Kurds attend a gathering to celebrate Newroz in southeastern Turkish city of Diyarbakir
Kurds attend a gathering to celebrate Newroz in southeastern Turkish city of Diyarbakir Reuters

Turkey has emerged as an economic superpower in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, with increasing influence in regional politics. Promoting itself as a model Muslim democracy, and widely admired by other Middle Eastern nations, the Turks now face a novel problem that western Europe and Japan have long contended with: a falling birth rate.

Since the 1990s, Turkey's fertility rate has steadily declined, due to, among other factors, rising household incomes, expanded access to higher education for women and increased birth control practices.

The use of birth-control methods has increased in Turkey a lot, but that is not the only reason for the decline in population, an obstetrician named Ka?an Kocatepe told Hürriyet Daily News, a Turkish newspaper.

Many women want to have a successful career. That's why the [average] maternity age has increased, as women have started giving birth to their first child in their 30s.

Indeed, ?smet Koç, a demographer at Hacettepe University in Ankara, warned that Turkey's fertility rate is now below 2.1, the replacement level, which suggests the population will continue to decline.

The fertility level in western Turkey, the most economically advanced part of the country, is now about 1.5 -- roughly the same as in western Europe.

Over the past two decades, the number of children produced by the average Turkish woman has plunged from 3 to 2, coincident with Turkey's rise as an economic power; however, there is a wrinkle to this whole phenomenon.

The Kurdish community of Turkey, which represents at least 15 percent of the country's overall population and dominates the south-eastern region) has such a high birth rate, that some observers -- most prominently Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan -- believe Kurds could become a majority in Turkey within another generation.

The proposed scenario is somewhat similar to the Palestinian situation in Israel, where Arabs could become the dominant ethnic group within 30 years or so; or in the southwestern United States, where Hispanics and Mexican-Americans are likely to become the majority within a few decades.

According to Turkish government statistics, the average Kurdish woman in Turkey gives birth to about four children, more than double the rate for other Turkish mothers.

Thus, Turkey is facing a demographic time bomb -- Kurds, who tend to be concentrated in the country's impoverished southeast and are generally poorer and less educated -- could conceivably outnumber Turks within about 30 years should present patterns persist.

Erdogan, for one, seems to be certain this will happen.

If we continue the existing trend, [the year] 2038 will mark disaster for us, Erdogan warned in May 2010.

The prime minister, who has repeatedly called on Turkish couples to have three children and even suggested financially rewarding such fecundity, once declared: Our population is getting older ... if we don't pull these numbers up, Turkey will be in a difficult position by 2038.

Some Turkish academics scoff at Erdogan's solutions as unrealistic.

Cem Behar, an economics professor at Istanbul's Bo?azici University, told the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review: It's clear that Turkey is going to face a decline in the growth rate of its population. Yet you cannot address such an issue by telling people to have more children.

Behar added: There is no family policy in Turkey. And I don't think anyone is going to have more children just because [Erdo?an] told them to do so. If the government really wants to promote having more children, it needs to prepare the necessary conditions for it, such as lowering taxes for those families or strengthening pre-school education.

A rapidly rising Kurdish population would pose unique problems and challenges for the Turkish state and society.

Kurds have long faced discrimination, deprivation, even state-sponsored violence, throughout their long and epic residence in Turkey. As such, many Kurds seeks a separate homeland, or at the least, an autonomous self-rule in the southeast.

Indeed, Kurds represent a dominant and highly contentious theme in Turkish politics.

For many years, it was, in fact, illegal for Kurds to speak their own language, use Kurdish names and play Kurdish music -- an attempt by Ankara to wipe out the separate, ethnic identity of the Kurds. Indeed, some Turks regarded Kurds simply as Mountain Turks.

The Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), a Marxist militant movement which Turkey, the European Union and the U.S. brand as a terrorist group, has fought for a separatist nation for decades. The PKK's periodic conflicts with the Turkish military have cost tens of thousands of lives on both sides - seemingly with no resolution in sight.

Of course, many, perhaps most, Kurds in Turkey do not support the PKK and seek to assimilate with mainstream Turkish society -- while retaining their unique and distinct Kurdish culture, language and customs.

