The People

Turkey’s population, about 54 million, is growing at a rate of 2.5 percent — higher than European countries, but lower than most Third World nations. Birth rates vary widely, from no more than two children among middle-class families in western cities to as many as 17 in rural families in the southeast. About half of all married women use some form of birth control.

Although the rapid internal migration of the 1960s and 1970s has slowed, once overwhelmingly rural Turkey has become increasingly urban. Large slum neighborhoods (gecekondu) which sprang up around urban centers persist. In 1980, for example, 72 percent of the population of Ankara, the capital city, lived in squatter housing. About half of all Turks now live in towns of 5,000 or more, and more than one quarter live in the five largest cities alone.

Ethnic Groups

The majority are of Turkish ethnic background, and speak a tongue related to Hungarian, Finnish and Korean. Between 9 and 10 million people (some 22 percent) are Kurds, mainly in the southeastern part of the country. The government forbids the Kurdish language and condemns Kurdish nationalists as “separatists.” The Turkish army continues to carry out military operations against Kurdish guerrilla groups. Smaller minority groups in Turkey include Arabs, Caucasians, Circassians, Georgians and Greeks. Armenians were once numerous but a series of Armenian rebellions and violent clashes in 1909 and 1915 ended with massacres and forced expulsions that left perhaps as many as a million Armenians dead and most of the rest in exile.


Islam was abolished as the state religion in 1928 and the principle of state secularism established. Some 98 percent of Turks are Muslim, at least by background, with small Christian and Jewish minorities. Although the government officially recognizes only the Sunni branch of Islam, 20 to 25 percent adhere to the Alevi, a Shi‘i sect. Conflict between Sunnis and Alevis in 1978-1980 claimed many lives. Turkey is experiencing growth among Islamist forces, although the movement is less significant here than elsewhere.

The Land

Turkey’s central geographic feature is its position straddling the point where Europe meets Asia. The small, European part of Turkey (Thrace), including its largest city, Istanbul, borders Greece and Bulgaria. Three bodies of water — the Dardanelles, the Sea of Marmara and the narrow Bosphorus straits — stretch between the the Black Sea and the Aegean, and divide European Turkey from the much larger Asian Turkey (Anatolia). Turkey is about twice the size of California, with a climate ranging widely from near tropical on the southern coast to semi-arid on the central high plateau. The plateau is surrounded by rugged mountain regions to the east where snow may lie for five months a year, winters are bitterly cold and summers are hot and dry.


Thirty-six percent of Turkey’s population is under the age of 14, and a shortage of teachers has hampered progress in education. Although in some rural areas facilities simply do not exist, nearly all Turkish children attend primary school. The adult literacy rate is 86 percent for men and 62 percent for women. The enrollment of boys in primary school has been relatively high and constant since 1965; enrollment of girls has steadily increased and is approaching equality. At the secondary school level, enrollment drops to just under half of all boys and to less than one third of all girls.

Since 1980, university education in Turkey has expanded dramatically, to 29 institutions today across the country. Enrollment has increased from 260,000 students in 1980 to 550,000 today.


Health indicators in Turkey have been steadily improving, but remain poor compared to Europe. Life expectancy has increased from 53 years in 1965 to 65 years today. Deaths of infants in their first year of life have decreased from 162 per thousand births in 1965 to 58 per thousand today. Services remain unequally distributed between urban and rural areas, and from west to east. In 1986, for example, there were 1.3 doctors for every thousand people in Istanbul, but in the remote southeast, only 0.3 per thousand. Access to safe drinking water is still largely an urban privilege: Virtually all city dwellers, but only three out of five rural people, have safe water.

Work, Wealth and Poverty

In the last 30 years, Turkey’s economy has shifted sharply away from agriculture toward industry. In 1960, three out of every four Turks worked in agriculture, which contributed more than 40 percent of the national income. Today more than half of the work force is still engaged in agriculture, forestry or fishing but these bring in only 17 percent of the national income.

Along the Sea of Marmara, the Aegean Sea and the Mediterranean, cotton, tobacco and fruits are grown for export on large, modern farms worked by hired laborers. In the arid, central plateau, farmers raise livestock (mostly sheep and goats) and cereals on small plots of land, using traditional methods. Most of them own at least some of the land they work. Further to the east, the land becomes harsher and only livestock herding is possible. Wool from the millions of sheep — there are nearly as many sheep as people in Turkey — is used for the carpet-making industry. In the Pontic ranges on the Black Sea, tea and hazelnuts (Turkey is the world’s largest producer) are grown on the lower hills.

