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TURKEY


 

 

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Key Economic Data 
 
  2003 2002 2001 Ranking(2003)
GDP
Millions of US $ 237,972 182,848 147,700 21
         
GNI per capita
 US $ 2,790 2,500 2,530 92
Ranking is given out of 208 nations - (data from the World Bank)

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Update No: 179 - (26/06/12)

As Cyprus gears up to take the rotating presidency of the EU on July 1, Turkey has emphasized its ongoing refusal to recognize the official Greek Cypriot government. This has in turn redirected attention towards the viability of Turkey's EU bid as a whole, which has seen a renewed impetus of late. Nonetheless the international agenda demands attention and shifting loyalties in Iraq, Iran and Israel are also providing challenges. A recent attempt to introduce an anti-abortion bill has been met with a storm of outrage, at the prospect of increased government interference with personal choice. Turkey's record on freedom of speech also shows no sign of improving.

Prime Minister Erdogan continues to steer Turkey, the world's 17th-largest economy, through the storms of Middle East upheavals and the threatening financial situation in Europe. Turkey has benefited from its position of power in both these areas and the Prime Minister, now in his third term, has taken care to assert Ankara's strength as a financial powerhouse and a model democratic, secular state. Nonetheless several problems - the ongoing Kurdish separatist issues, increasingly complex bilateral relations with Iran and Iraq and finally but perhaps most significantly this month - tense relations with Cyprus, on the verge of adopting the rotating EU presidency, are all posing as obstacles to the smooth progress of this nation of 75 million people.

Recent weeks have seen a resurgence in violence in the country's south east, where militants from the PKK (the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party) continue to fight for their independence. The increased frequency of attacks witnessed over the past months has shown no sign of abating. A suspected suicide bomber killed himself and a police officer on May 27, injuring 19 others in the process. On June 19 it was reported that 18 people were killed and 16 wounded in clashes in the mountainous zone. "I curse this treacherous attack," President Abdullah Gul said in a statement. "The terrorist group wants to sabotage the atmosphere of trust and stability and is continuing its inhumane bloody attacks." The attacks come at an inopportune moment, as Turkey has recently made renewed efforts to draw the conflict, which has claimed 40,000 lives, to an end. Prime Minister Erdogan has made a series of friendly gestures, including offering Kurdish-language lessons as an option in schools (it is often complained that on a cultural level Kurdish identity is repressed). He also expressed his willingness to hold talks with outspoken Kurdish politician Leyla Zana. On June 16, deputy prime minister, Bülent Arınç went even further and suggested that were the PKK to cease hostilities, house arrest could be considered as an option for jailed PKK leader Abdullah Öcala. Erdogan was quick however to assert that this was only Arınç's opinion and not the official line. It would seem the necessity to quell the Kurdish insurgency has become a matter of bipartisan consensus; the leader of Turkey's opposition Republican People's party, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu said he would be willing to work with the ruling AK party to resolve the Kurdish problem. Why the recent interest in resolving the conflict? Some analysts have noted that increasingly perilous situation in Syria, which has a Kurdish minority, has increased fears of instability.

The Kurdish issue has also affected relations with other states. Despite avowing their aim of 'zero problems with neighbours', Turkey has seen relations with Iraq deteriorate in recent months, particularly as a result of Ankara's courting of the leader of the Kurdish autonomous republic, Massaou Barzani, whose good will is deemed necessary to calm the Kurdish insurgency. Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki was recently irked by Exxon Mobil's plans to explore for oil in the autonomous region and has even gone so far as to ask Barack Obama to stop the deal, on the basis that it will have a deleterious effect on the stability of the state. Turkey meanwhile has thrown its weight behind oil exploration plans in the region by stating that it is willing to import oil directly from Kurdistan. The latter's plans to begin exporting its crude oil along a new pipeline to the Turkish border, by August 2013 are already underway. This has merely fanned the flames of Bagdad's anger.

With Iran, relations are also proving problematic as international pressure upon Tehran to clarify its nuclear plans increases and Turkey attempts to pivot between the two sides. Bilateral relations, which are normally relatively friendly, took a turn for the worse when Turkey announced its firm opposition to the Assad regime in Syria, which Tehran still supports. Now, as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad proves a recalcitrant negotiator in six-party talks on its nuclear regime, which recommenced in Moscow on June 18, Turkey is under increasing pressure to take a harder stance against it. Washington wants to see Ankara decrease its oil imports from Iran (of which it supplies 30%) by a fifth. The US has granted Turkey a 180-day exemption from financial sanctions to work out how it can reduce its imports. After this period the Obama administration will want to see another cut of an as-of-yet unspecified amount. Turkey is hoping to turn to Venezuela and Libya instead for supplies. On June 12 it was reported that Turkey had begun talks with Saudi Arabia on long-term crude oil purchases. Turkish Energy Minister Taner Yildiz summarised the plan for reducing dependence on Iran as follows: "We aim to increase the number of countries where we buy natural gas from five, to seven or eight and the number of countries where we buy crude oil to 14, if possible, from 11. We determined Libya as the 12th country.” This is all in aid of pressuring Iran to resume negotiations on its nuclear regime.