Now, with the Kurds making more babies than the Turks, will Kurds really become a majority in a country where they have long suffered abuse and deprivation? And if that were to happen, how would that impact the Kurds' status in Turkey?

International Business Times spoke with an expert on Turkey and demographics to explore this topic.

Ibrahim Sirkeci is Director of the Regent's Center for Transnational Studies at Regent's College, London.

IB TIMES: Is the overall fertility rate in Turkey declining because the country is becoming wealthier, household incomes are rising and more women are using birth control methods?

SIRKECI: Yes, one can say that. Many studies provide evidence that fertility is linked to socioeconomic development levels across the world. It is seen as part of a demographic transition where we expect fertility decline in the long run.

Industrialization and urbanization often facilitates the decline. This is partly due to the fact that people are getting married later in their lives and having less time and less interest in having children.

However, recent studies including my own also indicate that women's' empowerment may have a role. It means women with better education, qualifications and employment tend to have better control over their fertility.

IB TIMES: The birth rate for Kurds is more than double that of Turks. Is this due to the fact that Kurds are generally poorer and less educated?

SIRKECI: This higher fertility among Kurds apparently has something to do with less education and also a lack of economic opportunities - and I would say probably is mainly due to deprivation of Kurdish women rather than Kurdish men.

Despite this gap between the two groups, fertility rates have tended to decline for both Kurds and Turks over the last three decades. Kurdish segments in the western parts of the country also have higher fertility rates compared to their Turkish neighbors but in the long run I expect that to change; that is, fertility will decline.

IB TIMES: Prime Minister Erdogan warned that Kurds could become a majority in Turkey by 2038. Is this a realistic prediction?

SIRKECI: Politicians speak a different language than others. Perhaps there is room for wild 'guestimations,' but for scientists this is a no-go area.

First of all, nobody really knows how many Kurds there are. I have analyzed the available official data and made some estimations in the 1990s and found that the Kurdish-speaking population in Turkey accounts for 18 percent of the total population.

But again, these are all based on proxies. No real count has taken place since 1965. The evidence we have indicates that it is likely that the Kurdish share of the total population will increase. However, this would be temporary as Kurdish fertility rates will also follow the same declining pattern in the long run.

Thus, I don't think Kurds will become a majority within a generation as Erdogan predicts. We don't see a population doubling itself in 20 years and even so it would not even be enough if the estimated Kurdish population size is accurate.

IB TIMES: In the event Kurds become a majority in Turkey, will that render the Kurdish nationalist and separatist movements irrelevant and moot?

SIRKECI: This is a tough question which requires some imagination to answer. Kurds and Turks are already quite mixed despite the ongoing feud.

Separatism may not serve Kurdish needs and wants, no matter if they are the majority or minority. Of course there are and there will be some willing to secede, but majority of Kurds may not prefer separatism due to practical considerations.

IB TIMES: What, if anything, is the Turkish government doing to prevent these demographic trends?

SIRKECI: I don't know if there are any specific programs for this purpose. However, there are worldwide population health programs mainly promoting awareness. Turkey has been party to these and adopted similar policies for all regions of the country.

The fact that Kurdish fertility rates were much higher makes that group a target for population health programs but I don't think there is any conspiracy against the Kurds.

However, the current government and Erdogan seems to be promoting population growth and he does it without discriminating against anybody as he thinks every couple should have three children at least.

IB TIMES: If the Kurds are becoming more assimilated, why is this even a problem? If the Ankara government does not even classify Kurds as a separate ethnic group, why would they even care about their higher birth rate?

SIRKECI: Looking at demographic trends and fertility rate patterns, we cannot conclude that Kurds are assimilating. They are perhaps following an inevitable, expected pattern of behavior which results in declining fertility. The gap between different ethnic (or maybe socioeconomic) segments in terms of fertility rates may be closed in the very long term. Take it this way, a 1 percent decline in the population growth rate in Turkey took about four decades. Also, in recent years, we see more evidence that the Ankara government recognizes Kurds as a separate ethnic group.

But again, I am not aware of any government attempt at playing with Kurdish fertility rates. So I cannot comment. However, demographic engineering has always been of interest to governments throughout the history. Perhaps it is in the DNA of statehood.