Industry now contributes 34 percent of the national income, but employs a relatively small number of people — about 18 percent of all workers. The shift from agriculture to industry was planned, spurred by government investment decisions. The leading industries are textiles and food processing.

By the 1970s, Turkey’s developing industries required the import of more goods than the nation was producing for export, and Turkey borrowed heavily to close the gap. In 1977, unable to repay these massive short-term debts, Turkey was forced to adopt harsh austerity measures demanded by the International Monetary Fund and Turkey’s foreign creditors in exchange for new loans. The 1980 military coup brought a further clampdown. In the years between 1980 and 1987, the Turkish economy grew at a fairly high rate (8 percent in 1986 and 7.4 percent in 1987) and exports boomed, but in 1988 the economy slowed considerably, to a 3.4 percent growth rate. Turkey’s external debt remains high ($39 billion), and payments to service that debt are expected to top $7 billion in 1989. About 30 percent of Turkey’s total industrial output is produced by state-controlled companies. The government has announced plans to sell its share in these companies to private owners, but the scheme is suffering from the general economic slowdown and from Turkish investors’ preference for gold over industrial shares.

For Turkish workers, the boom years of 1980-1987 brought few benefits. Inflation was at least 30 percent during these years, and in late 1988 rocketed to 87 percent. In March 1989 it was still 64.5 percent. Wage increases fell far behind the inflation rate, leaving workers to pay for food, housing and clothing with less money each year. In the five years between 1983 and 1988, real wages fell by 56 percent. The poorest workers were unable to meet their basic needs. By one estimate, a worker had to work 19 minutes in 1979 to earn the price of a loaf of bread; today the worker has to work 35 minutes to buy the same loaf.

Unionized workers have responded with job actions and strikes, and by 1989 Turkey was in the throes of the most serious labor unrest since 1980. Workers developed creative ways of demonstrating their demands, such walking to work en masse, shoes in hand, to dramatize that they were paid so little they could not afford to wear out their shoes.

Those on the bottom of the economic ladder even before the years of inflation were already earning only a fraction of the income of the wealthier classes. A 1980 study shows that the poorest 20 percent of families in Istanbul earned only 2.4 percent of the total income, while the richest 20 percent earned 69 percent of the total. Over the past two decades, hundreds of thousands of Turks traveled to Europe, especially West Germany, in search of work and opportunity. In recent years, with German unemployment at new highs, their presence has become a major political issue.

West Germany buys more Turkish goods than any other nation, with 21.4 percent of the total; Iraq (9.3 percent), Italy (8.3 percent) and the US (7.0 percent) are also major trading partners. As a bloc, the European Economic Community countries buy nearly half of all Turkish exports; Middle Eastern and North African countries buy 30 percent. Turkey mainly imports from the same countries: West Germany (14.9 percent), the US, Iraq and Italy.

More than 800 foreign firms now have $3.16 billion in investments in Turkey, mainly in manufacturing, tourism and services. New money invested in Turkey in 1988 nearly doubled from 1987, to $352 million, and will probably double again in 1989 to $824 million. Some investors, anticipating that the European Community will eventually accept Turkey as a member, are seeking a jump on competitors. Others look for Turkey to play a role in post-war reconstruction in Iraq and Iran. Most investment permits are issued to US firms, followed by Britain, Switzerland and West Germany. Recent US investors include E. I. du Pont de Nemour, which is developing an industrial nylon plant, and Levi Strauss, which will soon be making 500,000 pairs of jeans a year.


Although modern Turkey has a history of democratically elected leadership, it has an equally persistent history of military intervention in political life. The Turkish military has seized power three times, in 1960, 1971 and 1980, and the threat of military takeover is always there. Gen. Kenan Evren, who led the 1980 coup, said as recently as April 1988 that the army would do the same thing again if necessary.

From 1961-1980, the Republican People’s Party, which stood for a government-controlled economy, and the conservative Justice Party dominated Turkish politics. The generals who seized power in 1980 banned all political parties until 1983. When new parties were permitted to form and run candidates for the National Assembly elections, the military reserved the right to veto candidates it disapproved of.

