While the borders between Turkey and the European Union borders remain shut, the relations between the two are silently entering a new phase. On Turkey’s side, at least, some changes are lingering in the air. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Europe Day message on May 9 was unusually “warm” as compared to his other remarks throughout the last year. He emphasized that Turkey was aiming for nothing less than full membership in the EU. On the one hand, Erdoğan reiterates something of the sort every Europe Day. So, was there really a difference aside from the degree of warmth?
First of all, a major saga in Turkish domestic politics may be a sign of “rapprochement” with the EU. The Chief of Staff of the Turkish Navy, the Rear Admiral Cihat Yaycı, was demoted on May 15 by President Erdoğan. Yaycı was one of the rare military figures that became popularly known and publicly praised in the aftermath of the 2016 coup attempt. He is referred to as the “architect of Turkey’s recent policy in Libya, and the Aegean and the Mediterranean.”
Yaycı was clearly angered by demotion and resigned on May 18. His resignation turned out to be a major story and was broadcast on major mainstream TV news channels, including the pro-government CNN Turk and Habertürk, which is even more pro-government than CNN. Even Habertürk got to the edge of being “critical” when reporting the news of Yaycı’s resignation, branding the government’s move as “inexplicable” and a development that would only make Greece and FETÖ happy.
Yaycı has become a well-known name in Greece due to the multiple books he has authored in Turkey: in his works, including the recent book, “The Demands of Greece: The Problems in the Aegean with Questions and Answers,” he argues that Ankara, as the successor to the Ottoman Empire, should claim sovereignty over some of the islands and islets in the Aegean Sea. In simpler terms, Yaycı has asserted the maximalist claim that the Greek Islands are Turkish. This book was published by an official state institution, the Supreme Foundation of Culture, Language and History of Turkey — one of pillars of the revolutionary era of the Republic during its founding by Atatürk.
Yaycı is academically active and his other books like “The Struggle to Share the Eastern Mediterranean and Turkey,” which was printed by a popular publisher affiliated with Kemalists and the nationalist “Ulusalcı” wing, all advocated the same theoretical doctrine of the “Blue Homeland” (Mavi Vatan).
The “Blue Homeland” is not a doctrine put forward and advocated solely by Yaycı: the name was first uttered by retired Admiral Cem Gürdeniz in 2006 to designate “the Blue Homeland [that] covers the maritime jurisdiction areas in the Black Sea, the Mediterranean and the Aegean.” The theory holds that dominance over the seas will be the key factor determining the power of a country. Since 2010, there has been increasing emphasis on the ideas Gürdeniz proposed in his book “Blue Civilization.” The book was written when Gürdeniz was in Silivri Prison in connection with the notorious Sledgehammer (Balyoz) case. As may be recalled, scores of Turkish Armed Forces personnel, including active and retired top military brass, were arrested in 2010 and 2011. Gürdeniz was among those arrested and remained behind bars until 2014. “Blue Civilization” was a product of his toils in prison, which also included a naval diorama he assembled from toothpaste and toothpicks.
Especially in the aftermath of the 2016 coup attempt, the former military personnel who were demoted, imprisoned or ousted during the Sledgehammer trials have made a physical or “mental” comeback, and their ideas and cadres have become more influential.
Now the resignation saga of Yaycı has come just days before the national celebration day of May 19, Youth and Sports Day, which commemorates Mustafa Kemal’s arrival at the Black Sea town of Samsun and declaration of the Independence War that would later pave way for the foundation of Turkey’s Republic.
All this is highly symbolic for the Republican-Kemalist nationalist front, which has always been at odds with AKP governments. Enmity against FETÖ, Fethullah Gülen’s religious sect network that was designated a terrorist organization by Turkey for plotting the 2016 coup attempt, was what brought names like Yaycı and President Erdoğan together.
Yaycı is also known for devising an algorithm, dubbed the “FETÖMETER,” that gave mathematical scores to suspects in order to determine possible members of FETÖ. The model was used widely to uproot FETÖ members in the Turkish Armed Forces.
Aside from FETÖ antagonism, the increasingly nationalist leanings of the AKP government in electoral alliance with the Nationalist Action Party (MHP) strengthened the bonds between nationalists from all sides of the political spectrum.
According to journalist Nedim Şener (who was also imprisoned during the time of the Sledgehammer and Ergenekon cases and is a hardliner against FETÖ):
“Yaycı informed his seniors about a fault in a part of a torpedo during its examination process. The procurement was finalized to be used by the navy on the condition that the deficiencies were eliminated. However, the company that won the tender and was paid, and was instructed by the navy commander, issued a complaint about the inspection process.”
That may be the official story, but evidently there is a lot more in the background of Yaycı’s resignation.
The only thing we may affirm for sure is that structurally, military-civilian relations in Turkey never change. There is always opacity and political gerrymandering, and the only “knowledge” that comes out is bits and pieces of information leaked by journalists closely affiliated with one side or the other. Furthermore, structurally, the military remains on the forefront of politics. The military is political and politics is militaristic.
Yaycı’s resignation must have to do with Ankara’s post-corona international relations alignments. For one thing, closer relations with the European Union and the West in general are on the “Ich muss machen” (I must do) list in order for Ankara to generate credits, loans, and finances from wherever they may come.
As Yaycı was the “architect” of Turkey’s controversial maritime deal with Libya’s Government of National Accord signed on November 27, 2019, there is now room for Ankara to maneuver and revise its Eastern Mediterranean and Aegean policies to win hearts (but maybe not minds) in Brussels.
Ankara intended to implement the deal with Libya’s government with drilling starting in the region in July, but all such plans may now be put in the deep freezer for a while. This gives Ankara the time to seek a new “migrant deal” with the EU and even carve out a new financial package through the agreement.
Speculation is abounding that Yaycı was at odds with Defense Minister Hulusi Akar, who is always brokering relations behind the scenes with the U.S. and NATO. Yet others argue that Akar would have the leverage to bar Yaycı’s career ascendance in the first place — in their view, Akar and Yaycı got along just fine.
For my part, I find it interesting that this is the second resignation in a row from the top echelons of power in Turkey. One month ago, Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu resigned, but his resignation was not accepted by President Erdoğan. Soylu is a popular name among Turkish nationalists. Both of the resignations may have to do with cracks in the nationalist front and the way they get along with the government. And this whole saga may have to do with Turkey seeking rapprochement with the West for economic reasons.