Turkish influence in the Western Balkans

Igor Novaković

Turkey is not an outsider force in the Western Balkans. Historically and culturally, it remains much closer to the region than Russia, China, and other third states, and has been seen favorably by a considerable number of citizens in the Western Balkans. Although passive throughout the 20th century, at the beginning of the 1990s, with the outbreak of Yugoslav wars, Turkey became more engaged in the region, first as a part of the Western efforts to end conflicts. At the beginning of the 2010s, Turkey began developing its approach based on the foreign policy platform defined by the former Minister of Foreign Affairs and Prime Minister of Turkey, Dr, Ahmet Davutoglu. However, this attempt was somewhat unsuccessful, although it has created a foundation for the continuous engagement of Turkey to this day. But, the approach of Turkey is now empty of a “grand vision” premise and seems to be based exclusively on personal ties of President Recep Tajip Erdogan with the local leaders.

This paper will shortly outline the pre-2016 Turkey’s approach in the region, and sketch the basic characteristics of its current approach, often labeled as Erdoganism. It will pinpoint the basic drivers for the Turkish engagement and tools and means for achieving its interests.

Turkish influence before 2016

 

Turkey is not a newcomer to the Balkans. The Ottoman Empire ruled major parts of this region for centuries, hence the historical legacy and cultural proximity with it. However, after the defeat in the World War I and Kemal Ataturk’s reformation of the country into the modern Republic of Turkey, for the major part of the 20th Century, Ankara remained passive. After the World War II, Turkey became the eastern flank of the democratic world as a member of NATO and later a candidate for EU membership, but it remained passive. During the violent dismemberment of the former Yugoslavia, Turkey acted as a part of the international community by actively supporting the attempts to put an end to armed conflicts in Croatia, Bosnia and Hercegovina, Kosovo, and North Macedonia. It also participated in the UN and NATO missions and operations with concrete contributions. Nevertheless, in this time it has re-established links with the elites of local Muslim populations. Later, when the whole region was set on the trajectory of the European and Euro Atlantic integrations and Turkey was also one of the strongest supporters of these processes.

The advance of Rejep Tajip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey, in the beginning, did not change Turkey’s approach to the region. But the economic successes of the regime in the 2000s prompted its political ambitions. Then advisor to PM Erdogan, Dr. Ahmet Davutoglu, formulated a general policy of Turkish engagement (based on his book Strategic Depth) in its all neighborhoods dubbed “Zero Problems with Neighbors.” Davutoglu rejected Turkey’s position as the southeastern flank of the West and prompted Turkish leaders to assert the new vision based on the country’s historical legacy, geopolitical position, and economic weight. He firmly argued that Turkey should become a center of its own wider region by using soft power and utilizing its historically inherited potential.[1]

Even though this approach opened the doors for redefining the role of Turkey in the Western Balkans, it did not change much in the end, apart from solidifying Turkish influence among the Muslim populations in the Balkans (present in all of the countries in the region). The main achievement was the new relationship with Serbia. Turkey initiated a trilateral format of annual meetings between Serbia, Bosnia and Hercegovina and Turkey, pushed for free trade agreements with the countries of the region, tried to mediate between the Bosnjak political factions in the Sandzak region in Southwestern Serbia, etc. All of this showed some benefits and contributed to better communication between the Serb and Bosnjak representatives in the Western Balkans.

The political initiative was followed by increased economic investments to the region, as well as increased engagement of the Turkish International Cooperation and Development Agency (TIKA), with a focus on restoration of important monuments and buildings from the Balkans Ottoman past. Also, educational and independent institutions became more engaged, in particular the ones connected to the Hizmet Movement of Fethullah Gulen. The Gulenist network spread throughout the Western Balkans, by helping to establish different educational institutions and by offering scholarships to students of Muslim background.

