The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has introduced a flurry of liberal reforms to prepare Turkey for European Union membership talks, but the secular military establishment distrusts the motives of a government which has its roots in political Islam.

"Nobody should expect the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) to be impartial on the issues of secularism and modernity," General Hilmi Ozkok, head of the military General Staff, told a news conference.
"The subject on which the TSK has always been partial and will remain partial is the eternal protection and preservation of the Turkish Republic's unity as a nation and territory, a republic which is democratic, secular and social."

"Nobody should expect the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) to be impartial on the issues of secularism and modernity"

General Hilmi Ozkok,
head of the military General Staff

Speaking in the coded language favoured by the military, he criticised "certain circles" who he said tried to depict the TSK as the main obstacle to reform in Turkey.

But he did not identify these circles, nor did he mention by name either the AKP government or the EU, which is due to decide in December whether to open entry talks with Ankara.


Citing EU standards on religious freedom, the AKP favours easing restrictions on women wearing of Islamic headscarves in public places - a stance fiercely opposed by the General Staff.

In its drive to open up Turkish society and bring it closer to European norms, the government is having to pare back the TSK's power and influence.

The military opposes easing
restrictions on headscarf ban

It is expected to announce plans next week to remove army representatives from boards which supervise higher education and the electronic media, in line with EU requirements.

It has already downgraded the once-mighty National Security Council, which groups generals and top politicians, to a purely advisory body, though some Western diplomats say the government disregards the council's will at its peril.

And the EU insists that Turkey's hefty defence budget must be brought under full parliamentary control for the first time.

The army ousted several governments in recent decades which it viewed as dangerous to the national interest, most recently in 1997 when it edged out Islamist-minded prime minister Necmettin Erbakan.

But striking an unusually modest note, Ozkok, a moderate, also said the TSK welcomed constructive criticism which was based on "correct" information.