It seems that there is already evidence that Turkey is willing to meet Washington's demands. It reportedly reduced its imports in May by around 20%. Iran however is still counting on long-standing ties with Ankara as it attempts to circumvent ever-tightening sanctions. It has been reported that three Iranian banks have applied for licenses to operate in Turkey. It is however unlikely, it seems, that the banks will manage to gain approval by the BDDK banking regulator. Nonetheless, Turkey and Iran have made moves to initiate a money exchange structure which would reduce the use of US dollars and would strengthen trade. When President Ahmadinejad met with Turkish Minister of Development Cevdet Yilmaz on a recent business visit to Tehran, the President spoke optimistically of deepening 'brotherly ties'. It would seem that for the Iranian president, maintaining this connection in the light of deepening international sanctions is of vital import. On both sides there are of course commercial interests. A preferential trade agreement is on the verge of being finalized. It is hoped that the countries will increase their trade exchanges to $30 billion in the near future.

Within the turbulent geopolitical configurations of the Middle East, problems also remain with Israel, previously an ally of Turkey. Relations were strained following the Mavi Marmara flotilla incident of May 2010 when nine Turkish citizens were killed by Israeli commandoes as they were transporting aid to the Gaza strip. It was recently reported that Israel may be willing to pay $4 million in compensation to the families of those murdered when the ship was stormed. One of several lawyers representing the victims has described the offer as inappropriate and immoral, since there would be no question of an official apology. As noted a few months ago, Israel's agreement with Greek-Cypriot officials to explore for natural gas off the coast of Cyprus also caused consternation on Turkey's part.

Relations with Cyprus are particularly acerbic at the moment. Seemingly in response to the Israeli exploration plans, at the end of April, Turkey's state oil company TPAO began onshore drilling for oil, and has established plans to search for gas off the northern coast, in a deal that would see profits divided equally with the Turkish-Cypriot administration. These plans will cost Ankara as much as $250 million. At the launch ceremony, attended by Turkish Energy Minister Taner Yildiz, Mr Yildiz said the Turkyurdu-1 well could be "a force for peace in Cyprus". An unlikely prospect, say many observers. It has been widely noted that the chances of making any actual finds are nugatory; the move is simply a political gesture designed to counter any move by the Greek Cypriot government which Turkey could deem a 'provocation'. Turkey's plans were met with protests from Cyprus who claim that the drilling is illegal, an opinion shared by the Greek Foreign Ministry who said, "This action once again highlights that the Cyprus issue is primarily an issue of invasion and occupation".

Previously, there had been hopes that drilling would take place once a peace agreement had been reached, but since the Greek Cypriot leaders are facing financial collapse, any means of securing additional income has been prioritized. In addition to the energy battles, there is the matter of Cyprus' assumption of the six-month rotating EU Presidency on July 1. Turkey vowed last year that it would cease contact with the EU when this happens, and it has not apparently found reason to change its position in the interim. Turkey's refusal to recognize the Greek government of Cyprus is the main sticking point in Turkey's stalling bid to join the EU. The disagreement over Cyprus, whose northern part is the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus and whose southern part is recognised by the EU, has been 'virtually frozen' since 1974. Attempts for the EU and Turkey to discuss policy areas have ground to a halt, partly as a result of this. Out of 35 necessary chapters, 17 are blocked either by Cyprus or France. Turkey, meanwhile, insists the European Union should end its embargo of the North.

As Cyprus prepares to assume the presidency, Andreas Mavroyannis, deputy minister to the president of Cyprus for EU affairs, insisted that his country would not mix the issue of its sovereignty with presidency business, instead intending to focus on European matters. Meanwhile, EU Commissioner for enlargement Stefan Fule, has urged Nicosia to focus on both questions. Mavroyannis retorted that Turkey caused the problem by threatening, back in March, that it would consider annexing the northern territory if the two sides failed to reach a unification deal before July 1. July 1 will soon be upon us - stalemate continues.

Nonetheless, in a sign of positive progress for Turkey's EU bid, on June 20, EU members gave permission to start visa exemption talks with Turkey, which marks an important step towards breaking the stalemate on accession. "It will be a game changer. We hope to show that the EU is still relevant for Turkey," Selim Yenel, Turkey's EU ambassador, told EU observers. Yenel was, however, less clement regarding Cyprus, lambasting in particular the state's burgeoning relationship with Russia. The island nation has looked to Moscow for loans to prop up its ailing financial sector rather than turning to the EU, which Yenel believes to be a negative trend. The minister apparently said that (as is well known), "a lot of the illegal gains [of Russian businessmen] have been whitewashed on the island" and added, in reference to reports of Russia controversially exporting weapons to Syria, "We have seen some ships that have gone to Cyprus and then to Syria without being checked. We're surprised how lenient the EU has been on this. It's unbelievable."

