From ‘Military Tutelage’ to ‘Cartel State’: How Turkey’s oppressive rule has been consolidated

When: Thursday, 22 March, 2021

18:00 GMT

From ‘Military Tutelage’ to ‘Cartel State’: How Turkey’s oppressive rule has been consolidated

Speakers Prof. Hamit Bozarslan, moderator – Yavuz Baydar.


Photos of the event

The online talk was chaired by Yavuz Baydar, Editor-in-Chief of ​Ahval,​ a trilingual, independent online news and podcast site on Turkey. Baydar introduced Prof. Hamit Bozarslan, Director of Studies at École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) in Paris and a world-renowned scholar of Turkey and the Kurds. Baydar mentioned some of Prof. Bozarslan’s publications and referred to some of the highlights of his distinguished academic career.

Baydar then introduced the topic of the talk and mentioned that for decades following the transition to electoral democracy in Turkey in 1946, “Turkey’s administrative system was functionalised on the basic principle of tutelage, with its powerful military brass shaping its order, at times through coups”. Baydar argued that this pattern ended with the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) landslide victory in 2002, and during the AKP rule, a series of radical shifts were experienced. The transformation of Turkey’s political structures accelerated after the attempted coup in July 2016 and culminated in the historic referendum in 2017 that introduced a ‘super-presidential system”. In this period, the separation of powers and the rule of law suffered. The country has been experiencing a political and economic crisis, manifested in recent moves by the government to close down the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention. Prof. Hamit Bozarslan’s talk tried to make sense of this process by tracing the emergence and evolution of the “cartel state”, which aptly describes President Erdogan and his nationalist associates’ current rule.

Prof. Bozarslan began his talk by unpacking what he means by the “cartel state” and provided a brief theoretical overview of the concept. He referred to the notion of the ‘cartel state’ in the 1980s in the academic literature on Latin America. The idea was developed to analyse the state in Latin America during the military regimes and the collapse of the oligarchies in the 1980s. At the end of the 1990s, Turkish political scientist Umit Cizre has analysed the Turkish state as a cartel state. Prof. Bozarslan and his colleagues at EHESS have applied the concept to the Middle East and tried to understand the making, durability and crisis of the Arab state.

Prof. Bozarslan posed the question: What do we understand by the notion of the cartel state? He mentioned that what distinguishes the cartel states is the existence of hardcore which constitutes power, understood as an economic, political, and military power. He noted that the hardcore of power is incarnated in a person or his family; for example, Ben Ali in Tunisia, Mubarak in Egypt, were the hardcore of power.  The cartel state also requires other components, and for the Arab state, these components were the army and intelligence services. The comprador or rentier bourgeoisie is also part of the cartel state, and also the local actors are incorporated during elections. He drew parallels with the totalitarian regimes of the 1920s and 1930s. He referred to two concepts used then: the Fuhrer principle and an ensemble of military, political, and security corporations that govern the state. The cartel state has a paramilitary state because the cartel state’s components do not obey the institutions of the rational state. This means that there are para-states on every level and a para-economy. The economy we see in the institutions’ figures reflect only a part of the actual situation, and the institutions do not directly control a large part of the economy.

A cartel state cannot be a viable state if it does not destroy the institutions because they impose a system of checks and balances, and a cartel state cannot accept checks and balances. Checks and balances have to be destroyed, which produces loyalty to the leader and the cartel state’s different components. The economic decisions taken are often deliberately the bad ones because they are done in the cartel state’s interest. Hence, the cartel state is not a state in the Weberian sense because it is not rational. The rationality is destroyed to enable power to be monopolised by a small group of predatory actors.

Prof. Bozarslan then gave a historical and sociological account of the emergence and development of the cartel state in Turkey and highlighted its sociological features. He traced this process to the Ottoman Empire’s modernisation period under Abdulhamid II at the end of the 19th century. Abdulhamid II was obsessed with re-creating the true Ottoman state, and his efforts resulted in the emergence of a “double state” with an internal and external state apparatus. There was a visible external state, which was a respectable state and had members of all section of the Empire’s population in it, but beyond it, there was an internal state with its army and intelligence organisation. He gave the example of Zeki Pasha, a general in the Ottoman army. He built his parallel army composed of Kurdish tribes called the Hamidian Army, one of the main structures used in the Armenians’ massacres in the 1890s and the Genocide of 1915. The internal state had its army, secret police, and economic structures. The Hamidian regime presented itself as a project of old Ottoman traditions; Abdulhamid II’s obsession was to recreate a true Ottoman Turkish model of the state.

