Turkey’s detention of former military admirals who raised concerns about the country possibly withdrawing from a maritime convention is an attempt by President Recep Tayyp Erdogan to distract the public from the country’s domestic problems, analysts told The Media Line.
In an open letter, the admirals wrote that a 1936 agreement that granted Turkey authority over the Bosporus strait while limiting access to warships played a significant role in the country’s security.
Erdogan said on Monday that the letter implied a coup, a highly-charged accusation in a country that has faced a series of military coups.
A coup attempt in 2016 led to large swathes of the military being detained alongside critics of the government, including journalists and opposition politicians.
“Freedom of speech cannot include sentences threatening an elected administration with a coup,” Erdogan said, according to Turkey’s state news agency.
The controversy comes as his Justice and Development Party (AKP) has found its popularity waning amid dual economic and pandemic crises.
“He’s looking for any excuse to change the subject,” said Atilla Yesilada, an economist based in Turkey.
The country is facing a surge of COVID-19 infections, with cases reaching their highest reported peak since the pandemic began.
Turkey is the country with the eighth most cases in the world, according to John Hopkins University.
Posts on social media about the country’s health care shortages have gone viral, including one woman who wrote that she could not find a hospital bed and later died.
Meanwhile, inflation in Turkey has skyrocketed since the beginning of the year coupled with a fall in the country’s currency, the lira. This situation has been exacerbated by the shock removal of the central bank’s well-respected governor.
Economic problems already delivered Erdogan a severe political blow when his party lost the 2019 mayoral race in Istanbul.
With the next national election coming up in 2023, analysts say the president will campaign on his ability to create jobs with his megaprojects, including a new airport in Istanbul and a proposed massive canal parallel to the Bosporous.
The admirals’ statement came after an official suggested the government may leave the accord during a discussion about plans for the new canal.
Erdogan himself had called it a “crazy project” in 2011.
The Turkish president has said that the canal will bring profits to Turkey from the fees ships pay to use it. Critics say it will create massive profits for his allies, who could, for example, buy the real estate alongside the canal which will then become more valuable once it is built.
Ryan Bohl, a Middle East and North Africa analyst with Stratfor, told The Media Line the letter is not outside international norms for former military personnel and said that the president’s reaction is likely meant to be a distraction from the current domestic problems.
He added that while the country’s history does make criticism from the military a more delicate issue, the detentions are in line with the president’s actions to crack down on dissent.
“It does fit into Erdogan’s overall strategy with the military, which continues to be sending these signals that they are not to be politicized and that’s been a long-standing trend,” Bohl said.
The economy is sinking very rapidly. People won’t really waste time debating whether there is a coup attempt or not. They want bread. They want to find jobs and they want to be able to feed their children and their families.
Ali Bakir, an assistant professor specializing in Turkey at Qatar University, told The Media Line that Turkish society and the political establishment are especially sensitive to military officials, including retired ones, getting involved in politics.
“This sensitivity is justified, taking into consideration not only the coup attempt just four years ago which resulted in bombing sovereign institutions such as the parliament … but also the long-standing role of the military in political life and the several bloody coups by the military since 1960,” Baker said.
Yesilada says that it is unreasonable to think the military would be discontented with the government, which has given it a prominent role in the region and boosted its capabilities.
He said Erdogan needs to focus on the finances of the country, and that the rhetoric against the former military officials would be unlikely to help him.
“The economy is sinking very rapidly,” Yesilada said. “People won’t really waste time debating whether there is a coup attempt or not. They want bread. They want to find jobs and they want to be able to feed their children and their families.”