his colleagues in the party” checked and compared the new appointment lists of the military’s high posts with the list they have, and that they are glad to find out that “they match around 90-100 percent.”

However, it is important to note that Erdoğan’s co-opting of the Eurasianist network was not an irrevocable and unconditional occurrence as he is a savvy politician, who is not one to leave himself defenceless against new recruits. 

After having successfully purged tens of thousands of people based on the rosters mainly drafted by his ultra-nationalist ally and filling this vacuum with Eurasianists and ultra-nationalists, Erdoğan became well aware that he was exposed to potential threats against his executive power and position, which may come from the new insiders who were, after all, his former foes turned friends. 

To avoid any potential threats coming from them, Erdoğan started from 2018 onwards to implement a smaller, yet selective purge campaign to sustain repression this time against the Eurasianists/ultra-nationalists. 

In this regard, the demotion of the powerful commanderof the 2nd Army during Operation Euphrates Shield, Gen. Metin Temel, in Dec. 2018 by Erdoğan (and possibly also by the initiative of Defence Minister Hulusi Akar) was an alarm bell for ultra-nationalists. What followed was the dismissal of several flag officers in the 2018 and 2019 Supreme Military Council meetings. 

Interestingly, almost all these dismissed high-ranking officers had been convicted and given sentences in the Ergenekon or Sledgehammer cases. Among them was, for example, one-star general Nerim Bitlislioğlu, who was known for drafting the General Staff’s expert report for the post 2016 coup trials. Also of note, Perinçek-owned publishing house, Kaynak, published his report as a book and named it “Today’s Ideological Line of the Turkish Armed Forces”. Bitlislioğlu was promoted to brigadier general in 2016 in the aftermath of the coup. 

A retired colonel Mustafa Önsel, who is a loyal Perinçek follower, said on pro-Perinçek Oda TV after these dismissals that he personally knew all these generals and that none of them would betray republican values”. By dismissing those patriotic generals, Önsel demanded to know who were now being made a target of the Gülen movement and to whom President Erdoğan was “blowing a kiss to?” More recently, Erdoğan’s demotion of powerful admiral Cihat Yaycı in May 2020, who was known to be one of the champions of anti-Gülenist purges and fiercely supported by the pro-Perinçek network, boosted anxiety in Eurasianist circles. 

However, the repression of these cadres is also a risky strategy, as it may cause a counter reaction. 

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