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A Guide to Countries of the World

Peter Stalker


Tension between Islamists and secularists threatens democracy and EU accession


Turkey is predominantly mountainous. The lowlands are mostly confined to coastal areas around the Black Sea, the Aegean, and the Mediterranean. Turkey straddles the border between Europe and Asia—though its European part is quite small. The Asian part, known as Anatolia, has at its heart the central Anatolian plateau, which is encircled by mountains. Western Anatolia consists of long mountainous ridges and deep valley floors, though the highest mountains are in the east.

The majority of the population are Turkish and almost all are Sunni Muslim. Over recent decades Turkey has been industrializing rapidly and more than two-thirds of the population live in cities. But by the standards of other industrial countries, levels of human development are low. In 2004, adult literacy, for example, was only 87%, and significantly lower for women. And outside the cities, health services are poor. Until recently, many Turks were emigrating to the EU, particularly to Germany. The exodus has more or less ceased, but there are still some two million Turks in the EU, whose annual remittances although declining are still around $1.4 billion. However, there is also an inflow: around 2.5 million foreigners are living in Turkey, of whom one million are unauthorized.

Within Turkey, there is also a significant minority of Kurds—one-fifth of the population. The Kurds are one of the world's largest ethnic groups without a state of their own, though eastern Anatolia, where most Turkish Kurds live, together with neighbouring regions of Iran and Iraq, is referred to as Kurdistan. The government of Turkey has long tried to repress Kurdish nationalism and from 1984 to 1999 fought the guerrillas of the Kurdish Workers' Party in a war that cost more than 30,000 lives. In 1999 the PKK declared a ceasefire but resumed its campaign on a smaller scale in 2004.

With more than half the workforce employed in service industries, and one-fifth in manufacturing, Turkey has the characteristics of an advanced industrial economy. Many of the formerly state-owned enterprises, including iron, steel, and chemicals, have now been sold, often to foreign investors. But most of the smaller enterprises are nationally owned. Turkey is also the world's second largest exporter of pasta.

Tourism is also a major source of employment and income, with 23 million visitors bringing in around $19 billion per year. Most of the tourists on packaged holidays come from Germany or the UK.

Turkey's diverse landscape has sustained steady growth in agriculture which still employs one-third of the workforce. Although levels of technology are lower than in Western Europe, output has kept pace with population, so Turkey is largely self-sufficient in food, and has crops such as wheat, sugar beet, cotton, and tobacco, some of which are exported.

Ambivalent relationship with Europe

Turkey has always had an ambivalent relationship with Europe. On the one hand, Turkey is strategically important, and has been a key member of NATO, for which it was a missile launching pad during the cold war. On the other hand, it has a poor record on human rights, particularly with respect to the Kurds. Added to this has been the dispute with Greece over Cyprus.

These difficulties had made the EU nervous of inviting Turkey as a candidate for membership. Negotiations finally started in 2005, but with some EU countries vowing to put Turkish accession to a referendum, enthusiasm is waning.

Turkey's recent political history has followed an unsteady course. A series of weak coalition governments have been subject to military intervention: since 1945 there have been three military coups. The military intervened yet again after the 1995 election when the party with the largest proportion of votes—21%—was the pro-Islamic Welfare Party (RP). Eventually in 1997 they forced its leader Necmetting Erbakan to resign in a ‘soft coup’.

A subsequent three-party coalition proved short lived. A further general election in 1999 resulted in another coalition led by the Democratic Left Party (DSP) with Bulent Ecevit as prime minister. Ecevit had some successes, including a new loan from the IMF and the beginning of negotiations for EU accession. But disagreements within the coalition forced another election in 2002.

This produced a surprising result: a landslide victory for a centre-right party with some Islamic origins—the Justice and Development Party (AKP)—led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Erdogan wants to get Turkey into the EU so as prime minister has made some gestures towards the Kurds and has tried to resolve the Cyprus question. He was re-elected in 2007 and then, in the face of stiff military opposition, Abdullah Gul of the AKP was elected president.

Erdogan and the AKP were returned for a third term in 2011, though with a smaller majority. One of their objectives is to replace a constitution that had been strongly influenced by the military with one based more on civilian principles. But the greatest threat to stability, and EU accession, remains the violence in the Kurdish areas and along the long border with Syria. Turkey has received around one million refugees from the Syrian conflict.

Unable to stand for another term as prime minister, Erdogan won the first direct election for president in 2014 and the former foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, became prime minister. Erdogan wished to initiate further constitutional change to give the president greater power, but his plans were thrown into disarray as the AKP failed to win an outright majority in the June 2015 parliamentary elections, reflecting dissatisfaction with his increasingly autocratic style. The People’s Democratic Party, formed in 2012 with trade-union and Kurdish backing, won 80 seats, giving a significant Kurdish voice in parliament for the first time. After the election the prime minister resigned and the AKP entered negotiations over forming a coalition or a minority administration. Davutoğlu retained power in the subsequent run-off November 2015 election, reclaiming a parliamentary majority. Ministry of Foreign Affairs Hurriyet - Daily newspaper

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