Turkey as a Balkan power

There is no shortage of writing on Turkey’s enhanced role in the Balkans. For instance, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s massive pre-election rally in the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo in May 2018 prompted fears he was posing a vital challenge to the EU’s leadership in the region. Much like Russia, its partner of choice these days, Turkey leverages its imperial past and present-day connections to societies across the Balkans to make a point about its ambitions to be a regional power.

Reactions from EU leaders have been telling. “I don’t want a Balkans that turns towards Turkey or Russia,” the French President Emmanuel Macron said several weeks prior to Erdoğan’s Sarajevo trip. Needless to say, Turkey’s Foreign Ministry was not thrilled.

But what headlines often miss with regard to Turkey’s Balkan policy is the gap between rhetoric and substance. Rhetorically, Erdoğan embraces the vision of his country acting autonomously and claiming leadership over Muslim communities in former Yugoslavia and beyond. That has been a recurrent theme in Turkish foreign policy since the days when Ahmet Davutoğlu toured the region during his stint as foreign minister between 2009 and 2014.

Yet, as a panel discussion hosted by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill this week underscored, Turkey has more or less been in lockstep with both the EU and the United States in the Balkans. For instance, Ankara has supported the expansion of NATO to Montenegro in 2017 and now supports its expansion to North Macedonia.

When it comes to the economy, much ink has been spillled on the inroads Turkey has made in former Yugoslavia, but in fact Turkey’s most significant trading partners in southeast Europe remain the three EU member countries in its immediate vicinity, Romania, Bulgaria and Greece. Collectively they account for more than two-thirds of the turnover with the larger area, comprising also the western Balkans and Croatia, another EU member. The reason is simple. The EU-Turkey Customs Union goes a long way in improving reciprocal market access and strengthening trade ties.  

Turkey’s trade with Southeast Europe in 2018
Billions of USD. (Source: Turkish Statistical Institute)

COUNTRY

 EXPORTS

IMPORTS

Romania

3.87

2.44

Bulgaria

2.67

2.5

Greece

2.08

2.1

Serbia

0.86

0.32

Bosnia and Herzegovina

0.42

0.24

Croatia

0.4

0.18

North Macedonia

0.39

0.1

Albania

0.4

0.02

Kosovo

0.3

0.009

Montenegro

0.07

0.014

 

Some recent analysis paints a more nuanced picture of Turkey’s relations with its Balkan neighbours. A paper by journalist Aslı Aydıntaşbaş, for instance, argues that Ankara wants to see the region fully integrated into the West and that Erdoğan is primarily driven by pragmatism rather than Ottoman nostalgia. Witness the Turkish president’s cordial relations with local leaders such as Serbia’s Aleksandar Vučić, erstwhile minister of information from 1998 to 2000 under Slobodan Milošević, and Prime Minister Boyko Borisov of Bulgaria who hosted the EU-Turkey summit in Varna a year ago.

Another investigative piece co-written by Sarajevo-based Turkish academic Hamdi Fırat Büyük, Alexander Clapp and Serbeze Haxhiaj takes stock of the new diaspora of Turks “coming back home” to the Balkans. Many are ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) supporters, yet some of them are highly critical of authoritarianism in their native country. One interesting snippet of information: more than half of the 110,000 Turkish nationals registered with embassies in the Balkans reside in Bulgaria.

In Bulgaria, 58 percent of Turkish voters backed the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) in the 2018 elections, with AKP support trailing behind at 25 percent.  The governing party got most votes in the western Balkans, apart from in Albania. But thanks to the Bulgarian vote, the final tally for the Balkans was 44 percent AKP, to 42 percent CHP. So Turks in the Balkans, some of which are recent arrivals from all kinds of places including faraway Anatolian towns, and locals who hold dual citizenship, are a diverse crowd and are often as divided as they are in their home country.

Turkey’s priorities have changed over time, too. A decade ago, Davutoğlu aspired to be a purveyor of conflict resolution and mediator between Bosnia and Serbia. Balkan multilateralism with Turkey at the centre makes a comeback every once in a while, for example when Erdoğan hosted Vučić and Bosnia’s Bakir Izetbegović in January 2018. Yet, since the 2011 outbreak of the Arab spring protests, Ankara’s attention has been focused almost exclusively on Syria and the region around it. 

The struggle between the AKP and the Gülen movement, implicated in the coup attempt of July 2016, has had a knock-on effect in the Balkans as well. Formerly, the Gülenists were the vanguard of Turkish soft power across the region with their network of schools, media and businesses. Nowadays, Turkey is pushing Balkans governments hard to close those institutions and hand over Turkish nationals linked to the Gülen movement. One such episode rocked Kosovo a year ago and prompted the sacking of a security official.

Turkey has been waging yet another fight too. For years, the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) has been seeking to assert its authority among Sunni Muslims in the Balkans in the face of the challenge posed by Salafism originating from the Gulf.  In short, Turkey’s posture seems to have shifted from an activist to a more defensive role.

For all the questions its actions raise, Turkey remains an inextricable part of the Balkan political landscape. History, geography, economic and human links all account for the robustness of that bond. European and U.S. officials may frown upon it, but they will be seeing more of Erdoğan in Sarajevo, Tirana or Pristina, as well as in Belgrade, Athens and Sofia.


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