The 1990s: modernisation & separatism
The first Gulf War kick-started the 1990s with a bang. Turkey played a prominent role in the allied invasion of Iraq, with Özal supporting sanctions and allowing air strikes from bases in southern Anatolia. In so doing, Turkey, after decades in the wilderness, affirmed its place in the international community, while also becoming a more important US ally. At the end of the Gulf War millions of Iraqi Kurds, fearing reprisals from Saddam, fled north into southeastern Anatolia. The exodus caught the attention of the international media, bringing the Kurdish issue into the international spotlight, and resulted in the establishment of the Kurdish safe haven in northern Iraq. This in turn emboldened the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), who stepped up their campaign, thus provoking more drastic and iron-fisted responses from the Turkish military, such that the southeast was effectively enduring a civil war. The Kurdish conflagration continued escalating, with most of the southeast under martial law, until the capture of Abdullah Öcalan in 1999. Meanwhile, Turgut Özal died suddenly in 1993 thus creating a power vacuum. Various weak coalition governments followed throughout the 1990s, with a cast of political figures flitting across the political stage. Tansu Çiller served briefly as Turkey’s first female prime minister, but her much-vaunted feminine touch and economic expertise did nothing to find a solution to the Kurdish issue or to cure the ailing economy. In fact, her husband’s name was aired in various fraud investigations at a time when sinister links between organised crime, big business and politicians were becoming increasingly apparent. In December 1995, to everyone’s surprise, the religious Refah (Welfare) Party managed to form a government led by veteran politician Necmettin Erbakan. Heady with power, Refah politicians made Islamist statements that raised the ire of the military. In 1997 the National Security Council declared that Refah had flouted the constitutional ban on religion in politics. Faced with what some dubbed a ‘postmodern coup’, the government resigned and Refah was disbanded.