RIZE, Turkey (Reuters) - In the verdant hilltop villages of Rize, images of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, the region’s second most famous export after tea, hang from the windows of partially-built houses.
There is deep pride here in the man whose family left this north-eastern, pious backwater 44 years ago to seek a better life 1,000 km (600 miles) west in Istanbul.
Yet it is tinged with a resignation among locals that to find real prosperity they have little choice but to do the same.
The gulf between Turkey’s rich and poor regions is vast, with its western provinces, Aegean and Mediterranean coastlines enjoying a per capita income more than twice that of the interior and the east.
The ruling AK Party, poised to win a third term in an election on June 12, has presided over an unprecedented period of economic prosperity for Turkey. Per capita income rose from $3,492 in 2002, the year it took power, to $10,079 in 2010.
But according to a 2008 study Turkey’s rich-poor divide is the highest among OECD countries after Mexico, and looks likely to remain so.
Latest Turkish data from 2009 showed income inequality rose that year and that the richest 20 percent of the population had a household income 8.5 times higher than the bottom 20 percent, up from 8.1 times in 2007.
The AK Party finds much of its support among Turkey’s poor, particularly among pious Muslims long marginalized in a state once dominated by secular elites such as the military.
Due to its impressive economic record the party also appeals to old wealthy business classes however, as well as the “Anatolian tigers,” pious self-made entrepreneurs from fast-growing Anatolian cities such as Gaziantep and Kayseri.
“This is the paradox of the AK Party, and the reason for its popularity. It manages to appeal to the wealthy, the Anatolian tigers and the poor,” said Sadir Aybar, economics professor at Istanbul’s Kadir Has University.
Yet he sees the party’s focus shifting, citing its privatization programs and ambitious infrastructure projects while social welfare is passed over to local municipalities.
“They are becoming more and more a party for the richer bourgeois in Turkey,” Aybar said.
Among poorer voters there is a real frustration that stellar economic growth, which hit 9 percent in 2010, has not translated into more jobs, and more equitable regional investment.
In Rize’s Topkaya village Mualla Kazanci, a 40-year-old mother of two, is bent double among the tea plants running down the steep hill from her home, using hand shears to prune the fresh green leaves which she will sell for just 1 lira 10 kurus per kilo ($0.70).
The back-breaking harvest produces Turkey’s ubiquitous black tea, that is served in dainty tulip-shaped glasses and pressed upon visitors throughout the country.
“Even though Erdogan comes from here this region has been neglected. While they plan huge projects for Istanbul we don’t even have a decent tarmac road,” said Kazanci.
Most of the houses have half-built upper storeys, waiting for the day villagers can afford to complete them.
The Istanbul-born Prime Minister, who spent his early years in Rize, moved back to the city at age 13. His family still owns a modest tea plantation in Rize.
Yilmaz Nas, 58, who once drove lorries throughout neighboring Iran, Georgia and Russia, says his pension is not enough to live on and support his family.
“Erdogan has done nothing for this region and the party merely enriches its own people.. my fridge is empty at home.”
At 11.5 percent the jobless rate nationwide is somewhat higher than when Erdogan took power, a disappointment to many given Turkey’s fast growth over the same period. Young people are particularly hard hit.
In nearby Trabzon’s Black Sea University students expect to have to move to Istanbul or Izmir to find work and an affluent lifestyle.
“The AK party has done a lot over the last years. When I remember what hospitals were like when I was growing up things have changed a lot. But unemployment is really high,” said 24-year-old business student Merve Derman.
“Even if I did find a job here I’d get paid a lot more in Istanbul. I want to move there and have a decent lifestyle.”
Bustling Trabzon, a port city of 765,000, handles container ships from Ukraine and Russia, and has an international airport with direct routes to Germany and Azerbaijan.
The city is the gateway to the Kackar mountains, increasingly popular with domestic tourists, and the famed 13th century orthodox Sumela monastery which clings to a rock face.
Locals say it has lots of potential. But per capita income is 4,700 euros ($6,894), compared to 11,500 euros ($16,870) in Istanbul. Trabzon is well off compared with the predominantly Kurdish southeast, however, where income is 3,000 euros
A long-running conflict between the state and the separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), at its most violent in the early 1990s, has stymied economic development in the southeast, as have decades of restrictions on cross border trade with neighbors Iran, Iraq and Syria.
Improving ties between Ankarha and its neighbors and a relaxing in regulations give some hope to the region, although the uprising in Syria has put on hold aspirations of building economic ties there.
“Ankara must distribute funds more, invest in regions and drive specialization. The government says migration is a problem but yet they pour money into Istanbul, planning new bridges and a canal. If they do more for regions people wouldn’t leave,” said Rahmi Yamak, economics professor at Black Sea University.
Data from the Turkish statistics office shows migration away from Trabzon, and even heavier migration from northeast Anatolia, while Istanbul is the recipient of tens of thousands.
Suat Hacisalihoglu, chairman of Trabzon’s Chamber of Commerce, is upbeat about the city’s future, but says the region needs to see its rail links upgraded and better connected with the rest of the country.
“Trabzon has a long history as a trade center and is a bridge between Europe and the Caucuses. We would like to establish it as a logistics center for the future.”
Editing by Sonya Hepinstall