As the 'Coup' Turns: The Army's Real Target

Thomas Goltz, who covers the region of conflict from the Adriatic to Caspian seas, is the author of a book on Azerbaijan, to be published by M.E. Sharpe

Following the recent "coup by briefing" mounted by the Turkish military, in collusion with the secular opposition parties, against Islamist Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan and his Welfare Party, a purge of Islamists is underway. Hundreds of Welfare-associated bureaucratic appointees in a dozen ministries have been removed, and millions of dollars in government funds earmarked for Welfare-controlled municipal governments, such as Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir, have been slashed.

But, increasingly, the main target appears not to have been Erbakan and Welfare, but his coalition partner, Turkey's first female prime minister and, until June 30, foreign minister, Tansu Ciller. Not only does her political future hang in the balance, but also her personal reputation. Within days of falling from power, Ciller lost her influence over judicial inquiries into her and her husband's financial activities and her alleged association with murderers.

Ciller certainly didn't seem the intended target when the military began its media blitz against the reputed threat of Muslim fundamentalism to the secular state. But when Erbakan quit, Ciller, the leader of the minority partner of the Welfare-led coalition, which still appeared to maintain an absolute majority in the 550-seat Turkish Parliament, was not invited to form a new government. Instead, Turkish President Suleyman Demirel asked the main opposition leader, Mesut Yilmaz of the Motherland Party, to try his hand at scraping together a parliamentary majority.

Following a week of horse-trading, Yilmaz assembled an unwieldy coalition of three parliamentary parties, ranging from the political left to center-right, and a clutch of independents and former members of Ciller's party, the True Path Party. The only unifying factor seemed to be an irrational distrust of Erbakan--and a nearly psychotic loathing of Ciller.

Although Ciller is striving to recreate herself as the defender of democracy ("The vote of a general has no more value than that of a peasant in my book"), the defections from her sinking political ship appear to have hit critical mass; few from the rank and file are shedding real tears over her eminent demise. As foreign minister, she was criticized for devoting too much time to domestic politics. When she first partnered with Welfare, she was accused of the ultimate opportunism of trying to stop an investigation into alleged financial malfeasance committed by herself and her husband.

The evidence for this might be best described as an argument from silence. The daughter of a local official in the province of Mugla who became a university professor in Istanbul after studying economics at Yale University, Tansu Ciller is reputed to be worth millions of dollars and to own real estate both in the United States and Turkey. When questioned about how she acquired her holdings, she blithely attributes it to "a small inheritance" from her father that was "well-invested" in the stock market.

Others have a different opinion, the most damning of which has been made by the neo-Maoist head of the Turkish Workers' Party, Dogu Perincek. Long known as a vessel for political leaks from the Kemalist military, Perincek recently submitted what he calls documented evidence that Ciller has been a deeply placed agent of the CIA for the past 30 years, that her term of study at Yale was actually spent in training at a special CIA school and that her wealth comes not only from foreign friends, but also involves criminal dealings with the Turkish mafia.

"Dogu Perincek does not make allegations without the sanction of his friends in high places," a long-time Turkey observer noted. "It is almost immaterial if the allegations are 100% correct or not. As we Turks say, throw mud at a wall and it either sticks or leaves a mark."

Translation: The army wants Ciller out of government even more than it wants Welfare out of power.

So long as Ciller was in power, allegations concerning her finances could be easily disregarded, thanks to her coalition's hold over the ministry of justice. Now, however, the Ciller dossier is to be studied by a special parliamentary commission, which may well hand over the file to the judiciary for prosecution. So, too, is another scandal that was hushed up by the WelfarePath coalition--the so-called Susurluk events, named after a western Anatolian town that was the scene of a fatal car wreck that revealed sordid connections among the Turkish mafia, the Turkish police and the Turkish state.

The basic and undisputed facts of the Susurluk case are these:

Last November, a speeding Mercedes sedan slammed into a truck, killing three of four passengers. The victims included a former beauty queen associated with mobsters, the chief of Istanbul police and a professional killer named Abdullah Catli, wanted by InterPol on multiple murder charges and heroin smuggling for more than 18 years. The survivor is a pro-government Kurdish landlord (and member of Ciller's True Path Party) with a private army of some 10,000 "guards." Pistols equipped with silencers were found in the trunk of the car, as well as fake IDs identifying Catli as a Turkish diplomat.

The case set off an explosion of interest in Turkey when it broke, rousing citizens exhausted into accepting corrupt-politics-as-usual into a furor of demands for a "clean society" and a full investigation into the triangle of interests connecting the mafia, the police and members of Ciller's then-government, especially the suspected interplay between narcotics trafficking and the paramilitary "special teams" active in the rebellious Turkish southeast.

Ciller not only balked at mounting an investigation. She suggested that Catli and others "who fired bullets in the name of the Turkish state" were not wanted criminals, but heroes for having performed certain tasks, like political murder, that the state could not perform itself.

Seamier still is the alleged connection among Ciller, the deceased Catli and the murder of one Lutfu Topal last summer. A notorious mobster who had spent time in a U.S. prison for heroin smuggling, Topal had managed to transform himself into the "king of the casinos" in Turkey by buying up dozens of gambling houses along the Turkish coast. According to agents of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in Ankara, he was still linked with drug smuggling and money laundering, however, and regarded as persona non grata in polite circles.

Last year, Topal was gunned down while sitting in his car. It was considered a highly professional hit. Despite speculation that it revolved around the question of who would remain "king" of the lucrative casino business in Turkey, the case remained closed until the car accident at Susurluk, when it was discovered that Catli's fingerprints matched those on the discarded weapons at the scene of the Topal's murder.

Weirder still was the revelation that Catli and his fellow passengers were returning from a weekend at a hotel complex in Kusadi, the popular resort area where Ozer and Tansu Ciller had recently purchased, through their maid, a vast track of land at bargain-basement prices.

The couple maintains that they intend to raise grapes and establish a vineyard there. Others maintain that the Cillers planned to capitalize on a real-estate boom that would be triggered by a law banning gambling in Turkey, except in special areas, one of which was Kusadi. Topal, with plenty of his own friends among the movers and shakers in Parliament, was mounting a huge lobby effort to thwart the new law when he was murdered.

No sooner had the Erbakan/Ciller government fallen than the Topal case was reopened. Four former members of the "special teams" now face the death penalty for pre-meditated murder. How close the case comes to direct or indirect implication of the Ciller couple remains to be seen.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World