When Turkey was accepted as a candidate for European Union (EU) membership last December, it prompted heated debate on the key issues of Turkish politics. These include the long-standing disputes with Greece over the Aegean Sea and with Cyprus over the Turkish invasion of the island in 1973. There is also reform of the economy, which prevailing economic theory sees as too heavily centralized and subsidized. But the really thorny issue is that of human rights.
The modern Turkish state was born out of the ashes of the First World War in 1920 when Mustafa Kemal Atatürk deposed the last Ottoman sultan. Atatürk came to power as a military commander and in the state he designed the armed forces have always played a dominating role. The imposition of martial law has been a constant theme and the army overthrew the elected government in 1960 and again in 1980.
Leader: President Ahmed Necdet Sezer (head of state); Prime Minister Bülent Ecevit (head of government).
Economy: GNP per capita $3,130 (Iran $1,780, Greece $11,640). One of the world’s fastest growing tourist markets, its world share now four times what it was in the 1980s.
Main exports: Textiles, agricultural produce, foodstuffs.
Monetary unit: Lira (550,000 to the $).
People: 64.5 million. 66% live in urban areas.
Health: Infant mortality 37 per 1,000 live births. One doctor per 1,300 people.
Environment: A series of recent earthquakes in the northwest has highlighted concern over building regulations. The damming of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in the southeast has had a demonstrably damaging effect on both the natural environment and the rural economy of the region. Altered water flows have also affected water supply in downstream states, Iraq and Syria.
Culture: Some 85% are Turkish speaking; 12% speak some form of Kurdish and/or consider themselves as Kurds; 1.5% are Arabs.
Religion: Sunni Muslim 80%; Shi’a (Alevi) Muslim 18%.
Sources: World Guide 1999/2000; State of the World’s Children 2000; Europe Review 1999; information supplied by the author.
Never previously profiled
To join the EU, Turkey has to at least be seen to move away from military domination of the political scene. The democratic machinery is in place. But the establishment's paranoia about political Islam (a decidedly 'moderate' phenomenon in Turkey) can only mean repression of free expression. And its unwillingness to accommodate the interests of the 15 million Kurds is likely to leave a legacy of disillusionment and further unrest in the southeast.
Atatürk’s vision was to make Turkey a ‘modern’, European state. The economy was centralized, with heavy state investment in infrastructure and industry. The new Turkey was to be a secular state: religion was sidelined, by force when necessary; the Arabic script was replaced by the Latin and an official body was established to purge the language of Arabic and Persian words. All the people of Turkey were to become ‘Turks’. Ethnic minorities had to adopt this new national identity or suffer the consequences.
For most of the smaller groups, mostly descendants of immigrants from the Caucasus, assimilation has proceeded quietly. For the larger ones, it has been a very different story. The large Armenian community of eastern Anatolia was annihilated before Atatürk came to power, a systematic genocide which the Turkish state has never even acknowledged took place. The Kurds rose in rebellion against Ankara in 1925 and 1930 and were crushed; the Kurdish language and any expression of separate Kurdish identity have been banned ever since.
Atatürk died in 1938 and following the first competitive elections in 1946 Turkish politics began to polarize at a remarkable pace. An increasing variety of political factions, embracing ideologies from all across the spectrum, have resulted in a series of unstable coalitions.
Today political polarization is as acute as ever. The far left is weak but still around. The far right, led by the fascist Nationalist Action Party, is a member of the ruling coalition alongside parties from the centre-left and centre-right. The Islamist party, Virtue, is strongly represented. The various shades of Kurdish nationalism are hardly represented at all. A remarkable feature of Turkish politics is that if the ruling establishment does not like a political party, it can apply to the courts to have it banned. Given the state’s pet enemies, it is not surprising that Kurdish and Islamist parties are often disbanded.
The military would like to extend such powers. Any public employee will be liable to be dismissed from his or her post for being suspected of holding Islamist or Kurdish nationalist sympathies if the military leadership gets its way – with parliament in recess, they tried to slip this law through as a presidential decree.
But the President, Ahmet Necdet Sezer, is having none of it. Elected early this year as a compromise candidate, Sezer has gone on record as advocating human-rights reform and called for Kurdish-language education to be allowed. His refusal to sign the controversial decree has won widespread public support.
But the devastation of the predominantly Kurdish southeast continues. The rebel Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) effectively surrendered when its leader Abdullah Öcalan was captured last year. But the chance for reconciliation has been wasted so far and military operations against the remnants of the PKK continue.
Fresh elections are likely this year: if the courts again ban the Islamist party, its 103 members of parliament say they will resign. As long as the military leadership remains both politically active and opposed to democratic reforms, Turkey is likely to remain no more than a candidate for EU membership.