Summary: After the meeting of the National Security Council, the Turkish army forced a government that came to power legally and democratically to resign because of its pro-Islamist and anti-democratic applications. The reason of why the process is called as “post-modern coup” is because of the fact that during the coup process, non-governmental organizations and media organs played important roles against the government. Another important point during the process is that the EU, one of the critical political and economic partners of Turkey, could not criticize the anti-democratic coup directly. From this point of view, this work aims to read the 28 February phenomena with the perspective of the EU and its member states.
Key Words: Candidate Country, Customs Union, European Union (EU), National Security Council (NSC), Regular Progress Report, 28 February post-modern coup.
Chronology from 1987 to 2005
- 14 April 1987: The Turkish government under Turgut Özal applied to the European Economic Community for “full membership”.
- 1 January 1996: The Customs Union between Turkey and the EU came into force.
- 28 February 1997: The start of the “post-modern coup” process after the meeting of the National Security Council.
- 22 March 1997: A group of membersfrom the European Parliament under Pauline Gren’s leadership, the President of Socialist Faction, visited the high officer General Çevik Bir. In this meeting, Mr. Bir gave a guarantee on protecting democracy (!).
- 18 June 1997: The ruling Prime MinisterNecmettin Erbakan resigned.
- 15 July 1997: The Agenda 2000 was accepted by the EU.
- 12 – 13 December 1997: In theLuxembourg Summit, the EU did not give the “statue of candidatecountry” to Turkey. After that, the Turkish government under Mesut Yılmaz froze the relationship with the EU.
- 1998: Declaration of the “Regular Progress Report”for Turkey by the Commission.
- 10 – 11 December 1999: In the Helsinki Summit, the EU gave the “statue of candidate country”to Turkey.
- 8 Mart 2001: The Council of the EU accepted the “Accession Partnership”.
- 3 October 2005: The official meeting for accession negotiations started after the candidate statueofTurkey.
- A brief look over the 28 February post-modern coup in Turkey’s political history
The General Election in 1995 has an important position in Turkey’s political history because a pro-Islamist party the Refah Partisi (Welfare Party) under the rule of Necmettin Erbakan got an important vote, but no party could establish a government alone because of the lack of enough votes within the Assembly. After a long time effort, the Welfare Party made a coalition with the Doğru Yol Partisi (True Path Party) under the rule of Tansu Çiller. This coalition caused an unconformity among pro-laic(1) groups in Turkey, especially the high officers in the Turkish army.
Near to the National Security Council (NSC) that would take place on 28 February 1997, on 4 February 1997, a couple of tanks were moved on the streets of Sincan, Ankara to warn the pro-Islamist government. The unconformity of the army grew within one year, and showed itself in the meeting of the NS Council 28 February 1997. Meeting lasted for 9 hours. During the meeting, the Generals gave a memorandum in which they submitted their views against the Welfare Party because of its anti-laic and anti-democratic aims.
This meeting started the post-modern coup in the political history of Turkey. The reason of why the process is called as “post-modern coup” is because of the fact that during the coup process, the army did not involve in the coup directly. It supported laic and democratic media organs, civil society platforms, universities, interest groups, civilian bureaucrats, and high officers in the judiciary to force the government to resign by its own will. Because of this, the 28 February process is known as post-modern. Also, the process behind the coup is alleged to have been organized by the Batı Çalışma Grubu (West Study Group), a clandestine group within the military.(2) This group ruled the initial preparations before the coup.
In the meeting, Mr. Erbakan’s situation was not easy. He had to sign the decisions made by the NS Council because he could not do anything against the army. One of the most critical decisions given by the army were based on 8-years of primary school education, abolition of (Islamic) religious groups, and banning the İmam Hatip(3) schools.
After a short time, Erbakan’s pro-Islamist government had to resign by “their own will” on 30 June 1997. Later, Mesut Yılmaz of ANAP (Motherland Party) became the PM. The army was satisfied with the situation because they were sure that Yılmaz’s government was laic; therefore they could protect the laic order by applying the decisions taken in the NSC, but the new governmentcould only apply the decision on 8-years education. Other decisions could not be applied.
In the following process, in 1998, the Constitutional Court closed the Refah Party because of violating laic order.
- The situation of the relationship between Turkey and the EU before the 28 February post-modern coup
After the application ofthe “full membership”to the European Economic Community by Turgut Özal in 14 April 1987, there was nothing visible in the bilateral relationship for a long time without the Customs Union signed in 1995, which caused an early spring situation in Turkey. With the Customs Union, one of the most important parts of the integration process was attached to Turkey before the full membership. According to the official of the Commission of the EU, “The scope of the Customs Union, based on the status of goods in free circulation, is however limited to industrial products and processed agricultural products, but it does not cover agricultural products as defined in Annex I of the Amsterdam Treaty; and coal and steel products.”(4)
After the Customs Union, there were very little progresses in the bilateral relations. Because of this, the only visible thing from 1995 to 1997 was the Customs Union as well as some working groups, technical services to Turkey by the EU, and some diplomatic relations.
