Turkey Conflict History
Head of State: President Abdullah Gul, since August 2007
Head of Government: Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, since 2002
The Republic of Turkey was founded in 1923 after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. This was largely the achievement of first republican leader Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, an Ottoman army officer who led a 1919-22 war of national liberation against invading British, French and Greek troops. Atatürk copied laws from Europe, gave women the vote and forcefully instituted a secular regime. His one-party regime lasted beyond his death in 1938 until the first multiparty elections of 1950. Since then democracy has gradually broadened and deepened, despite four military coups or military-forced changes of government in 1960, 1971, 1980 and 1997. Turkey is a longstanding member of almost every major European organisation and is negotiating for full membership of the European Union.
Domestic tensions have flared with Turkey's Kurdish population since the early days of the republic. Kurds constitute around 18 per cent of Turkey's 76 million people, with about half living in the big cities of western Turkey, and a half constituting a majority in the poor south east of the country. A Kurdish rebellion has fitfully continued in the south east since 1984. At least 4,500 members of the Turkish security forces have been killed in the rebellion, and at least as many rebels as well. Turkish army clearances of hundreds of thousands of Kurdish villagers in the 1990s have turned the regional economy upside down and forced rural Kurds into urban peripheries. Clashes in Turkey's southeast have calmed since 2007, however, thanks to new understandings between Turkey and the more stable regime in neighbouring Iraqi Kurdistan, as well as a determined effort by the Turkish government to grant more cultural rights to Turkish Kurds.
A major locomotive for change in recent decades has been Turkey's ambition to join the European Union, a right foreseen since the Ankara Agreement in 1963. Turkey formally applied in 1987, and, after a series of setbacks, was granted candidate status in 1999. Negotiations formally opened in October 2005 after a spate of legal reforms annulled the death penalty and liberalised many of Turkey's authoritarian laws. EU-Turkey talks are expected to continue for another decade at least, but the process has transformed the country. The economy grew at an average 7 per cent between 2002 and 2007 -- even though growth slowed down to 1 per cent in 2008 and the economy contracted 6 per cent in 2009 due to the global financial crisis -- and inflation came down to single figures for the first time in three decades. Half of Turkish trade is with the EU. Incoming foreign direct investment, around $3 billion in 2004, jumped to $22 billion in 2007 and was still $18 billion in 2008 despite the economic downturn. Some 90 per cent of this investment came from EU states.
Still, Turkey's GDP per capita remains less than a half of the EU average — even when adjusted for purchasing power standards. Compounded with the sometimes incomplete integration of some four million Turks in Europe, this has aroused fears in Europe that Turkey is too big and too poor to fit in. It would add 15 per cent to EU population and only 4 per cent to the EU economy, and its population is forecasted to overtake that of EU’s most populous country, Germany, by 2015. While a majority of EU countries still favour Turkey's membership, a vocal and powerful minority, including major states like Germany and France, are advocating alternatives short of full membership. Such talk has cooled the Turks' enthusiasm too, with polls showing a drop in support for the EU to 45 per cent in 2009 from over 70 per cent earlier in the decade.
Turkey, geographically balanced between east and west, has always counted itself as part of several worlds. It may still be catching up with the richer EU states, but its broad-based, $6.00 economy is the biggest in the Muslim world and equivalent to half of the whole of the Middle East and North Africa. While proud of a relatively secular government and a European vocation, its Muslim society is mostly observant and a small minority also looks to models in Islamic law and the Middle East. A long-time American ally in NATO, Turkey has on occasion experienced frictions with Washington over its more conciliatory policies towards Iran and other hardline states in the region.. Legislating EU-mandated freedoms of expression have not always been followed through with implementation, and the rights of religious minorities are continuously contested and sometimes threatened.
None of these problems is new, however, and Turkey seems more and more confident and able to cope with them. It has undertaken bold initiatives in line with its new “zero problems with neighbours” foreign policy, including strengthening ties with Middle East states, pursuing a 'step ahead' policy to try to reunify Cyprus and signing bilateral protocols to normalise relations and open the border with Armenia. If the EU negotiation process can be sustained, Turkey will doubtless continue to change as fast as it already has done in the past decade of transformation.
updated April 2010