The Turkish electorate has been fairly stable over the last several decades, with the parties of the right usually commanding 60-65 percent of the vote and those of the left 35-40 percent. The local elections of March 1989 conformed to this pattern.

The ruling Motherland Party is now struggling for leadership of the right wing with the True Path Party, headed by former Justice Party leader Süleyman Demirel. The Welfare Party represents the Islamist forces of the former National Salvation Party, while the neo-fascist Nationalist Movement Party (political home of the Grey Wolves) has become the Nationalist Labor Party. The Social Democratic Populist Party, heir to the Republican People’s Party, won the most votes in March and is the main opposition party. Also on the left is the Democratic Party, led by former RPP leader Bülent Ecevit. An environmentalist Green Party and a Maoist Socialist Party have not fielded candidates and both have recently split into factions.

US-Turkish Military Ties

US-Turkish military ties began during the Marshall Plan years of 1949-1952, when the US gave Turkey $500 million to modernize its military and Turkey allowed the US to build 26 military installations on its soil.

The US was interested in Turkey primarily because of its neighbors — the Soviet Union to the north and east and the oil-rich Arab countries to the south. Turkey shares a 380-mile land border with the USSR and controls the narrow straits through which all ships and submarines must pass between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean.

Military bases in Turkey are within 500 miles of Tehran and 700 miles of the Iranian port of Abadan on the Gulf. A 1958 Pentagon study discussed the need to pre-stock US military supplies in Turkey, and the US base at Incirlik was a staging point for US intervention in Lebanon that year.

As oil dollars spurred trade with the Arab world and frictions arose over US disregard for Turkish sovereignty, Turkey became less willing to support US policy automatically. The 1969 agreement governing US base rights in Turkey reduced the number of facilities from 26 to 12 and insisted that they be used for NATO contingencies only. During the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, Turkey refused to allow US planes rushing arms to Israel to refuel on its territory. It did, however, permit Soviet planes resupplying Egypt and Syria to use Turkish airspace.

Turkish officials have since declared that US and NATO facilities in Turkey are not available for non-NATO military actions in the Gulf or elsewhere in the Middle East without prior Turkish approval. Actions in support of Israel are expressly forbidden. One loophole remains: While US troops are not allowed to stage operations at will from US bases in Turkey, all “passive” US capabilities there — especially intelligence and communications — undoubtedly have been used to support Middle East missions.

Except for the period of the arms embargo imposed by Congress from February 1975 to September 1978 after Turkey’s intervention in Cyprus, Turkey has generally ranked third, behind Israel and Egypt, among US military aid recipients worldwide. US administrations have often proposed higher levels of aid than Congress was willing to approve, particularly when the Pentagon was interested in using Turkish bases for its Rapid Deployment Forces/Central Command. About 5,000 US military personnel are today stationed in Turkey, along with some 489 US tactical nuclear weapons.

Sources: Financial Times Survey: Turkey, May 22, 1989; Middle East Economic Digest, August 5, 1988; April 7 and 14, 1989; May 19 and 26, 1989; Middle East International, May 14, 1988; Turkey News and Views, June 1989; Info-Turk, February 1989; Economist Intelligence Unit Country Profiles, 1989-90 (April 1989); MERI Report: Turkey (Kent: Croom Helm, 1985); Michael N. Danielson and Ruşen Keleş, The Politics of Rapid Urbanization: Government and Growth in Modern Turkey (New York: Holmes & Meier, 1985), p. 65, 166; World Resources 1988-89 (New York: Basic Books, 1988); World Bank, Social Indicators of Development 1988 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988); Collier’s Encyclopedia (1988); Ellen Laipson, Turkey and US Interests (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, February 23, 1981); House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe and the Middle East, US Military Installations in NATO’s Southern Region, October 7, 1986; Richard Cottam, “Levels of Conflict in the Middle East,” and Maurizio Cremasco, “Do-It-Yourself: The National Approach to the Out-of-Area Question,” in Joseph I. Coffey and Gianni Bonvicini, eds., The Atlantic Alliance and the Middle East (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1989); William Arkin and Richard Fieldhouse, Nuclear Battlefields (Cambridge: Ballinger, 1985).

How to cite this article:

Martha Wenger "Turkey: A Primer," Middle East Report 160 (September/October 1989).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


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