Ever since the Islamic-leaning Justice and Development Party (AKP) was propelled into power in 2002, Turkey has experienced -- in no small part due to an enormous rise in foreign direct investment -- a historic level of economic expansion and stability. With strong sectors in agriculture and textiles, a burgeoning tourism industry that saw 25 million visitors in 2008 alone, and a strategic conduit for natural gas and oil coming out of the Caspian Sea, Turkey is certainly enjoying its role as the fourth-fastest-growing economy in the world. On top of all this, the nation sees itself (and in many cases is acknowledged) as a cultural bridge between East and West. It is a regional leader with increasing influence in Middle East policy and in the development of the Turkic countries of Central Asia. It's a nascent economic powerhouse.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the former mayor of Istanbul, has been at the helm of this rapid-fire growth since 2003. Besides his reforms in making Turkey more business-friendly, his government has passed laws easing restrictions of freedom of speech, banned the death penalty, and almost as weighty, outlawed smoking in public places.
But the religious credentials of the ruling party are also apparent in reforms aimed at elevating the role of religion in public life, including easing restrictions on teaching the Koran, allowing women to wear headscarves in state buildings (overturned) and proposing a law criminalizing adultery (abandoned). Meanwhile, the government's long-standing efforts at reducing the military's clout in political affairs, seen by the pro-democracy bloc as an obvious requisite to reform, can also be viewed as a strategy by the ruling party to consolidate power, given the military's historic role in safeguarding the secular state.
One thing that remains consistent however, is Turkey's extreme sensitivity to anything smacking of insulting Atatürk or "Turkishness." To this end, Turkey continues to block the popular video-sharing site YouTube.com, after a volley of insults were traded via the site between Turkish and Greek users. Similarly, Turkish officials raised an outcry in response to the U.S. Congress's recent move to classify the "Armenian incident" as genocide. Indeed, the U.S. and the E.U., who need Turkey's support in Afghanistan and Iraq, and who are incidentally the most vocally supportive of democratic reforms in Turkey, are hesitant to criticize Turkey.
Against this backdrop, the headlines these days have been dominated by stories of the arrests and prosecution of members of the military, academia, the judiciary, and the media -- accused of plotting to overthrow the government. Critics of the crackdown see this as a consolidation of power by the ruling AKP aimed at eliminating the opposition. In the absence of any institutional resistance to further reforms easing restrictions on religion in public life, the very character of the Turkish state might very well be in question. Erdogan insists that his intentions are for modernization, economic expansion, E.U. accession, and a strong, peaceful, and democratic Turkish state. Turkish progressives fear that it is a slippery slope down the same path taken by Iran's Revolutionary Guard. No one really knows for sure which way the pendulum will swing.
Cyprus is another one of these divisive territorial issues not entirely dissimilar to the Northern Ireland, Palestinian, or Kashmir conflicts. Situated 65km (40 miles) off the Turkish coast, Cyprus was a part of the Ottoman Empire for centuries, with sizable migrations of Muslim Turks adding to the Orthodox Christian Greek inhabitants of the island. The island became a British colony in 1878. The London Agreement of 1960, negotiated by Britain, Greece, and Turkey, established Cyprus as an independent republic, with a Greek president, a Turkish vice president, and a fair proportion of representatives in the government.
This bicommunal state functioned for only 3 years, as militant Greek Cypriots (backed by Greece) ousted the Turkish Cypriot members, which resulted in a series of brutal attacks on both Greek and Turkish villages. Once again, it is a case of finger-pointing about who threw the first punch. For the next 10 years, the Turkish Cypriots lived as refugees, during which time Turkey unsuccessfully sought support from a U.S. government unwilling to intervene on behalf of either the Greeks or the Turks. A Greek coup aimed at annexing the island and aided by local Greek Cypriot forces in 1974 called Turkey to action. A Turkish expeditionary force was deployed, occupying the northern third of the island, which in 1983 proclaimed itself the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. Greek inhabitants of the northern territory fled south.
The United Nations has called for a unified state made up of two politically equal communities, and in 2005, Turkey voted yes for reunification. But the Greek Cypriots voted no. Since then, there have been some confidence-building measures, most notably, in 2008, the opening of the Ledra Street border crossing, which had been walled up since 1963. That same year, Greek and Turkish leaders agreed to a fresh start, and indeed Greece expressed support for Turkey's campaign to accede to the E.U. And although the United Nations continues to patrol the border zones between north and south, quiet measures of reconciliation are pursued between the two separate halves of the island.
The Kurdish Question
Who are the Kurds, these people without a country? History books pinpoint their origins to western Iran, but it's more accurate to say that the Kurds have roots in many different lands. Over time, the Kurds have developed a distinctive culture, and today the Kurdish population spreads over eastern Anatolia, northeastern Iraq, Syria, and western Iran.
In the wake of World War I, Kurdish demands for an independent state were met in the Treaty of Sèvres (1920), but the treaty was nullified by Atatürk's victories over foreign occupation and replaced by the Treaty of Lausanne (1923). This new treaty made no mention of the Kurds. The Kurds have been struggling for independence ever since, suffering from repression not only in Turkey but in other countries in the region. In the 1980-to-1988 Iran-Iraq War, entire Kurdish villages were annihilated due to Iraq's use of poison gas; as a result the Turkish government allowed 100,000 refugees to flow over the border into Turkey.
In 1978, Abdullah Öcalan formed the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) as an organized separatist movement, accusing the Turkish government of oppression, repression, torture, and censorship. The Turkish government labeled the PKK a terrorist organization with a limited following intent on destabilizing the Turkish nation and threatening its sovereignty. Turkey considers its Kurdish population Turkish citizens, although in practice, many of the predominantly Kurdish territories, typically in remote regions, are impoverished and lack basic public services.
The PKK took up arms in 1984, and the violence persisted until Öcalan's capture in 1999. In the 16-year armed conflict, the Turkish government estimates that over 30,000 people lost their lives, although this estimate is probably a modest one. At the end of Öcalan's trial, the PKK leader was sentenced to death; since that time, Turkey has abolished the death penalty and Öcalan can expect to live out his days in a Turkish prison.
The PKK declared an end to the cease-fire in 2003, and since then, assassinations, attacks, and counterattacks have continued in the southeast. Tensions on the Iraqi-Turkish border don't bode well for the U.S. policy of support for Iraq's Kurdish north, as both Turkey and northern Iraq are key U.S. allies in American foreign policy in the region. For now, it's a wait-and-see situation.