After Abdulhamid II, another cartel state came into being from 1908 onwards, and this was connected to the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP). Prof. Bozarslan said that the CUP and its brand of Unionism was the first example of a party-state. He then mentioned some of the characteristics of Unionism as revolution and violence. He highlighted three men governing the CUP and its cartel state: Enver Pasha, Cemal Pasha and Talat Pasha. Each of them had an army and secret police. They hated each other, but there was an understanding among them that they had to work together. They decided to enter the Ottoman Empire into the First World War, they organised the Armenian Genocide, and they marked the Empire’s collapse.

Prof. Bozarslan argued that Kemalism’s first years also resembled a cartel state because there were different power centres. It was based on the collaboration of other local actors and militarised civil actors. He noted that under the Kemalist regime, there was a contradictory process. There was a rational side to the state, but the old cartel state’s co-option achieves this re-rationalisation. Enver Pasha and his entourage were excluded, but Talat’s men were largely co-opted into the Kemalist state.

This co-option has produced a lot of tension, which re-appeared after 1950 during the democratic era. Prof. Bozarslan mentioned the fragmentation taking place in the state during the late 1950s and highlighted this process as the cause behind the military coup of 1960. He said that fragmentation continued during the 1960s, and there were two military coups in 1971, one of which was successful. The left-wing elements led the first, and the second one was by the army’s dominant element and its response to the internal fragmentation. The 1980 coup was also organised by the mainstream part of the military and the army’s top hierarchy to avoid another coup by the inferior elements of the military.

The number of actors participating in violence and coercion increases considerably during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. Prof. Bozarslan mentioned the commando camps existing by the end of the 1960s, which were connected to the Nationalist Action Party and its leader Türkeş. There was also the organisation of the counter-guerrillas and Gladio, which did not exist only in Turkey, but the difference was that in Turkey, they were integrated into the state. These shadowy structures played a crucial role in the violence leading up to the 1971 coup and 1980 coup. They were the main actors of violence in that period.

Prof. Bozarslan argued that these actors continued to exist during the 1980s and 1990s and were involved in the war in Kurdistan. There were death squads in Turkey, and Europe used against the Armenians. The para-militarisation has accelerated mainly during the 1990s; there is clearly a cartel state in Turkey. There was the Kurdish war in Turkey, and by the 1990s, it cost something around 300 billion USD. There was a drug trade that generated about 40 billion USD for the informal Turkish economy during the 1990s. The war created the possibility of security rent from the state and resources, and the drug trade allowed them to develop additional resources. In that period, there were death squads that killed hundreds of people in Kurdistan. In terms of the consequence, Prof. Bozarslan mentioned that the state governed Kurdistan through a regime of exceptions, which was obliged to integrate local actors into the field of coercion through the village guard system. These actors had access to state resources and power and enjoyed a vast amount of autonomy at the local level. Prof. Bozarslan also mentioned the Hizbullah organisation in Turkey, which the state used to attack the PKK in urban contexts.

In that period, the state created actors of coercion that were external to itself. These included the so-called “gangs in uniform” composed of the radical right-wing mafia and militants. Their intimate connection was revealed during the Susurluk Incident, which refers to a car carrying a mafia leader, the chief of Istanbul police and the Kurdish chief of a tribe, Sedat Bucak, crashing in Susurluk district, Balikesir. These structures were organised, protected and legitimated by the PM Tansu Ciller and the Minister of Interior Mehmet Agar.

These gangs played a huge role in the JITEM (Gendarmerie Intelligence Organisation) involved in the war in Kurdistan. They committed countless human rights violations and were involved in the coup in Azerbaijan. Prof. Bozarslan mentioned a mafia leader, Alaatin Cakici, who is extremely close to the leader of the MHP Devlet Bahceli, which shows the connections between the far right in Turkey and the mafia and the gangs. He argued that what has been misnamed as the Ergenekon organisation is the paramilitary structures that existed in the 1990s. There was formally never an organisation called Ergenekon, but these cartels constituted the nucleus of it. These microcosms of the Ergenekon organisation were sidelined during the 2000s but are now back; they were never dismantled or liquidated and are now back. Prof. Bozarslan mentioned that the former police chief and Interior Minister Mehmet Agar was a crucial figure in these structures during the 1990s, and he is back now. Agar’s son is an AKP deputy.

