Turkish religious diplomacy raises tensions with Bulgaria

Turkey has made headlines with aggressive military actions in Syria this month, but for more than a decade the ruling Islamist party has focused on softer means to expand its influence in its Balkan neighbours, often relying on diplomacy through religion.

This meant efforts to gain influence over the region’s Muslim minorities by the state Directorate of Religious Affairs, or Diyanet. But while projects to fund religious institutes and restore historic buildings were initially welcome, countries like Bulgaria have come to see Turkey’s influence as malign and are looking for a way to reduce it.

Bulgaria’s highest circulation newspaper, Trud, reported in 2012 that Turkey had set aside $6 million for the construction of a mosque in the southern Bulgarian province of Kardzhali. The mosque was said at the time to be the most expensive construction project in that part of the country.

This and similar projects financing the largest mosques in Albania and Bulgaria puts Diyanet’s humanitarian foundation TDV and the Turkish Cooperation and Development Agency (TİKA) at the forefront of Turkey’s efforts to develop its influence in the Balkans, regional expert İştar Gözaydın told Voice of America last year. 

Besides the new mosques built by TİKA and TDV, Turkey has also been involved in the restoration of historic landmarks including mosques, bridges and religious schools from the Ottoman era.

And Bulgaria has been the focus of some of the most intense interest from Ankara in recent years.

Bulgaria has proportionally the largest Muslim minority in Europe at 15 percent of its population of 7.5 million people. It was, alongside Greece, also the country that spent the longest period under Ottoman rule.

Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) made a policy of strengthening relations with former Ottoman territories after coming to power in 2002, and the party presented itself as a moderate alternative to rising hardline interpretations of Islam such as Salafism. For a long time, this image gained the AKP a great deal of international support.

Balkans countries cooperated with Turkey’s Diyanet to create a bulwark against this fundamentalism, political scholar Ahmed Erdi Öztürk wrote in an article for the European Journal of Turkish Studies in 2018. Turkey’s status as a secular state also played an important role in this process.

This gained the Diyanet wide influence, signing agreements with Bulgaria, Albania, Macedonia, Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

These projects were part of a concerted effort after 2009 to develop Turkey’s status as a soft power, Eurasia analyst Eşref Yalınkılıçlı told the BBC in May.

The aim of these efforts was to spread internationally the identity the AKP government wished to construct within Turkey, while also promoting itself as a leader of the Islamic world, he said.

Much of the policy in the Balkans was established during Ahmet Davutoğlu’s 2009 to 2014 stint as foreign minister, and then when he served as prime minister until 2016, Yalınkılıçlı said. The Central Asian policy dates back to the 1990s, a period when Turkey attempted to expand its influence in the newly independent Turkic states.

But now, Turkey’s policies in the Balkans are provoking reactions both from the European Union and in the region.

French President Emmanuel Macron’s speech at the European Parliament in April, last year illustrated the EU’s fears: Macron said he did not want the Balkans to return to Russia and Turkey’s orbit.

For Kosovar Institute for Policy Research and Development founder and senior fellow Lulzim Peci, the Diyanet’s mosques in Kosovo are political institutions devised to spread Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s vision of Islam.

“In the case of Kosovo and Albania, the tens of millions of dollars invested in building mosques has to do with the symbol of Turkish supremacy and influence, not only religious, but also political,” Peci told U.S. scholar Alon Ben Meir last year. 

This has raised Turkey’s profile among its Balkan neighbours and brought tangible benefits, as seen when the AKP survived a coup attempt in 2016. The next day, large crowds gathered in Macedonia, Bosnia, Albania and Kosovo to show Erdoğan their support. 

“It clearly visualised the potential and mechanisms that Erdoğan has in the Balkans and the diaspora, on which he capitalises and uses whenever he wants,” Ben Meir quoted historian Xhemal Ahmeti as saying.

But it was not all smooth sailing for Erdoğan’s religious expansionism. Romanian Muslims were the first to come out in opposition of the Turkish president’s soft power moves, and reaction against the expense of a huge mosque planned for Bucharest led to the project being cancelled last year.

Turkey’s influence in Bulgaria runs far deeper: According to a protocol signed by the two countries in 1998, Turkey pays the wages of 600 imams in the country as well as a part of the expenses incurred by mosques and other religious institutions. 

But the extent of Turkey’s ties to Bulgaria has also brought drawbacks for the country’s Turkish and Muslim minorities. 

The Bulgarian nationalist Patriotic Front says Turkey is using Muslims to meddle in the country’s domestic affairs, and it launched legal action in 2016 to counter foreign interference. 

Bulgarian Defence Minister Krasimir Karakachanov, a former leader of the Patriotic Front, specifically cited Turkey’s religious institutions in the lawsuit.

During the same year, Turkey’s attempts to mobilise Bulgarian Turks triggered a diplomatic crisis. 

This had its roots in the removal of Lyutvi Mestan from his role leading the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, a party dominated by Turkish Bulgarians, in 2015. The party said Mestan’s stance had excessively favoured Ankara in its dispute with Moscow over a Russian jet downed by Turkish forces that year.

Then, in February 2016, Bulgaria declared the Turkish ambassador Uğur Emiroğlu persona non grata over what it called misconduct. 

The Bulgarian press called Emiroğlu “an imam with a diplomatic passport,” and he was accused of collaborating with Mestan and frequently consulting local Turkish minority religious leaders.

After elections the next year, Bulgarian nationalist parties in the provisional government of 2017 moved to cancel the 1998 agreement with Turkey, leaving imams and their religious institutes mired in debt.   

In an effort to set relations back on track, Erdoğan invited Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov to attend the lavish opening ceremony of the restored Bulgarian St. Stephen’s Church in Istanbul last year. 

Erdoğan spoke of his desire to continue funding restoration projects in Bulgaria. 

Yet tensions continued to soar with Turkey’s attempts to fund Islamic institutions in the country coming to a head on March 27, when Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu stated in a speech that Turkey’s intervention had resulted in a new legal amendment to forgive the 4-million-euro debt owed by the Bulgarian Grand Mufti’s office.

The law did pass on March 28, but the Bulgarian Foreign Ministry was outraged by Çavuşoğlu’s intervention in domestic politics, and registered its anger in a note to Turkey’s embassy in Sofia.

Erdoğan, too, has made his share of references to Bulgaria – particularly to its Ottoman past – and this left Turkey in hot water last year, when he sent his greetings to his “oppressed brothers and sisters” in cities throughout Turkey’s neighbour. 

“These cities may physically be in other countries borders, but they are each within our borders in spirit,” Erdoğan said, provoking yet another sharp reaction from Bulgaria’s Foreign Ministry.

© Ahval English

The views expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.