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Prosecutors in Turkey's Ergenekon trial are rounding up top military leaders.The Ergenekon "Gang," Turkish prosecutors say, schemed to remove the country's governing AK Party by promoting public chaos and, subsequently, a military coup. Among their chosen methods: murder.

Over the past year prosecutors have arrested or put on trial two retired four-star generals and 84 other people. On Wednesday, they arrested 37 more, including two more retired four-stars. They also rounded up nine serving officers, which required the permission of the General Staff. Wednesday's raids led police to a large cache of arms and explosives. Even in Turkey, where coup rumors flourish and generals regularly make political statements, this is sensational stuff.

Gen. Ilker Basbug, chief of the General Staff, met with the commanders of the Army, Air Force and Jandarma for six hours on Wednesday. Their wives were dispatched to call on the wives of arrested former generals. The following day, Basbug requested a meeting with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and went on to see Presid

ent Abdullah Gul. Deniz Baykal, leader of the main opposition party CHP, claimed again that the Ergenekon probe is a government attempt to silence opposition. That can hardly be true because in Turkey, prosecutors are not supervised by the government. That job belongs to the Supreme Council of Judges and Prosecutors, a body composed of five senior judges, a civil servant and the justice minister. Rumors are now circulating that the council is under pressure to investigate the Ergenekon prosecutor. This would not be a first. In 2006 it disbarred a prosecutor in eastern Turkey who was investigating whether anyone was behind two Jandarma NCOs convicted of bombing a bookstore in Semdinli and killing a man.

Amid all this activity, what is actually going on? Ergenekon in a broad sense is a "political trial," though not in the crude way Baykal means. The guns and explosives are all too real. So too are the murders allegedly instigated by those in the dock. They stand accused, for example, of procuring the murder of Armenian journalist Hrant Dink last year and a senior judge in 2006. This was dressed up as an Islamist crime, and blame was attached to the (allegedly Islamist) AK Party for inspiring such things. The evidence against some of the accused is persuasive. This trial is not something cooked up by the government. To be sure, some of those who've been arrested may be guilty of nothing more than expressing their wish to the wrong people that the AK Party would vanish. Even if the prosecution is holding some innocents, though, it doesn't mean there is no fire beneath the smoke. That some of those arrested have been held for six months without charge is not a scandal in Turkey as it would be in the United States; Turkish criminal procedure, for better or worse, allows it. Rarely, though, are retired generals treated thus.

What makes the trial political is something Turks call the "deep state." This, almost every Turk believes, exercises real power in their country alongside, and usually in opposition to, Turkey's duly elected governments. Actually, however, there are two deep states: a clean one and a dirty one. The former comprises many members of Turkey's secular elite. These are, on the whole, decent peoplegenerals, bureaucrats, judges, businessmen and academics. Commonly referred to as "Kemalists," they see themselves as the guardians of the secular republic. In intent they follow a slogan from Ataturk's time: government "for the people, despite the people." And because they believe that AK Party threatens secularism, they have no respect for its democratic mandatenor do they have any serious evidence. I doubt Mustafa Kemal Ataturk would be a Kemalist today. "We are going," he said "to advance our country to the level of the most civilized and prosperous countries." In modern parlance, he wanted Turkey to join the First World, with all that implies about freedom and democracy. The dirty deep state is the evil twin. It kills people, among other things. The political question is whether the clean deep state will protect the dirty one to ensure its own survival. Or whether, indeed, it should survive at all. Its fate rests with three key players: the judiciary, the generals and the AK Party.

The judiciary can offer protection to the deep state by replacing the prosecutor with a more compliant one, as it did in the Semdinli case. They might also quash some or all convictions on appeal. There has been a blizzard of comment alleging technical infractions by Ergenekon prosecutors. Certainly the Constitutional Court has shown little intellectual integrity in the past. It tried to prevent Abdullah Gul from becoming president, and then, frustrated by the AK Party's overwhelming victory in the 2007 election, agreed to hear the closure case against AK in 2008. (The court blinked, though, when confronted with the prospect of removing a democratically elected government with solid popular support.) On the other hand, not all judges are willing to twist the law for political ends, especially in public. And they must be uncomfortably aware of that dead senior judge.

The generals also got a bloody nose in 2007. Their e-memorandum threatening a coup if Gul became president merely resulted in an election that they lost. They were notably silent during last year's closure case. What did they talk about at their Wednesday meeting? Did they wonder what their former colleagues had been playing ator seek ways to protect them, and therefore themselves? Everyone accepts the generals are the core of the clean deep state. The questions are: Do they know the dirty one exists? Do they just look the other way? Or are they actively involved?

Although the AK Party had nothing to do with starting the Ergenekon probe, it would surely like to see the back of both deep states (as would the European Union). The lesson Erdogan and his colleagues seem to have taken from 2007 and 2008 is that to remain in power, not only do they have to win elections, but they also must do so overwhelmingly. This is why they are hesitant in pushing for the further reforms needed for EU membership. They cannot afford to offend their nationalist supporters, and must hope their liberal ones will not desert them. They are still more liberal than any alternative. The same applies to Erdogan's recent dealings with the Kurds. He is tough on PKK (Kurdistan Workers' Party) terror to please the nationalists, but holds out economic development to the southeast. That Kurds tend to be conservative and religious helps, too. The economic situation, by contrast, makes this balancing act harder.

Strangely enough, the people who will ultimately decide are the Turkish electorate, albeit indirectly. Local elections are coming up in March and are generally a referendum on government performance. If the voters stick with the AK Party, the Ergenekon investigation will probably continue. The dirty deep state will be dealt a severe blow and the clean one will suffer by association. If AK does poorly, expect the whole thing to be swept under the rug.

Jan 9, 2009 / NEWSWEEK





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