Turkish dramas shaping perceptions, history in the Balkans

The growing popularity of Turkish soap operas in the Balkans is helping revive the country’s tattered reputation, while enabling Ankara to rewrite history, Balkan Insight reported on Tuesday.

“Over the past decade, almost every television outlet in the Balkans has broadcast at least one Turkish soap,” said Balkan Insight, pointing out that Turkey is the world’s second leading exporter of TV series, behind the United States.

In North Macedonia, Turkish soap operas are the second most consumed TV content behind news. In Montenegro, they have replaced Latin American competitors, and their popularity shows no sign of fading, according to Balkan Insight.

Most series have no direct link to Turkey’s government, which helps distribute them, often by offering them for free, said the report. Shows like “The Fall of Leaves” and “Bride from Istanbul” generally depict a sanitised, idealised version of Turkish life, with traditional family structures, and an absence of violence and rough language.

Researchers attribute their popularity to an appetite for nostalgia among war-torn communities and shared cultural values among societies that were part of the Ottoman Empire for many centuries, said Balkan Insight.

"The Last Emperor", which was funded by the Turkish government, taps into an Ottoman nostalgia cultivated by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, according to Balkan Insight.

“It came under harsh criticism for portraying the late 19th-century Sultan Abdul Hamid II as a virtuous leader and hero, trying to preserve law and order as the Ottoman Empire crumbles in the hands of predatory European powers, Zionists, and liberal intellectuals,” said Balkan Insight.

This was not the first time Erdoğan’s government sought to revise historical narratives in the Balkans. In 2013, the Kosovo Ministry of Education edited high school history textbooks to take a softer line on the Ottoman period, glossing over references to violence, revenge and killing, according to Balkan Insight.

Some argue that this sort of cultural outreach is ineffective in shaping public perceptions, pointing out that Erdoğan has failed to convince Balkan governments to shutter all institutions linked to exiled Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen, whom Ankara blames for a 2016 failed coup.  

“Surveys by Bilgin have found that people who follow Turkish TV series do tend to have more positive views of Turkey in general,” said Balkan Insight. “Alongside the other ways that Turkey is projecting its soft power, through educational exchanges, mosque reconstructions and more, the shows look set to steadily improve Turkey’s image as time goes on.”