Strategically situated with borders overlapping Europe and Asia, Turkey has geographical and historic connections with the Balkans, the Middle East, Caucasus and Eastern Mediterranean regions. Frequently transformed through millenia of history, this former Hellenistic, Eastern Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman land has always played a vital role in shaping regional events.
Turkey’s historic diversity still registers in a complex cultural identity that blends various ethnic groups and sub-groups with culture and traditions both Turkic and Western alike. Modern Turkey is a democratic, secular, unitary and constitutional republic, having successfully transformed itself under the leadership of statesman Mustafa Kemal Atatürk from the religion-based former Ottoman Empire into a modern nation-state.
Although the Turkish Constitution guarantees the separation of state and religion, in practice 99% of the country’s population is registered as Muslim, predominantly Sunni (followed by the Alevis, a branch of Islam similar to Bektashi Sufiism).
Religious minorities include small numbers of Roman Catholics, Armenian Apostolic, Assyrians, Greek Orthodox and Jews. Despite the relatively small number of Greek Orthodox left in Turkey today, the historic relationship between the former capital of the Christian Byzantine Empire remains with the continuing existence of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, in Istanbul.
With a growing population, Turkey is becoming an economic and political force, not only in the region but on the larger international stage as well. Under the leadership of the AK Party since 2002 Turkey has taken an increasingly active role in foreign diplomacy. While this new Turkish activism is often controversial, both domestically and abroad, there is no question that it reflects the growing confidence of a country poised to make the most of its diplomatic, economic and cultural opportunities in the years ahead.
At the same time, Turkey has become more introspective following a failed July 2015 military coup blamed on US-based cleric Fettullah Gulen. The turbulent event led to mass purges in all sectors of life, from schools and media to the security services, seeming to solidify the rule of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. However, the endless terrorist attacks from enemies old (the Kurdish PKK) and new (ISIS) have created an increasingly volatile atmosphere.
Islamic terrorism is becoming a major concern, and Turkey’s improved relations with Russia (which led to a declared ceasefire in Syria in late December 2016, with the help of Iran) has caused great consternation in the West. Plus, Turkey’s control over millions of aspiring migrants to Europe give it enormous leverage, making it by far the most important Balkan state to watch in the coming period.
EU relations and the migrant crisis; relations with Russia and Iran amidst hardening Western policies; the Kurdish separatist issue, and related military operations; ISIS and other Islamic terrorist groups active in the country; concern over authoritarianism and centralization of power among EU leaders.
Forward Planning: Points of Interest
- The government’s evolving role in solving the civil war in Syria, while balancing national interests. NATO ally responsibilities and improved relations with Russia
- The migrant crisis, and potential for Turkey to send more migrants to European shores
- The future of relations with Kurds in the southeast, in light of a possible independence moves and terrorism
- The personal phenomenon of President Erdogan and results of post-coup ‘cleanup’ on institutional capacity and quality
- EU relations, especially progress towards visa liberalization
- Turkey’s aim of becoming an energy hub in Eurasia
- Changing perceptions of religion’s role in society and the end of the Kemalist state, being replaced by an Islamist-oriented one
- Turkish intervention in the Western Balkans in light of moves from outside powers after the Macedonian political crisis