Turkey: A Bridge or an Island?

tu-mapSource: CIA World Factbook

Located at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, Turkey is uniquely situated geographically, socially, and politically. It borders eight different countries, including an economically unstable Greece, as well as Syria, a country currently engaged in a violent civil war. Turkey is not immune to upheaval. In the last year, anti-government protesters took to the streets in many Turkish cities to demonstrate against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s alleged authoritarian policies. Turkey continues to face internal and external scrutiny of its human rights record, particularly relating to the country’s Kurdish minority, a major roadblock in Turkey’s accession to the European Union (EU). Additionally, Turkey has fought a decades-long armed struggle with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a recognized terrorist group representing the Kurdish minority.

Turkey has had its string of successes, however. The country maintains a growing economy, and was relatively unaffected by the European debt crisis. Turkey is also an ally to the United States and gets multilateral support from organizations such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the United Nations. In a region known for harsh governance, Turkey is often praised for combining moderate Islamic rule with Western alliances.  It is these domestic and foreign affairs, both beneficial and challenging, that shape Turkey’s status as a transcontinental country.

The 43rd annual World Affairs Institute took place on Thursday, November 7, 2013. This year’s title and focus, “Turkey: A Bridge or an Island,” emphasized Turkey’s divided geography and global identity. Over 300 high school students, chaperones, and teachers, sponsored by local Rotary Clubs throughout Western Pennsylvania and Eastern Ohio, gathered at the Senator John Heinz History Center to discuss Turkey’s contemporary challenges. Before the event, attendees received a detailed background paper explaining Turkey’s history, the establishment of the Turkish republic, and its economic, domestic, and foreign policies to prepare them for the discussion.

DSC_0047Mayor-elect Bill Peduto gives remarks at the 43rd annual World Affairs Institute

Mayor-elect Bill Peduto started the day by sharing his personal experience visiting Gaziantep, Pittsburgh’s sister city located in southeastern Turkey. Two moderated discussions followed focusing on domestic and foreign policy challenges, and Turkey’s relations with its neighbors. One panelist, Dr. Gönül Tol of the Middle East Institute’s Center for Turkish Studies, talked specifically about Gaziantep. It’s one of the oldest cities in the world, and its proximity to Syria has recently made it a haven for refugees escaping Syria’s civil conflict. All panelists pointed to border security, Turkey’s attempt at EU membership, internal ethnic conflict, and Turks emigrating out of the country as significant issues facing Turkey today.

The students were also given a foreign policy scenario set six months into the future (May 2014), which dealt with Turkey’s conflict with the PKK and improved rights for the Kurdish minority. Each group had to evaluate the scenario from the perspective of a key international, regional or domestic actor, and make policy recommendations accordingly. The range of actors impacted by the conflict, including the European Union, the Northern Iraqi Kurdistan Regional government, and various media outlets, brought together the theme of Turkey’s role as both a bridge and an island in the international community.

You can download this year’s background paper on Turkey, here, for a more in depth look at Turkish history and politics. Additionally, if you are interested in reading about more recent events impacting Turkey, check out the World Affairs Institute blog. This resource provides more up-to-date news affecting Turkey leading up to the World Affairs Institute on November 7.

By: Ciara O’Connor, World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh Intern