Ten reserve admirals were arrested in Turkey on Monday after criticizing, along with other former officers, the Istanbul Canal project, defended by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. In the country, even small political actions by the military arouse memories of coups d’état.
The ten detainees are part of a group of 104 signatories of an open letter warning of the threat posed by the Istanbul Canal project to free movement in the Bosphorus Strait, a passage between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean Sea.
Last month, Turkey approved a plan to create a new navigation canal in Istanbul, comparable to that of Panama or Suez. However, a debate arose on whether to maintain the Montreaux Convention. The 1936 agreement guarantees the free passage of civilian ships through the Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits, and places restrictions on warships in countries that do not have a Black Sea coastline.
The Turkish government says the canal will benefit Istanbul and relieve the Bosporus, one of the most congested maritime sections in the world. More than 18,000 ships passed through the site in 2018, according to Turkish authorities
It is the most ambitious of Erdogan’s infrastructure projects, which has transformed the country with new airports, bridges, roads and tunnels in its 18 years of power.
In a letter, 104 reserve admirals say they are concerned the project will spark debate on the Montreux Convention, which they believe protects Turkish interests.
A judicial inquiry was opened against the Army of the Reserve for “a meeting aimed at committing a crime against the security of the State and the constitutional order”, indicated the prosecution.
Among the detainees is Rear Admiral Cem Gürdeniz, considered the father of the controversial “blue homeland” doctrine, which plans to establish Turkish sovereignty over large swathes of the eastern Mediterranean.
Erdogan criticized the army. “The duty of the admirals of the reserve is not to publish hints of a political coup,” the president said in a speech on Monday.
Senior Turkish government officials criticized the military text. “There is a difference between expressing your ideas and making a coup statement,” Speaker of Parliament Mustafa Sentop said on Sunday.
“Not only those who signed it, but also those who encourage it, will be held accountable by the courts,” said Fahrettin Altun, communication secretary of the Turkish presidency.
On Monday, the Minister of Justice, Abdulhamit Gül, insisted on the question: “We will fight against this dark mentality. There is no power beyond the will of the nation”.
Military intervention in politics is a very sensitive issue in Turkey, where the military carried out three coups d’état between 1960 and 1980, and has long exercised great influence over governments.
After approving several reforms that significantly reduced the military’s weight in politics, Erdogan overcame a military-led coup attempt in July 2016 which he said had been orchestrated by preacher Fethullah Gülen , exiled in the United States.
The design of the canals and the possible impact on the Treaty of Montreux also raise concerns in Russia.
“Moscow fears that NATO countries or another state opposed to Russia may be able to direct warships at any time into the Black Sea, which could seriously threaten Russian national security,” the Jamestown Foundation said, a United States-based defense policy research group.