Turkey’s Talk Show Nationalists
Turn on Turkish television on any given night, and it is likely you will meet eyes with a former general or admiral. At first blush, their steady presence as commentators on talk shows, as well as on social media, appears unremarkable. With the Turkish armed forces deployed on a variety of fronts both at home and abroad, events appear to demand the interpretative aid of those with military experience. Watch enough programming and you discover, however, that the generals and admirals of Turkish television are by no means passive actors. Former military officers have emerged as a potent constituency in Turkey’s fragmented partisan landscape. Via television and social media, many have sought to shape the tenor, and perhaps even the direction, of Turkish foreign policy.
Following a period of high-profile civil-military tensions in Turkey, TV generals have played a dual role, simultaneously legitimizing President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and rehabilitating the army’s standing in society. By celebrating the victories of Erdoğan’s government, former high-ranking officers have sharpened the appeal of Ankara’s muscular foreign policy. Their endorsement of Turkish interventions has lent legitimacy to the belief that the military, helped by the country’s state-run defense industry, is leading a revolution that will transform Turkey into a regional powerhouse.
On Monday, however, the early morning arrest of 10 former admirals revealed that there are limits to how far media-savvy officers can press their influence. The government’s harsh reaction came in response to an open letter about the Montreux Convention signed by dozens of retired admirals. The question now is what space will be left for those who prove willing to keep their commentary within acceptable bounds.
Jingoism in the Zeitgeist
One cannot watch Turkish television today without seeing the deeply nationalist ethos that now pervades the country. In the last decade, issues of national belonging have been central to Turkey’s foreign and domestic politics. As either prime minister or president, Erdoğan has used nationalism as a tool to maintain and expand his power. His Justice and Development Party (AKP) has followed his lead in embracing nationalist tropes as a part of the party’s own identity. To some extent, the AKP’s “blood and soil” posturing is indebted to the growing influence of its governing partner, the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party. Erdoğan’s own rhetoric and behavior, such as his adoption of the “gray wolf” hand gesture, reflects his affection for the party’s anti-Western, ethno-nationalist tilt.
But the AKP’s hold over the state is not the only factor shaping Turkey’s current political climate. Now more than ever, the country’s popular culture is drenched with nationalist content. Historical dramas on television rank as perhaps the most visible expressions of contemporary nationalist trends. Shows like the Resurrection series offer an especially telling example of the country’s reigning values and perceptions. The two-part series, which traces the rise of the Ottoman Empire’s earliest founders, is an implicit homage to the country’s rich military history and its past as a global power. Resurrection’s narrative arc invites the viewer to ponder Turkey’s history as a premonition of the country’s rising fortunes — at least as Erdoğan would have it. Conversely, the show’s antagonists, the Byzantines and the Crusaders, are easy stand-ins for Turkey’s more contemporary rivals, chiefly Greece and the United States.
For an American viewer of a certain age, aspects of Turkish television news and commentary are heavily reminiscent of cable television in the age of the Gulf War or the “Global War on Terror.” On a regular basis, all-day news networks bombard audiences with dramatic footage of the country’s armed forces in action. Special attention is paid to the specifications and capabilities of indigenously produced drones, ships, and other vehicles. Panel discussions often feature vibrant, oversized digital graphics outlining the movement of troops and the location of strategic towns or landmarks. Fluttering Turkish flags are a consistent, if not constant, presence on the screen. Like America’s “video game wars” of 1991 and 2003, a boyish enthusiasm lies at the heart of the choreography and staging. It is not simply the fact that Turkish troops are on the march. They are advancing and winning with élan and precision.
These recent shifts in Turkey’s nationalist culture cannot be divorced from the politicized nature of the Turkish media environment. Turkish voters still receive much of their news from Turkey’s long-established state-run companies, TRT and Anadolu Agency. A handful of large conglomerates with strong ties to Erdoğan own the country’s popular television stations and newspapers. Evidence of the government’s guiding hand in news coverage appeared especially transparent with the resignation of Erdoğan’s son-in-law, Berat Albayrak, as minister of finance in November 2020. Though he announced his departure on Instagram, neither the government’s spokesmen, nor major media channels, directly confirmed Albayrak’s resignation for over 24 hours. To this day, discussion of his whereabouts or criticism of his tenure as a government minister remains taboo.
