Turkey’s increasing influence in Balkans worries EU

Turkey has made significant investments during the last 15 years in the Balkans which it considers a part of its natural sphere of influence as a former imperial power and, Turkey’s increasing influence in the region is leading to concerns within the EU, Zia Weise, a journalist covering Turkey and the region, said in Politico.

In February, the Financial Times published an editorial saying Russia and Turkey were “ready to fill the gap” if the EU fails to regain influence over the post-communist countries in the eastern Europe, after the EU published a new enlargement perspective. Recently, the Centre for European Policy Analysis (CEPA), a research institute working on Central-East Europe and Russia, published an article on Turkey destabilising impact in the Balkans, in its online journal Europe’s Edge. 

In addition to the increasing number of commentaries on Turkey’s influence in the Western Balkans, French President Emmanuel Macron said in April that he did not want a Balkans that turns toward Turkey or Russia, when talking about the EU’s future enlargement.

Turkey’s investments in the region include development aid, major infrastructure policies, universities, and the restoration of mosques, as well as encouraging Turkish businesses to invest in the region. According to Murat Uğur Ekinci, a Balkans analyst at pro-government think tank SETA, Turkey’s trade with the western Balkans increased from $435 million (€364 million) in 2002 to $3 billion (€2.5 billion) in 2016.

Turkey has established strong relations not only with Balkan countries with considerable Muslim populations, but also with Serbia, where economic interests have persuaded both countries to set aside old enmities.

However, Turkey’s influence also allowed the Turkish government to expand its purge against Turkish citizens after the coup attempt in 2016. In late March, six Turkish citizens from Kosovo were extradited by the Turkish intelligence service, due to their links the Gülen movement, a religious group accused of masterminding the coup attempt. The EU afterward issued a statement, saying that the arrest and the deportation of those persons raised questions about the respect of the due process of law.

Experts in Turkey, including the Turkish government’s opponents, say that Turkey’s agenda in the Western Balkans does not undermine those of the EU’s and in fact complements them.

“Turkey is not in the business of trying to dissuade the western Balkan countries from converging with the EU — on the contrary,” Sinan Ülgen, a former Turkish diplomat and visiting fellow at think tank Carnegie Europe, said to Politico.

“I don’t understand, to tell the truth, why they are getting anxious about Turkey’s influence in the Balkans. We’d like to establish good relations, we’d like to trade with them, we support Euro-Atlantic integration. It’s a win-win situation,” an anonymous Turkish official in the Foreign Ministry said about the EU’s worries. 

According to Bahadır Kaleağası, the CEO of the Turkish Industry and Business Association (TÜSIAD), the Balkans are attractive for Turkish businesses because both Turkey and the countries of the region have been trying to align regulations to those of the EU as a result of EU accession process.