- The perspective of the EU to the 28 February post-modern coup
Another important aspect of the 28 February process behind its post-modern character was that the EU, one of the main political and economic partners of Turkey, mainly criticized the Islamist government rather than the army although the situation was against the liberal democratic rules. This is because of the view that the EU misunderstood the process at the beginning.For example, there was no direct statement in the Regular Progress Report declared by the Council of the EU in 1998.
Also, because Turkey was not a member of the EU, there was no sanction against Turkey. However, in the Luxembourg Summit in 1997, the EU did not givethe “statue of candidate country” to Turkey. The government under Mesut Yılmaz of ANAP replied this action by cutting the bilateral relations with the EU in one-way.
After the 28 February process, there was not any communication between Turkey and the EU for a while. The first step was headed by the EU. On 22 March 1997, a group of members from the European Parliament (EP) under Pauline Gren’s leadership, the President of Socialist Faction, visited the high officer General Çevik Bir so that they had information about the current situation. In this meeting, General Bir gave a guarantee on protecting democracy. The most important point here is that the representatives of the EU went to high officers in the armyto get information instead of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the only diplomatic canal to speak. This means that the MPs saw the General(s) as their colleagues.
As a result of this, we can say that the attitude of the EU at the beginning was not clear towards the 28 February post-modern coup process. Therefore, we had to look at some newspapersof some of the EU’s member states about how they saw the 28 February pot-modern coup process. Our samples are Italy, France, German and the United Kingdom so that we can see their perceptions, too.(5)
France – AFP
The French newspaper AFP wrote as following on 29 February 1997:
“The National Security Council declared that it would protect the laic order and institutions in Turkey against the radical Islamists. This is the last warning against Islamists. After a 9-hour meeting, the Council declared that they would not make a concession over the laic order in Turkey for the sake of democratization and modernization; they would protect the Constitution as usual.”(6)
Germany – Die Welt
The German news agency Die Welt wrote as following on 29 February 1997:
“The Turkish army and Demirel, the protectors of the laic order, are used up against radical Islamists. They are telling what they want in an open way; not in a close way as they did up tonow.”(7)
Italy – Corriere Della Sera
The Italian news agency Corriere Della Sera wrote as following on 29 February:
“The army judges Erbakan. The meeting of the National Security Council before the landing to Cyprus in 1974 did not last like that. The army, protector of laicism, stopped the Refah Party that wants to bring sharia (the religious order). The Generals took an oath on protecting laicism.”(8)
UK – BBC
The British news agency BBC wrote as following on 29 February 1997:
“The decisions of the Generals in the National Security Council are not harmonious with the realities of Turkey. The decisions are not applicable in such a country whose %99 of population is Muslim. The application of these decisions mean ‘going back 50 years’ for Turkey and Turkish citizens in case of human rights.”(9)
UK –Daily Telegraph
The article under the title of “Move to curb Islamic radicals puts spotlight on role of Turkish army”, the British new agency Daily Telegraphy wrote as following on 13 September 2000:
“Turkey’s generals have increased pressure on their politicians to clamp down on Islamic radicalism, prompting fresh debate about the army’s role in politics.
Turkey’s generals view themselves as the custodians of the secular legacy laid down by the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. So it came as no surprise when the army forced Turkey’s first Islamic Prime Minister, Necmettin Erbakan, out of office in 1997 amid vague charges that he was seeking to impose religious rule during an erratic year in office.”(10)
Another article of Daily Telegraphy related to the topic is under the title of“Army meddling ‘threatens Turkey’s EU chances”. In this article, the Daily Telegraphy wrote as following on 3 May 2007:
“The EU warned the Turkish army yesterday that its interference in the county’s politics could jeopardise its chances of joining the EU.” In accordance with the Commissioner for Enlargement Olli Rehn’sstatement, “The EU is founded on the principles of liberty, democracy, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, the rule of law, and the supremacy of democratic civilian power over the army.”(11)
UK – The Guardian
The article under the title of “Turkey bans Islamist party”, when the Refah Party was banned, the British news agency Guardian wrote as following on 17 January 1998:
“The largest party in the Turkish parliament, the pro-Islamist Refah (Welfare) Party, was shut down yesterday by a sweeping judgment from the country’s highest court. It said Welfare had violated constitutional obligations to respect Turkey’s secular principles.”(12)
UK – Reuters
The British news agency Reuters wrote as following on 29 February 1997:
“After a long-time tension between the government and the army, The National Security Council warned the government under the rule of Refah Party, radical Islamic party, not to violate the laic and democratic order for the sake their bad-will.”(13)
If we analyse the news of French, German, Italian and British newspapers on 29 February, we can easily see that 28 February process was not seen as a coup in the European media at the beginning. The analysis shows that the French newspaper AFP, German newspaper Die Welt and Italian newspaper Corriere Della Sera underlined laicism (/secularism) instead of anti-democratic coup. Like the French, German and Italian newspapers, the British newspapers Daily Telegraphy, The Guardian and Reuters underlined the anti-democratic step of the army. Unlike all of others, BBC was the only media organ which understood that the decisions of 28 February were a root to a new coup. Especially, as underlined at the end of its news, the possibility of applying these decisions was against democracy and human rights.