Erdoğan and the Army
Recent history makes the growing visibility of former officers in the media particularly ironic. Over a decade ago, prominent media voices played a critical role in the prosecution of high-ranking officers accused of attempting to overthrow the AKP government. Before the opening of the so-called Sledgehammer trials of 2010, fear, as well as a good amount of shared reverence, tended to keep the Turkish media from approaching the military too critically. The indictment of scores of generals and other officers on charges of sedition suddenly erased these constraints, leading many editors and pundits to condemn the military for its history of coup-plotting and political intervention. For a time, many in print media and television celebrated the convictions in the Sledgehammer investigations. The military, they said, had returned to its barracks at long last. The age of generals interfering in Turkish politics was over.
Erdoğan’s break with his erstwhile ally Fethullah Gülen, culminating in Turkey’s 2016 coup attempt, fundamentally altered the relationship between the media, the military, and the state. Among the earliest signs of this change came with the 2015 release of all of Sledgehammer’s chief suspects on the grounds that they were victims in a plot staged by Gülen. Accusations that Gülenists had orchestrated the July 2016 putsch lent further credence to the claim that the military had been both falsely maligned and undermined from within. It was against this backdrop that Ankara undertook the first of three major armed incursions into northern Syria. Television and newspaper coverage of Operation Euphrates Shield in August 2016 previewed the blend of history, nationalist politics, and fantasy regularly seen on television today. More than a few commentators noted that Turkey’s invasion of Syria occurred on the 500th anniversary of Marj Dabik, the battle that ultimately led to the Ottoman Empire’s conquest of the Levant, Egypt, and western Arabia.
Turkey’s subsequent interventions in Syria, Iraq, Azerbaijan, and Libya took place alongside the rising visibility of the country’s defense industry. Since the United States imposed an arms embargo over the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974, Turkish civilian and military leaders have long expressed interest in producing the country’s own weaponry. It has been under Erdoğan, however, that Turkey has made the greatest strides in realizing this aspiration. Today, Ismail Demir, the head of the country’s Presidency of Defense Industries, ranks among the most recognizable faces in the Turkish government. Despite its history as a relatively minor department within Turkey’s Ministry of Defense, Demir’s organization now commands broad public attention with the help of commercial and state media.
As a result, television programing, as well as newspapers and policy journals, often resemble informercials dedicated to the technological capabilities of new Turkish weapons systems. One recent example was the launch of the country’s first indigenously produced frigate, the TCG Istanbul. News networks offered generous coverage of the event, in some cases lasting well over an hour. In addition to ample discussion of the ship’s capabilities and its future within the fleet, the launching ceremony featured an address by Erdoğan himself. In his remarks, he lauded the performance of the country’s defense industry and foreshadowed the debut of hundreds of other domestically produced systems, including ships and aircraft. “Being strong in military, economic and diplomatic terms,” he declared, “is, for us, a necessity rather than a preference.”
From the Barracks to the Broadcasts
It is in this environment that many former generals and admirals have found a natural home on television and other media. It is commonplace to find at least one former uniformed officer on talk shows such as Teke Tek (One-on-One) and Tarafsiz Bölge (Neutral Zone) when discussing developments in Turkish foreign policy. Their contributions to such discussions often range beyond technical military issues. Collectively, retired officers are an affirmative presence on television, lending both support and enthusiasm for Ankara’s more aggressive steps abroad.
A closer look at the former officers who frequently appear on television tells a more particular, revealing story. The vast majority may be described as possessing very specific nationalist credentials. Many of the more high-profile and outspoken generals and admirals are historically linked to the Fatherland Party, which is known for its hardline views on Western foreign policy and ethnic Turkish nationalism. The party’s founder, Doğu Perinçek, was once one of Erdoğan’s fierce critics. As recently as 2016, he accused Erdoğan of being an American stooge who hoped to establish himself as sultan over a weak and divided Turkey. Since then, Perinçek has grown more supportive of the president’s handling of foreign policy. Though his party represents only a tiny sliver of the Turkish electorate, Perinçek’s followers reportedly hold critical positions within the Turkish military — a status they allegedly earned on account of their die-hard opposition to the Gülen movement. The country’s interventions into Syria, Libya, and Iraq, Perinçek claimed, have done much to counter the “imperialist” agenda of the United States and the West. He has praised Ankara’s efforts to grow closer to Russia as a diplomatic partner. The purchase of the Russian-made S-400 missile system, he asserted, is “not simply a weapon, but a strategic preference,” one to be used in concert with Russia against the United States, Israel, and Greece.
