Nick Ashdown
May 21 2018

Grand reception, ultra-tight security for Erdoğan at Bosnia rally

SARAJEVO -- Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was greeted by large crowds and a warm welcome by Bosnian leaders as he staged his only international presidential election rally last weekend at an event with security so tight even lipstick was banned.

At the rally in Sarajevo on Sunday, Erdoğan lashed out at European Union countries for banning his election campaigns in their territories.

“European countries claiming to be the cradle of civilization have failed,” Erdoğan told a crowd of about 15,000, mostly from EU and Balkan countries. His speech was full of references to the Ottoman Empire, which ruled territories in the Balkans from the 14th to early 20th century.

Erdoğan had previously compared several EU governments to Nazis after Germany, Austria, the Netherlands and Switzerland banned Turkish politicians from campaigning in the run-up to the April 2017 Turkish constitutional referendum.

“We came to show the West that we’re here,” said 42-year-old construction worker Yusuf Ayhan Ak, a Turkish national who lives in Rotterdam.

Forty-four-year-old IT worker Ayhan Komec, born in the Netherlands, feels betrayed by his country for not letting Erdoğan campaign there.

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Photos by Nick Ashdown, Sarajevo


“If you’re in a democratic country, you should allow these things,” he told Ahval. “Why would they be against us? That’s the feeling we have. We pay our taxes, we do our best, we work there.”

The rally, which came ahead of the early presidential and parliamentary elections to be held in Turkey on June 24, was organized by a pro-Erdoğan lobbying firm, the Union of European Turkish Democrats (UETD). The organization, which paid for buses to transport attendees from across Europe, recently opened a branch in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Several local and foreign journalists told Ahval they had not been granted press accreditation from UETD to attend the rally, including from the highly-regarded Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN).

Security was tight amidst Ankara’s claims that an assassination plot against Erdoğan had been uncovered, and some attendees complained about police confiscating items such as liquids, pens, lipstick and umbrellas.

Mustafa Mujezinović, a 47-year-old farmer, came with his family almost 300 km from Prijepolje, Serbia, part of the Muslim majority Sandzak region, but did not enter the rally because security wanted to take his wife’s perfume. He said a local Turkish charity covered all their costs and they decided to take the opportunity for a free trip.

“That’s why we came, to have an excursion.”

King's College European studies lecturer Alexander Clarkson says Erdoğan’s rally is mostly about voters at home.

“While attracting diaspora votes and heightening the profile of the AKP's diaspora affiliate, the UETD, is useful to Erdogan, this event, with its neo-Ottoman overtones, was primarily targeted at a domestic audience in Turkey,” he wrote to Ahval in an email.

Clarkson says campaigning with the diaspora has been unusually low-key this time around.

“Either the UETD and other parts of the AKP abroad have been so overstretched that they are exhausted, or they were as surprised by the [early election] announcement as everyone else and have been struggling to get something going since.”

Erdoğan’s visit is also part of Turkey’s ongoing effort to increase its presence in the Balkans. Trade has significantly increased, Turkey has built major infrastructure and restored mosques and Ottoman bridges, and pro-Erdoğan media outlets have been established.

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“We have historical links and a long history of trade, as well as cultural ties,” said Ognjenka Lalović, director of the Bosnia-Herzegovina Chamber of Commerce.

Political science professor Oya Dursun-Ozkanca at Elizabethtown College said Turkey’s foreign policy aims to take advantage of these ties.

“Turkish influence is especially prominent among the Muslim populations in the region. There are many scholarships for educational exchange opportunities; Turkish soap operas continue to be popular, creating interest and curiosity about the Turkish culture and language; Turkish Airlines provide numerous flights to the region. There are increasing tourism ties with the countries in the region. Many people are picking up Turkish language as a result,” she wrote to Ahval.

Before the rally, Erdoğan attended a meeting on economic cooperation with Bakir Izetbegović, one of the members of Bosnia's tripartite presidency and leader of the Bosniak Party of Democratic Action (SDA), which has close relations with Erdoğan.

The Turkish and Bosnian transport ministers also signed a letter of intent for a €3 billion highway construction project connecting Sarajevo and Belgrade.

Farmer Mujezinović is still frustrated at the lack of development in the Balkans.

“They talk a lot about change and investment in Sandzak, but you never see anything happening. The roads aren’t being repaired, and everything else just stays the same.”

President Izetbegović said at the rally that Turks are lucky to have “a man sent by God,” referring to President Erdoğan.

Turkey and Erdoğan are popular in Bosnia-Herzegovina, particularly amongst the country’s Bosniak Muslims, who comprise about half of the population. Many also feel that their small, economically underdeveloped country needs powerful friends.

“In a situation where they perceive Bosnians still surrounded by semi-hostile neighbours, many of them believe Bosnia needs a foreign protector, and in recent years it’s become obvious that the European Union and Americans have abandoned that position,” said political analyst Srećko Latal.

“People have been looking for a new big brother, and Turkey and Erdoğan are more than willing to fill that position.”

Emir Suljagić, author and international relations lecturer at the International University of Sarajevo, says there’s still bitterness over Europe’s inability to prevent the bloodshed during the Bosnian War that ended in 1995, and more recent Islamophobic rhetoric from EU politicians.

“Don't think that anyone here has forgotten the slaughter of the 1990s and European ambivalence to it,” Suljagić wrote in an email.

Suljagić says Bosnia-Herzegovina desperately needs friends, especially amid reports that Russia has trained separatist paramilitary fighters in Bosnia’s semi-autonomous entity, Republika Srpska.

“I strongly believe that this is another existential moment for Bosnia and Herzegovina and turning down anyone's friendly and/or helping hand would be suicidal.”

But Loïc Trégourès, a Balkans expert who teaches political science at the Catholic University of Lille, says neither Turkey nor Russia offer the Balkans alternative models comparable to the European Union.

“Bosnia needs accountability, economic progress and a civic democracy. None of this is on the Turkish agenda,” Trégourès wrote to Ahval in an email.

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Trégourès said Turkey’s economic relations with Bosnia shouldn’t be exaggerated.

“Let’s [recall] that Turkey is far from being a big investor in Bosnia. In the region, the strongest commercial relations are between Turkey and Serbia.”

Turkey has been criticized for exerting a negative influence in Bosnia and other Balkan states, especially in regards to pressuring authorities to crack down on Erdoğan’s former allies and current arch enemies, followers of Fethullah Gülen. Gülen is a US-based cleric who leads a global Islamic movement that Ankara blames for the 2016 failed coup.

In late March Kosovo’s interior minister and intelligence head were sacked after six Turkish Gülen supporters were taken into custody and flown to Turkey.

Ahval met with three Gülen supporters in Sarajevo who were uncomfortable with Erdoğan’s rally and don’t feel fully safe in Bosnia, but don’t believe the Bosnian government would give them up to Turkey like Kosovo did.

“Their system doesn’t allow them to do something totally illegal,” said Gülen supporter and journalist Selçuk Yeşilyurt.

In April a Bosnian court rejected a request for the extradition of an asylum-seeker wanted by Ankara for alleged Gülen links. 

Yeşilyurt said there are 30-40 Turkish teachers at 14 Gülen-affiliated schools and one university in Bosnia, as well as 50-60 families who have fled from Turkey since the failed coup and ensuing crackdown.