As a summary, the fact that “coup” as an unacceptable way in Western democracies was not seen as defensive in case of the situation against Islamists.
- The first Regular Progress Report of Turkey and the Helsinki Summit
After a while, the EU realized that the process was going to be a difficulty way for Turkey towards its membership to the EU, so the hardest reaction of the EU was that the EU did not give the “statue of candidate country” to Turkey in the Luxembourg Summit in 1997. This action was followed by Turkey’s reaction that the bilateral relations were frozen by one-way. Later, the EU criticized the undemocratic events in Turkey in case of 28 February process by the Progress Report declared in 1998, one year after the 28 February process. The most visible criticism in the Progress Report towards the 28 February process was written as following:
“The lack of civilian control of the army gives cause for concern. This is reflected by the major role played by the army in political life through the National Security Council.”(14)
The view of the rapporteur in these two statements was that the particular role of the army in Turkish society is strong; the army has a lack of civilian control; and after ban of the Refah Party is not harmonious with the principle of democratic pluralism.
Despite such a position, in just one year process, Turkey got the “statue of candidate country” in the Helsinki Summit in 1999 due to an active diplomacy by İsmail Cem, the Minister of Foreign Affairs at that time.
In the following process, on 8 March 2001, the Council of the EU accepted the Accession Partnership, the map of membership process,so that it showed its “good-will” to Turkey despite the previous negative applications.
The decisions taken in the meeting of the NS Council on 28 February 1997 were an indicator of the 4th coup against a civilian government in Turkey’s political history after 1960, 1971 and 1980. The effects of this event abroad were very important as well as the domestic effects. Turkey became close to the EU by the Customs Union, but during the 28 February post-modern coup process, the civilian Turkish government could not get any ideological and political support from the EU, its most important political and economic partner.The EU did not give Turkey the statue of candidate country in the Luxembourg Summit, so this was the only official reaction that the EU showed towards the 28 February process in Turkey. In reality, the EU read the process quite wrongly at the beginning. Also, it is obvious that the EU’s member states understood the process as a movement against laicism rather than the idea of “this is a coup”. According to the analyses of news, the media agencies in the EU’s member states criticized Mr. Erbakan’s government because of his acts against laicism. They believed that the army cut the Islamists to size. All of these mean that the EU and media agencies within the EU’s member states misunderstood the process.
Hacı Mehmet BOYRAZ
References and Endnotes, and Bibliography
References and Endnotes
- Throughout the paper, we use the term “laicism” instead of the term “secularism” because the French based model “laicism” and the Anglo-Saxon based model “secularism” have an important dichotomy in Turkey’s political life.
- “1997 Military Memorandum”, last update October 7, 2014,
- Imam-hatip schools are the schools that give religious education as well as natural sciences.
- “The Customs Union between the EU and Turkey”, last update December 11, 2014,
- We chose those member states because we referenced them from the dissertation written by Şeyma Akın.
- Şeyma Akın, “28 Şubat Süreci ve Batı Medyasındaki Algılaması” (Master Thesis, Social Sciences Institute of Karamanoğlu Mehmetbey University, 2011), page: 107
- Ibid, page: 108
- Ibid, page: 106 – 107
- Ibid, page: 116
- Ibid, page: 110 – 111
- Ibid, page: 113
- Ibid, page: 168
- Ibid, page: 107 – 108
- The EU Commission, Progress Report of Turkey(Brussels, 1998), page: 21
- “Progress Report of Turkey”, the EU Commission, 1998.
- Şeyma Akın, “28 Şubat Süreci ve Batı Medyasındaki Algılaması” (Master Thesis, Social Sciences Institute of Karamanoğlu Mehmetbey University, 2011).
- Ezgi Gürses, 28 Şubat – Demokrasi Ters Şeritte, (İstanbul: Şule Yayınları, 2012).