Among the more prominent generals to echo Perinçek’s views is Erdoğan Karakuş, head of the Retired Officers Association. As a former lieutenant general and pilot in the Turkish Air Force, he has established himself as a regular contributor on network news shows. Karakuş often avails himself as a commentator on technical issues such as the use and effectiveness of drones. Yet, it is also clear that television producers value his presence because of his broader nationalist viewpoint. He has lauded Russia’s intervention into Syria as a counterstroke against the United States and Israel’s “greater Middle East project.” America, Karakuş argues, has engaged in a “long shadow struggle” against Turkey, one that began with Washington’s opposition to Turkey’s invasion of Cyprus and continued through the July 2016 coup attempt.
Former officers such as Karakuş do not simply play the role of cheerleaders on television. Over the last few years, a select few have led efforts to lobby the Erdoğan government to advance the so-called Mavi Vatan, or Blue Homeland, strategy. Conceptually, Blue Homeland is a catch-all phrase to describe a maximalist position regarding Turkey’s maritime interests in the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean. The concept was first spawned over a decade ago within the halls of the Turkish general staff. Its reputed father, Rear Adm. Cem Gürdeniz, then ranked as the navy’s chief strategist. After his arrest and imprisonment as a result of the Sledgehammer trials, Gürdeniz reemerged within the Turkish press as a frequent contributor to the Fatherland Party’s official newspaper, Aydınlık. Though vocally opposed to Erdoğan’s Islamic conservatism, he has made a name for himself as a proponent of the government’s plans to expand and modernize the Turkish fleet. His omnipresence in print, television, and social media, he maintains, is primarily bent toward raising public awareness of the navy’s critical importance to national security. Historically, he argues, Turkey’s investment in its army has come at the expense of the country’s maritime interests and natural strengths. Thus Blue Homeland provides a strategy for Turkey’s emergence as a premier power in the region and the world at large. Maps associated with his views have raised fierce objections in both Greece and Cyprus but Gürdeniz has rejected them out of hand. Like Perinçek, he contends that Athens, backed by Washington and Brussels, is engaged in a generational campaign to destroy Turkey or, at the very least, bring it to heel.
There are signs, however, that Erdoğan’s government does not fully embrace all of Gürdeniz’s ideas. Despite adopting much of his reasoning and rhetoric, official endorsements of maps associated with Blue Homeland are relatively scant. Many saw the forced retirement of the navy’s second in command in May 2020 as an even more emphatic rejection of the Blue Homeland thesis. As one of Gürdeniz’s closest protégés, Rear Adm. Cihat Yaycı achieved national attention as Blue Homeland’s chief proponent within the Turkish government. Since his resignation, Gürdeniz and like-minded allies have speculated that Erdoğan might forfeit Turkey’s maritime claims in the Mediterranean in order to improve relations with the United States and European Union. The possibility that the government could abandon Blue Homeland has deterred neither Gürdeniz nor Yaycı. In the year since his departure from the navy, Yaycı has quickly become a near permanent presence on television and social media. Both he and Gürdeniz have gained greater visibility as founders of maritime studies programs at two of Istanbul’s major universities. Collectively, both men have used their media and academic standing for the singular purpose of driving public debate around Blue Homeland. Judging from the support both former admirals have received from other retired officers, these efforts, on the surface at least, seem to have had an impact.
An open letter circulated by nationalist news outlets on April 2 appears to have upended whatever long-term plans Gürdeniz and other retired officials had. The letter, signed by 104 former admirals, railed against pro-government pundits who demanded the annulment of the Montreux Convention. This 1934 treaty, which regulates the passage of merchant vessels and warships through the Bosporus and Dardanelles Straits, is heralded as a signature achievement of Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. If the government was to abrogate the treaty, the signers declared, Turkey would be undermining both its national security and its debt to Atatürk. A slew of government officials has since condemned the letter as an attempted coup against the Erdoğan administration, and 14 former admirals have been taken into custody. Among them is Cem Gürdeniz, who is now being investigated for “agreeing to commit crimes against state security and constitutional order.”
