Europe

Turkey country profile - Overview

  • 21 April 2015
  • From the section Europe
Map of Turkey

Once the centre of the Ottoman Empire, the modern secular republic was established in the 1920s by nationalist leader Kemal Ataturk.

Straddling the continents of Europe and Asia, Turkey's strategically important location has given it major influence in the region - and control over the entrance to the Black Sea.

Turkey's progress towards democracy and a market economy was halting in the decades following the death of President Ataturk in 1938. The army saw itself as the guarantor of the constitution, and ousted governments on a number of occasions when it thought they were challenging secular values.

Efforts to reduce state control over the economy also faced many obstacles. After years of mounting difficulties which brought the country close to economic collapse, a tough recovery programme was agreed with the IMF in 2002.

The austerity measures imposed then meant that by the time the global financial crisis came round in 2008, Turkey was in a better position to weather the storm than many other countries.

Turkish military parade
Turkey is a member of Nato and aspires to being part of the European Union

The level of public debt was already relatively low, and although the effects of the recession were still felt, by 2010 the Turkish economy had started to bounce back - to the extent that by the beginning of 2011, concerns were being raised over whether the boom was sustainable.

Rise of AKP

Concerns over the potential for conflict between a secular establishment backed by the military and a traditional society deeply rooted in Islam resurfaced with the landslide election victory of the Islamist-based Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2002.

The secularist opposition has on several occasions since then challenged the constitutional right of the AKP to be the party of government. In March 2008 the Constitutional Court narrowly rejected a petition by the chief prosecutor to ban the AKP and 71 of its officials, including President Abdullah Gul and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, for allegedly seeking to establish an Islamic state.

In 2007, the government accused senior military officers of plotting to overthrow it through an alleged secret organisation called Ergenekon. Many of those found guilty in the Ergenekon trials - which ran until 2013 - received hefty jail sentences, and critics accused the government of staging show trials to neutralise the anti-Islamist influence of the armed forces in politics.

However, many of the Ergenekon convictions were overturned on appeal in 2014, after Turkey's highest court found that some of the evidence produced by the prosecution in the original trials had been fabricated.

The government also had to face the challenge of widespread civil unrest in the summer of 2013, when concerns at creeping Islamisation spilled over into mass protests in a number of cities. Later the same year, the government faced a further crisis when it became mired in a serious corruption scandal.

But despite claims from critics that the AKP under Mr Erdogan had polarised Turkey, in 2014 he became the country's first directly-elected president.

Foreign relations

Turkey became an EU candidate country in 1999 and, in line with EU requirements, went on to introduce substantial human rights and economic reforms. The death penalty was abolished, tougher measures were brought in against torture and the penal code was overhauled.

Reforms were introduced in the areas of women's rights and Kurdish culture, language, education and broadcasting. Women's rights activists have said the reforms do not go far enough and have accused the government of lacking full commitment to equality and of acting only under EU pressure.

After intense bargaining, EU membership talks were launched in October 2005. Accession negotiations are expected to take about 10 years. So far, the going has not been easy.

Turkey has long been at odds with its close neighbour, Greece, over the divided island of Cyprus and territorial disputes in the Aegean.

The breakthrough in its EU membership talks came just weeks after Turkey agreed to recognise Cyprus as an EU member - though it qualified this conciliatory step by declaring that it was not tantamount to full diplomatic recognition.

Several European countries continue to have serious misgivings over Turkey's EU membership, and Germany and France have called for it to have a "privileged partnership" with the EU instead of full membership.

Turkey long saw itself as the eastern bulwark of the Nato alliance, and underlined this by having close ties with Israel. But under Mr Erdogan Turkey has taken an openly confrontational approach to Israel, counting on its new prestige in Arab countries to boost its regional standing as a power broker.

The outbreak of civil war in neighbouring Syria has seen Turkey's stance move from detente with the Assad government to open support for the rebels, albeit stopping short of military assistance. This has left Turkey exposed within the Nato alliance, which continues to keep the Syrian conflict at arms length, but has further enhanced Turkey's prestige in Arab public opinion.

The Kurdish issue

Pro-Kurdish demonstrators
The issue of Turkey's minority Kurds has troubled the country for decades

Turkey is home to a sizeable Kurdish minority, which by some estimates constitutes up to a fifth of the population. The Kurds have long complained that the Turkish government was trying to destroy their identity and that they suffer from economic disadvantage and human rights violations.

The Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), the best known and most radical of the Kurdish movements, launched a guerrilla campaign in 1984 for a homeland in the Kurdish heartland in the southeast. Thousands died and hundreds of thousands became refugees in the ensuing conflict with the PKK, which Turkey, the US and the European Union deem a terrorist organisation.

Kurdish guerrilla attacks briefly subsided after the 1999 capture of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, but soon began to increase again.

Partly in a bid to improve its chances of EU membership, the government began to ease restrictions on the use of the Kurdish language from 2003 onwards. As part of a new "Kurdish initiative" launched in 2009, it pledged to extend linguistic and cultural rights and to reduce the military presence in the mainly Kurdish southeast of the country.

Although fighting continued, the PKK signalled its readiness to cease fire in 2010. After months of talks, Abdullah Ocalan ordered his fighters to stop attacking Turkey and withdraw from the country from May 2013, effectively ending the insurgency.

Grand Bazaar in Istanbul
East meets west in Turkey's largest city, Istanbul, which straddles Europe and Asia

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