Turkey country profile
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. Since then, Turkey has seen strong economic growth and a dramatic fall in inflation. However, huge
foreign debt and unemployment remain major burdens. 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 (AK) in 2002.
The secularist opposition has on several occasions since then challenged the constitutional right of the AK to be the party of government. In March 2008 the Constitutional Court narrowly rejected a petition by the chief prosecutor to ban the AK and 71 of its officials, including President Abdullah Gul and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, for allegedly seeking to establish an Islamic state.
In recent years there have been several allegations that members of the military – which has long seen itself as the guardian of the secular system – have been involved in plots to overthrow the government.
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.
The Kurdish issue
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 an ethnic homeland in the Kurdish heartland in the southeast.