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Politicians firmly on top in Turkey after resignations of military chiefs

Prime minister to oversee key promotions as politicians bolstered by resignations of top commanders say the influence of the military on the government is firmly on the wane.

The Turkish chief of staff, General Isik Kosaner, left, the navy commander, Admiral Esref Ugur Yigit, centre, and the air force commander, General Hasan Aksay. General Kosaner and the commanders of the navy, the army and the air force suddenly resigned last Friday. Burhan Ozbilici / AP Photo
The Turkish chief of staff, General Isik Kosaner, left, the navy commander, Admiral Esref Ugur Yigit, centre, and the air force commander, General Hasan Aksay. General Kosaner and the commanders of the navy, the army and the air force suddenly resigned last Friday. Burhan Ozbilici / AP Photo

ISTANBUL // Turkey's government, having won an important political battle against the military that led to the resignation of top commanders last week, was brimming with self-confidence yesterday as it prepared for a four-day conference to shape the future of the country's armed forces.

The twice-yearly meeting of the High Military Council, or YAS, is scheduled to begin today and to last until Thursday. Presided over by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, and General Necdet Ozel, the meeting will decide key promotions in the armed forces.

General Ozel, the commander of Turkey's paramilitary gendarmerie, was promoted to land forces commander and deputy chief of General staff only hours after the resignation of General Isik Kosaner as chief of General staff, the nation's top military post, on Friday. General Ozel is expected to be officially named chief of General staff at the end of the YAS meeting.

The conference comes three days after the commanders of army, navy and air force joined General Kosaner in resigning in protest against the government's insistence that scores of officers, who have been indicted for attempts to bring down Mr Erdogan, be sent into retirement. Arrests and the recent resignations have lowered the number of General s and admirals participating in the YAS meeting from 14 to 9, media reported.

The resignations are widely seen as a watershed in relations between the civilian government and military leaders in Turkey, who for decades have regarded themselves as the ultimate guardians of the secular state. The General s pushed several cabinets from power in the past and have regarded Mr Erdogan's socially conservative government with suspicion and, in some cases, open disdain.

Bekir Bozdag, a deputy prime minister in Mr Erdogan's cabinet, said the resignations were part of a broader trend to make Turkey more democratic. "These events are cases of positive pain in the process of democratisation and normalisation of Turkey," Mr Bozdag told Turkish reporters during a visit to Kosovo, according to the NTV news channel. "The request of the commanders to be sent into retirement will contribute to the strengthening of Turkey in the democratic field."

Egemen Bagis, the government minister in charge of membership negotiations with the EU, said the fallout from the resignations was being dealt with in the framework of the rule of law. "Everything is being done in line with the law," Mr Bagis told reporters. "The Turkish military belongs to all of us. The Turkish military will not remain without commanders."

News reports said General Ozel is expected to keep the military out of politics. In a farewell message posted on the gendarmerie's website, General Ozel quoted Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Turkey's founder, as describing the gendarmerie as an "army of the law". Former colleagues of General Ozel told Turkish media the designated chief of general staff had never shown any interest in politics.

At the YAS meeting, new land forces, navy and air force commanders are expected to be named, and other promotions will be taken up as well. Further resignations of military officers are not to be ruled out, Fikret Bila, a columnist for the Milliyet daily, wrote yesterday. Bila pointed out that the Erdogan government and Abdullah Gul, the president, who has to approve the YAS decisions, disliked several candidates for high posts.

As an example, Bila mentioned the case of General Aslan Guner, who made headlines in 2007 when he abruptly left a group of officials who had gathered at Ankara airport to greet Mr Gul and his wife Hayrunnissa, who wears the Islamic veil. General Guner's action, captured on camera and seen as a sign of disrespect, has not been forgotten, Bila wrote. "Gul will not accept this promotion."

In another case that could cause problems during the YAS meeting, General Bilgin Balanli, the officer expected to move to the top of the air force, is under arrest for suspected coup preparations, as are two other candidates.

Only a few years ago, it would have been unthinkable for a government in Turkey to reject promotion plans of the military. But with 250 active and retired military officers on trial for their suspected role in coup attempts against Mr Erdogan, the government has ended that tradition. Last year's YAS session dragged on for a week because Mr Erdogan and Mr Gul refused to accept the promotion of officers indicted by prosecutors. The session ended with the military giving in.

This year, the government asked the military in preparatory talks to find a solution for more than 40 generals who are in custody. Mr Erdogan wants the generals to be sent into early retirement, but General Kosaner said they should be sent on special leave instead, in order to show army personnel that the military leadership stood by them, the pro-government Sabah daily reported yesterday. When Mr Erdogan refused to accept this and prosecutors brought fresh charges against 22 officers last Friday, General Kosaner resigned, the daily reported.

tbseibert@thenational.ae