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 strategic location has given it major influence in the region – and control over the entrance to the Black Sea.
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 impressive progress. Economic growth has been strong and inflation has fallen dramatically. However, huge foreign debt remains a major burden.
Turkey’s powerful military – which sees itself as the guardian of the secular system – has a long history of involvement in politics.
In recent years, as Ankara has set its sights firmly on European Union membership, the profile of the military has been lower in public life. However, the military questioned the government’s commitment to secularism in the run-up to presidential elections in 2007, amid a stand-off between the Islamist-rooted administration and secularists. The army warned that it would defend Turkey’s secular system.
The latest step in the stand-off with the secularists came in March 2008, when the Constitutional Court only narrowly rejected a petition by the chief prosecutor to ban the governing Justice and Development Party and 71 of its officials, including President Abdullah Gul and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, for allegedly seeking to establish an Islamic state.
Turkey has long been at odds with its close neighbour, Greece, over territorial disputes in the Aegean and the divided island of Cyprus. It 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 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.
The breakthrough came just weeks after Turkey agreed to recognise Cyprus as an EU member and despite unfavourable comment over its declaration that this was not tantamount to full diplomatic recognition.
Turkey is home to a sizeable Kurdish minority, which by some estimates constitutes up to a fifth of the population. However, they complain that the government has tried to destroy their Kurdish identity and that they suffer economic disadvantage and human rights violations.
The Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), the best known and most radical of the Kurdish movements, launched a guerilla campaign in 1984 for an ethnic homeland in the predominantly Kurdish southeast. Thousands died and hundreds of thousands became refugees in the conflict between the PKK and the army in the 1980s and 1990s.
The past few years have seen an upsurge in rebel attacks, which had subsided after the 1999 capture of the group’s leader, Abdullah Ocalan. The PKK is considered a terrorist group in Turkey, the US and the European Union.
Full name: Republic of Turkey
Population: 75.8 million (UN, 2008)
Largest city: Istanbul
Area: 779,452 sq km (300,948 sq miles)
Major language: Turkish
Major religion: Islam
Life expectancy: 69 years (men), 74 years (women) (UN)
Monetary unit: Turkish lira
Main exports: Clothing and textiles, fruit and vegetables, iron and steel, motor vehicles and machinery, fuels and oils
GNI per capita: US $8,020 (World Bank, 2007)
Internet domain: .tr
International dialling code: +90
President: Abdullah Gul
Abdullah Gul was chosen as president by parliament in August 2007, after months of controversy over his nomination. He is Turkey’s first head of state with a background in political Islam in a country with strong secularist principles. The months leading to his eventual election saw street demonstrations, an opposition boycott of parliament, early parliamentary elections and warnings from the army, which has ousted four governments since 1960. Turkish secularists, including army generals, opposed Gul’s nomination, fearing he will try to undermine Turkey’s strict separation of state and religion. Secularists also do not want Turkey’s First Lady to wear the Muslim headscarf. The army top brass and the main opposition Republican People’s Party, stayed away from Mr Gul’s swearing-in ceremony.
Mr Gul started in politics in an Islamist party that was banned by the courts, but later renounced the idea that Islam should be a driving force in politics. In 2001, along with other moderate members of the Islamist movement, he founded the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) and distanced himself from his past political leanings. The party won elections in 2002 and Mr Gul served as stand-in prime minister before stepping aside for Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Mr Gul served as foreign minister under Mr Erdogan and cultivated an image as a moderate politician, acting as an impassioned voice for reforms to promote Turkey’s EU bid. The government holds most power but the president can veto laws, appoint officials, and name judges. The post carries moral weight as it was first held by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (Father of Turks), who ushered in secularism and Western-style reforms in the 1920s.
Voters in a referendum in October 2007 backed plans to have future presidents elected by the people instead of by parliament.
Tayyip Erdogan, who became premier in March 2003, led his Justice and Development Party (AK Party) to victory in the July 2007 elections. Erdogan called the poll early after the army-backed secular elite blocked his choice of an ex-Islamist ally as the next president.
The AK Party boosted its share of the vote in the 2007 parliamentary elections to 47% despite opposition efforts to portray his pro-business party, which has Islamist roots, as a Trojan horse set to turn Turkey into an Iran-style theocracy.
Mr Erdogan first became prime minister several months after his party’s landslide election victory in November 2002. He had been barred from standing in the poll because of a previous criminal conviction for reading an Islamist poem at a political rally. Changes to the constitution paved the way for him to run for parliament in 2003. He identified EU entry as a top priority and introduced reforms which paved the way for the opening of membership talks in October 2005.
Although the AK has Islamist roots, he insists that it is committed to a secular state. From a lowly background, Mr Erdogan worked as a street seller to help pay for an education. He attended Koranic school before studying economics at university. As mayor of Istanbul in the mid 1990s he banned alcohol in municipal buildings and won popularity for improving services.
Turkey’s airwaves are lively, with some 300 private TV stations – more than a dozen of them with national coverage – and more than 1,000 private radio stations competing with the state broadcaster, TRT.
Powerful businesses operate many of the press and broadcasting outlets; they include the Dogan group, the leading media conglomerate.
For journalists, the subjects of the military, Kurds and political Islam are highly sensitive and can lead to arrest and criminal prosecution. Media watchdogs and rights groups report that journalists have been imprisoned, or attacked by police. It is also common for radio and TV stations to have their broadcasts suspended for airing sensitive material.
Some of the most repressive sanctions against journalists have been lifted as part of reforms intended to meet EU entry requirements. But the Paris-based watchdog Reporters Without Borders noted in 2006 that journalists were “still at the mercy of arbitrary court decisions”.
An article in the penal code makes it a crime to insult Turkish national identity. It has been used to prosecute journalists and publishers.
Kurdish-language broadcasts, banned for many years, were introduced by the state broadcaster in June 2004 as a part of reforms intended to meet EU criteria on minorities. Some overseas-based Kurdish TV channels broadcast via satellite.