I have been a keen follower of Turkey’s policies in Western Balkans for more than 15 years. I have lived and worked in different countries across the region in a period in which Turkey managed to develop its foreign policy tools to bolster its peacemaking capacity between former enemies in the region.
Turkey long emphasised two main principles: respect for territorial integrity and the need to build long-term economic and social relations between societies. However, this was at a time when Turkey itself was going through a period of democratisation and undertaking reforms to move ahead in its European integration path.
Turkey’s neo-Ottomanist authoritarian downturn inadvertently pitted Ankara against its earlier policies of supporting neighbourly relations between the former Yugoslav republics and promoting the regional integration perspectives into the European Union and the NATO. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s vision of neo-Ottomanism has its foundations on the idea of an eventual return of former Ottoman provinces in the Middle East and the Western Balkans to a new Islamic union under the leadership of a Turkish sultan and caliph.
This policy in the Middle East led to support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and its offshoots in other Arab spring countries. While the more nuanced foreign policy of the mid-2000s towards the Western Balkans continued well into 2015, the eventual fallout between Erdoğan and the followers of the cleric Fethullah Gülen who is accused of being behind the 2016 failed coup attempt, started damaging Turkish foreign policy in the region. Two recent events underscore quite clearly how Erdoğan views friendly Western Balkan countries in his vision of a strong new Turkey.
The first incident took place more than a month ago when six Turkish teachers were snatched by Turkish intelligence agents on charges of coordinating a human trafficking ring to smuggle Gülenist suspects out of Turkey into Europe. Since the failed 2016 coup, a number of families have perished in the Aegean Sea while trying to cross to neighbouring Greek islands and flee the anti- Gülenist purges in Turkey.
The Turkish intelligence agents snatched the six Gülenist teachers without notifying Kosovan Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj who asked for the resignation of cabinet ministers responsible for the scandal. When Haradinaj accused Erdoğan of disrespecting the Kosovan sovereignty, the Turkish president belittled the Kosovar prime minister for not knowing his place and for being ungrateful for continuous Turkish support to Kosovo’s fledgling economy.
Another event is the expected pro-Erdoğan rally in Sarajevo this weekend, in the light of the tumultuous Turkish referendum campaign in western Europe in 2017 and the subsequent campaign bans by the European governments, Erdoğan has decided to move his presidential campaigns to the Western Balkans. Sarajevo will host Erdoğan as he tried to rally the vote of 10,000 Turks residing in Bosnia and nearby countries.
This treatment of Western Balkan countries as vassal states is nothing new. Even as early as Turkey’s 2010 Gaza flotilla crisis with Israel, pro-Erdoğan networks were politically mobile and visible in Bosnia-Herzegovina. This time the pro-Erdoğan rally will not be focusing on Turkey’s failing foreign policy but rather on Erdoğan’s image as the founder of so-called New Turkey.
The Turkish government’s new habit of handling its domestic troubles on foreign soil minimises Turkey’s once constructive role in support of the Western Balkans’ transition to liberal democracy and the region’s complete integration to Euro-Atlantic bodies. This may also be seen as a consequence of Turkey’s slide away from NATO and EU towards the Russian axis.
This rather careless use of the public space in friendly Western Balkan countries such as Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina may lead to a negative change in public opinion towards Turkey’s presence in the region, especially at a time when populist nationalist movements are gaining steam. For that reason, it would not be surprising to see more and more previously friendly Western Balkan leaders come out openly against the Turkish disregard for their sovereignty to consolidate political support among their increasingly nationalist young constituencies.
This definitely is the case in Kosovo, while in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Erdoğan’s close alliance with Bakir Izetbegovic, a member of the country’s tripartite presidency, may backfire as the Bosniak right-wing leader is under heat from other Bosniak politicians. In February, the Bosnian government, possibly under pressure from Ankara, called off plans to honour author Orhan Pamuk, a Nobel laureate and an occasional yet subdued critic of Erdoğan. It is not clear if anyone in Erdoğan’s close circle has had the courage to tell him of the disparaging remarks by local Balkan leaders unhappy with Turkey’s record in the Western Balkans in the last two decades.
The Ottomans’ biggest mistake in the Western Balkans was to consider the support of the Muslim communities there unconditional and unquestioning. Turkey does not have the luxury to commit the same mistake a century later, as the country’s slide into full-on authoritarianism has already isolated it diplomatically from much of the European Union. Losing whatever is left of its political influence in the Western Balkans would further damage the standing of Turkey in the region.