Speculation is rife in the Turkish press regarding the genuine intentions of the letter’s authors and the significance of the government’s crackdown. Even though Erdoğan has stated he has no intention of nullifying the Montreux Convention, he accused the admirals of “hinting at a coup” and suggested that the country’s main opposition parties are in league with the signatories. The AKP’s opponents have speculated that other issues may have inspired the publication of the letter, such as concerns over freedom of speech or fears over the growing influence of conservative Muslims in the military’s upper ranks. At the very least, the admirals are getting the same treatment as other groups, whether academics or union leaders, who organized similar public petitions. Whatever awaits Gürdeniz and others in government custody, other retired officers appear eager to steer clear of the current scandal. It took three days for Cihat Yaycı to issue a brief statement, via a late-night text to a talk show, that he has no interest in “interfering in domestic politics.” Erdoğan Karakuş has remained quiet, although his Retired Officers Association denied a report by the Ministry of Defense that it denounced the open letter.
These recent events are a reminder not to overstate the significance of so many admirals and generals appearing on television. At various points left-wing academics, Kurdish nationalists, and Sufi mystics have made common cause with the AKP administration. Erdoğan, by contrast, has shown little in the way of personal loyalty to allies outside the AKP camp. It may be, as one observer has suggested, that ultranationalists like Gürdeniz are simply the latest in a long list of soon discarded enablers. An even greater source of uncertainty is whether former officers, particularly those aligned with the Fatherland Party, actually reflect the feelings of senior leaders still within the ranks. The officer corps has long constituted a “black box” that has resisted close inspection. Events since 2016 have made any evaluation of the internal politics within the armed forces even more difficult. Hulusi Akar, Erdoğan’s minister of defense, reputedly runs the military with a suspicious eye. He has reportedly forced the retirement of several officers, including Yaycı, who drew too much public praise or media attention. Changes in the military education system, as well as new standards for promotion, also increase the possibility that older officers, such as Karakuş, no longer reflect current attitudes in the ranks.
Jingoism is now a critical part of the zeitgeist in Turkey, driving both policymakers and prospective voters. Ankara has shown an ability to modulate its behavior. However, there is reason to believe that Erdoğan is not through with escalatory action in Syria, Iraq, or the eastern Mediterranean. The steady chorus of support former officers have provided has normalized, if not encouraged, his government’s more aggressive tendencies. As the voices of former officers and others grow louder, the Turkish military may come to constitute a hammer looking for even more nails.
The visibility of former officers on mass media is also symptomatic of the surging influence of the defense establishment within the country. It is entirely possible that Turkey has seen its last officer’s coup. Recent events suggest, however, that the military continues to wield influence over the country’s future. Outspoken retired generals and admirals reflect only one faction with a vested stake in the militarization of Turkish policy. Academics and current and former intelligence officials, as well as defense industry leaders, also comprise segments of Turkey’s emerging “military-industrial-media complex.”
In this regard, Turkey may be opening a new chapter in its long, troubled history of civil-military relations. Instead of seizing TV stations by force, Turkish officers have been invited into them en masse, potentially giving the military new opportunities to influence politics in more subtle ways. If they keep their commentary confined to cheerleading government policies, Erdoğan stands to benefit from their new activism. But he clearly seems concerned that they might not be content with playing a supporting role.
Ryan Gingeras is a professor in the Department of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School and is an expert on Turkish, Balkan, and Middle East history. He is the author of five books, including most recently, Eternal Dawn: Turkey in the Age of Atatürk. His Sorrowful Shores: Violence, Ethnicity, and the End of the Ottoman Empire received short-list distinctions for the Rothschild Book Prize in Nationalism and Ethnic Studies and the British-Kuwait Friendship Society Book Prize. The views expressed here are not those of the Naval Postgraduate School, the U.S. Navy, the Department of Defense, or any part of the U.S. government.