Cyprus is far from the only issue inhibiting Turkey's EU aspirations. One major source of complaint is the nation's attacks on journalists who work in a climate of repression unparalleled in EU member states. The press remains abominably constrained; more journalists are in prison in Turkey than in Iran and China combined. A recent example of pressure on reporters was the dismissal of Ali Akel, a conservative columnist for the pro-government newspaper Yeni Safak, who lost his job after writing an article published on May 25, in which he criticized Erdogan's handling of the Kurdish question. Repression of journalists' activities often falls under the official umbrella of investigating the Egernekon plot - a nebulous conspiracy to overthrow the government. In an example of the way in which this plot is employed to silence dissidents, two Turkish students who were arrested in 2010 for holding a banner that read "We want free education, we will get it," during a meeting between Erdogan and Roma citizens, were recently sentenced to 8 years and five months in prison for membership of a terrorist organization. Another instance of repression which has drawn the attention of the international community is the high-profile case of classical pianist Fazil Say. He has been charged with "publicly insulting religious values that are adopted by a part of the nation" after he retweeted lines from a poem by the 11th-century Persian poet, Omar Khayyam, that derided the Islamic vision of heaven. The irony of this act, given that Erdogan himself was arrested in 1998 for quoting a poem which offended the (secular) values of that state, seems to have been lost on the ruling powers.

Erdogan courted controversy again recently with the following statement: "I see abortion as murder." Whilst the Prime Minister's pro-fertility policy is well-publicized (he believes that every family should have at least three children) this much harder line on family planning provoked a storm of controversy. Matching his rhetoric with legislation, he proposed a bill which would restrict abortion to up to four weeks. As most women do not find out they are pregnant until six weeks, this would mean a de facto ban on the practice. A number of politicians have weighed in with inflammatory statements in favour of the bill. Health Minister Recep Akdag said that women who had been raped should keep their babies as the state would take care of them. The mayor of Greater Ankara, Melih Gökçek, told television viewers that a mother who considered abortion should "kill her herself instead and not let the child bear the brunt of her mistake". One of the more disquieting elements of Erdogan's argument was that he believes that abortion practices and the large number of Caesarean sections performed in Turkey might be part of a conspiracy to limit the state’s population.

The draft bill has unsurprisingly has been met with strong opposition, indeed outrage, not only among women's organizations and medical practitioners, but with the general public. Apparently in a poll that showed 55.5% of Turkey's citizens are against a possible ban, observers have been quick to note that the bill reflects a deeper trend of undermining of women's' rights. In Turkey, 40% of women experience some kind of violence in their lives and patriarchy is re-enforced on many levels of cultural and social existence. The fear is that if abortion were banned or circumscribed, women would be forced to see back alley abortions which infamously pose extreme risks to the patients. On June 3, 3000-4000 people gathered in Istanbul to protest against the move. Their pleas may have been heeded. On June 21, it was reported that the AKP had dropped the controversial plans. The proposition will however have certainly damaged the reputation of the AKP party in the sphere of protecting rights.

In a final point relating to this domain, there have been worrying signs that Turkey's prisons may be less than exemplary. On June 17, thirteen prisoners were killed in a conflagration that started with inmates setting fire to their mattresses, reportedly in protest at the conditions they have to endure. The governor of the prison in Sanliurfa province denied that there was anything political about the incident, no mutiny or conflict of any sort. Nonetheless, overcrowding is a well-documented problem in Turkey's prisons. Apparently the dormitories in this prison were designed for 8 people but in reality house as many as 18. Just two days later another fire broke out in the same prison apparently started in protest against the deaths and overcrowding; similar protest fires were reported at prisons in Osmaniye, Antep, Kürkçüler and in Karaman. Inadequate conditions have been the scourge of the state's penal system. There are allegedly plans to build 169 prisons in response to the dramatic overcrowding. These recent incidents have prompted The European Council Committee for the Prevention of Torture, who had planned to visit Turkey this year anyway, to expedite the creation of a delegation to investigate. When this happens, the light cast upon these institutions may yield some ugly results.

Erdogan's stance on abortion will have proved shocking to the liberals of Western Europe. His stance on freedom of speech is equally unpalatable. It is interesting to note that some observers have been tempted of late to compare him with Russia's Vladimir Putin, hardly a flattering comparison for those of a democratic inclination. The news that he advocates a shift to a presidential system, which would mean he might attempt, a la Putin, to swap jobs and thus stay in power, beyond his third (and by law, last) term has reinforced concerns that he has autocratic tendencies. The country has undeniably flourished in financial and geopolitical terms under his tenure, but whether the same can be said for citizens' rights, is another matter.

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