Turkey's Balkans role holds surprise appeal

Watching Turkey’s military incursion into the Kurdish-held Syrian enclave of Afrin, one might well conclude Ankara’s foreign policy is all about fire and fury. That is not the case. Of course, what makes headlines are President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s periodic outbursts against other countries and their leaders.

But there is a pragmatic edge to Turkey’s dealings with the outside world. The U-turn in relations with Russia in mid-2016 is the example par excellence. There are others too. Erdoğan has succeeded in cultivating reasonably positive relations with most Balkan leaders, who feel they can profit from Turkey in one way or another.

A fresh illustration is the three-way meeting in Istanbul with Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić and Bosniak leader Bakir Izetbegović. 

Just think for a minute about the participants of this meeting. Vučić started his political career in the ultra-nationalist Serbian Radical Party, rising to the rank of a minister of information under President Slobodan Milošević in March 1998.  Several months later, Erdoğan went to jail for his Islamist politics. The past is another country as they say, yet who would have foreseen those two shaking hands at a rally in Serbia’s Muslim majority province of Sandžak to the enthusiastic applause of the locals? Erdoğan and Izetbegović, son of late Alija Izetbegović, might come across as a more natural coupling. However, if you stretch your memory back to 2010, you would surely remember how Ankara rooted for Haris Silajdžić, Bakir’s competitor in the race for the Bosniak seat in Bosnia and Herzegovina’s tripartite presidency. 

Now, for both Vučić and Izetbegović, Erdoğan is an ally of choice. Bosniaks traditionally see Turkey as an international patron, a sentiment reinforced by Russia’s ever-growing presence in Republika Srpska, the Serb-majority part of Bosnia. Vučić, too, is open to business. It was his third face-to-face meeting with Erdoğan in less than a year. Serbia, which signed a free-trade agreement with Turkey in 2009, is keen to attract extra Turkish investment. What is more, Turkey’s anti-Western turn and cordial ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin, a popular figure among many Serbs, goes some way in muting animosity. Needless to say, Vučić’s control of the mainstream media helps give rapprochement a positive spin as well. The complaints by Republika Srpska that Izetbegović has no right to speak on behalf of Bosnia in Istanbul, since he is not currently chairing the collective presidency, will not be given much airtime, to be sure.

Courtships by both Belgrade and Sarajevo add to Turkey’s leverage in the Balkans. As does Turkish cash. One of the reasons Vučić and Izetbegović went to Istanbul was to seek mediation regarding a highway linking Belgrade and Sarajevo. Last October, Turkish Environment Minister Mehmet Özhaseki signed an agreement with his Serbian counterpart to finance a stretch of the road, but Bosnia and Serbia have not been able to settle on a route. While Sarajevo insists on a northern route passing through the towns of Brčko and Tuzla, Serbia, along with Republika Srpska, prefers a connection via the Sandžak. It counts on Erdoğan’s backing. Vučić calculates that southern route would benefit Muslim Sandžaklis, a strongly pro-Turkish and pro-AKP constituency.  

Monday’s summit failed to resolve the deadlock. But what matters is its symbolism. “It is a giant project, but Turkey is a great country, doing great things,” Izetbegović said prior to the talks. Vučić, for his part, vowed that Bosnia and Serbia would “never have trouble again”. So Turkey, tangled in conflicts with so many of its neighbours, appears as a constructive player for a change.

Part of the success is that Erdoğan has scaled back Turkish ambitions a few notches. Back in 2009-10, Turkey’s then foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, crisscrossed the Balkans to tout his country’s role as a trouble-shooter capable of supplanting the European Union and United States. Yet his initiatives, including the regular get-togethers with the foreign ministers of Serbia and Bosnia, did little to crack tough nuts such as the chronic constitutional impasse paralysing Bosnian politics. Turkey is not in the driver’s seat when it comes to Kosovo, the other top international issue in the region. It was also EU and U.S. diplomats who brokered an end to the protracted crisis in Macedonia.

Nowadays Ankara is doing less in the region, but seems to do it better. Balkan governments seek Turkey’s favours: to stop refugees from coming in, bring Caspian gas into the region and secure investment. The likes of Vučić or Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov see plenty of good reasons to work with Erdoğan. Turkey is no alternative to strategic ties to the West, but there is no doubt it is a useful add-on.