Prof. Bozarslan then went into the developments that have been happening during the 2010s. He mentioned that the Gülen movement was part of the cartel state during the 2000s. Erdogan interpreted the coup against Mohammed Mursi in Egypt as if it targeted him personally. He argued that the reason the peace process between the PKK and the state broke down was that the Kurdish movement did not accept to be Erdogan’s mercenaries in Syria and Turkey. Currently, the group that rules Turkey are united around Erdogan as the leader that embodies the nation, and it is a kleptocracy. We have also witnessed new paramilitary structures such as the PÖH (Police Special Action Forces) and JÖH (Gendarmerie Special Action Forces), which are by and large controlled by the radical right. Hence, the extreme right forms the newly created paramilitary forces. They have been involved in the HÖH (Halkin Özel Hareketi, People’s Special Forces) and the Ottoman Hearths (Osmanli Ocaklari) with a paramilitary force. The SADAT (International Defence Consultancy) is led by an ultra-nationalist and ultra-Islamist former army general. We don’t know enough about these groups at the moment. The Turkish backed Syrian Free Army, which Turkey uses in many parts of the world, is also part of this cartel state formed around Erdogan.

In Turkey’s current period, the field of coercion and war has shifted more towards paramilitary structures that have a para economy structure. The state controls Turkey’s Wealth Fund, which has a value of 60 to 75 billion USD and includes all of Turkey’s prominent companies. Also, Erdogan can use 500 million USD without any interference from any institution. Prof. Bozarslan ended by highlighting that the cartel state’s components are not loyal to Erdogan if the political crisis deepens. The institutional logics are destroyed, which means the coercion that is created could become uncontrolled.

The event continued with questions from the participants.

Speakers’ biographies:

Hamit Bozarslan is Director of Studies at École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) in Paris. He is the author of a series on the Kurdish issue and Middle Eastern politics including “Histoire de la Turquie: De l’Empire à nos jours (2013), Le luxe et la violence: Domination et contestation chez Ibn Khaldûn”(2014), “Révolutions et état de violence: Moyen-Orient, 2011–2015” (2015), and “L’anti-démocratie au 20e siècle: Iran, Russie, Turque (May 2021)”
He is currently researching currents of anti-democracy in the twenty-first century.

Yavuz Baydar ​is the Editor-in-Chief of ​Ahval,​ a trilingual, independent online news and podcast site on Turkey.

His opinion articles have appeared in the  Guardian,  Süddeutsche  Zeitung, New York Times, El Pais, Svenska Dagbladet, Yomiuri Shimbun, the Arab Weekly, and Index on Censorship.

Baydar was among the co-founders, in 2013, of the independent media platform ​P24 to monitor the media sector and the state of journalism in his home country.

In  2014,  as a  Shorenstein  Fellow at  Harvard  Kennedy  School of  Government, he completed an extensive research paper on self-censorship, state oppression and threats over journalism in Turkey – in the wake of  Gezi  Park protests. The extended version of the paper was published in book form in German and Turkish, under the title “Newsroom as an Open-Air Prison:  Corruption and Self-Censorship in  Turkish Journalism”.​

Baydar  is  the  author  of  the  book, ​“Die Hoffnung Stirbt am Bosporus –  Wie die Türkei Freiheit und Demokratie Verspielt” (“The Hope dies at Bosporus: How Turkey Squandered Freedom and Democracy”). He was given in 2018 the prestigious ‘​Journalistenpreis’ by the (Munich-based) SüdostEurope Gesellschaft in Germany; and, t​he Special Award of the European Press Prize (​EPP), for ‘​excellence in journalism’,​ in 2014.

Turkey’s first news ombudsman,  beginning at  Milliyet daily in  1999,  Baydar worked in the same role as reader representative until 2014. ​He served as president of the  U.S.  based  International  Organization of  News Ombudsmen ​(ONO) in 2003.

He studied Informatics, Cybernetics and Journalism at the University of Stockholm. He worked as a reporter and editor with Cumhuriyet daily, Radio Sweden, BBC Turkish, and Yeni Yüzyıl daily throughout the 1980 and 1990s.