Turn of the Millennium
The capture of PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan in early 1999 may have seemed like a good omen after the torrid ’90s. His capture offered an opportunity – still largely unrealised – to settle the Kurdish question. Later that year the disastrous earthquakes centred on İzmit put paid to any premillennial optimism. The government’s handling of the crisis was inadequate; however, the global outpouring of aid and sympathy – not least from traditional foes, the Greeks – did much to reassure Turks they were valued members of the world community. A new political force arose in the new millennium: Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice & Development Party (AKP) heralded an era of societal reforms, capitalising on improved economic conditions. With Islamist roots, the AKP initially sought to pursue Turkey’s entry to the EU and to end military intervention in the political scene. Much of the support for the AKP arose in the burgeoning cities of Anatolia, rather than the traditional power centres of İstanbul and Ankara. The cities of the interior were experiencing an economic boom, proof that the modernising and economic development projects begun during the Atatürk era were finally bearing fruit. In fact, the Turkish economy continues to grow strongly, with consistently high annual GDP growth, prompting many Turks to be relieved that their country wasn’t absorbed by the EU, thus saving them from the economic perils that have beset Greece. The AKP pursued a new direction in foreign policy, attempting to restore relations with Turkey’s near neighbours, a policy that appeared modestly successful until the outbreak of hostilities in Syria in 2012. On the domestic front, the AKP has worked to curtail military intervention in Turkey’s political sphere, while also initiating ‘openings’ to address long-term dilemmas such as minority rights, the Kurdish issue, acrimonious relations with Armenia and the recognition of Alevi rights. However, thus far these ‘openings’ have not produced long-term solutions. The AKP has also attracted criticism at home and abroad, particularly for restricting freedom of expression among journalists. Others contend that its Islamic political philosophy is consciously curtailing long-held social freedoms such as drinking alcohol at streetside cafes. Grandiose schemes put forward by Prime Minister Erdoğan – including a proposal to cut a new canal connecting the Black and Marmara seas, and plans to build the world’s biggest mosque at Çamlıca in İstanbul – raise a fair few eyebrows, too. However you look at things, Turkish society and economy are currently extremely dynamic, making for a creative environment where ideas, trends, opportunities (and some problems) continue to bubble up, and the majority of Turks (and Kurds) are along for the ride.