 But in the end, this policy was shattered almost everywhere in Turkey’s neighborhood, as Turkey approached the mutually contentious issues from its perspective, with disregard for the domestic discourses. Also many times Ankara put its interests before the interests of its partners. In the Western Balkans, this has happened with Serbia, Albania, and Republika Srpska, an entity of Bosnia and Hercegovina.[2] In the end, many saw it not as a complementary initiative to the EU and in general Western efforts in the region, but a standalone initiative aimed at restoring Turkey’s role in the region. Both in popular discourse and academic works, this new approach of Turkey was often labeled as “Neo-Otomanism”, a name which inherently had a negative connotation for all non-Muslims in the Balkans.

Arab Spring and the crisis in Syria forced Turkey to be more focused on its south and eastern neighborhood and shifted the attention from the Balkans. Furthermore, several highly contentious statements by Turkish politicians, further alienated some of the countries in the region, in particular Serbia. The official initiatives (such as Serbia-Bosnia-Turkey Trilateral) remained, however they were toned down in scope and public visibility. Turkish influence in regions with Muslim majority also remained, but Turkey did not manage to formulate a new role for itself nor to become a center of political gravitation for the whole region, as Davutoglu argued in his works.

 

Failed 2016 coup and the new era in relations of Western Balkans and Turkey

 

Internal clashes in Turkey and citizens’ protests (Gezi Park) and an increasing focus on southern neighborhoods and Syria, caused that Turkey’s engagement in the region was almost invisible. Moreover, the EU’s influence was strengthened with the 2013 Brussels agreement between Serbia and Kosovo and the subsequent opening of the EU accession negotiations with Serbia and Montenegro. 2015 migrant crisis showed that the position of Turkey is crucial for the security of Europe, in the EU-Turkey relations, the Western Balkans remained firmly entrenched with the EU.

The key moment for the renewed engagement of Turkey in the region was the 2016 failed coup against Erdogan’s regime, and the support that the leaders of the Western Balkans countries have provided to him, as most of them have condemned the attempt to remove legitimately elected president and offered their support. Erdogan’s regime moves on to Hizmet, and label it as FETO, the terrorist organization. Internal purges of Gulenists and other enemies of the regime in Turkey have spilled over to the Western Balkans. This provided an opportunity for redefining the links of the local leaders with Erdogan, and consequently for redefining of relationships of their countries with Turkey. Thus, the “zero problems with neighbors” faded away in favor of a new personalized foreign policy of Turkey, based on personal relations of the president with state and local leaders in the region. In other words, if the states and leaders were ready to cooperate with Erdogan on his attempts (at least declaratively) against Gulenists networks in the region, they have been treated favorably.

In some countries, despite the will of some of the leaders, domestic legal systems in North Macedonia, Albania and Bosnia did not allow formal deportation of Gulenists to happen. Still, institutions that were associated with Hizmet were either shut down or changed the owners, while the Turkish government has established the Maarif Foundation (TMF) to counter Hizmet activities (by providing similar services) and overtake its role in countries run by friendly regimes, including Bosnia, Albania, Kosovo, and North Macedonia.

Serbia and Kosovo showed more will to do services to Erdogan than the other countries. In Kosovo, the arrest and deportation of 6 Turkish citizens to Turkey, without observing formal procedures caused a sort of a public scandal. Then-Prime Minister, Ramush Haradinaj, publically questioned this move and helped the establishment of the ad-hoc parliamentary commission to investigate the case and uncover the chain of command. In public, many speculated that the president of Kosovo, Hashim Thaci, who has close relations with Erdogan, was behind the whole action. Interestingly, Erdogan himself publically reacted and strongly criticized Haradinaj, describing him as a puppet and even called the citizens of Kosovo to protest against him,[3] showing how he would treat those who oppose him. Serbia on the other hand confirmed Erdogan in quiet. The Serbian government in 2016 quickly closed one private school that was suspected that is connected to Hizmet. Secondly, in December next year, Serbia deported one of the officials of the Kurdistan Freedom Party, despite the facts that he was an asylum seeker and that the UN Committee against Torture (OHCHR) requested earlier that he should not be deported to Turkey as there are risks that he will be again a subject to torture.[4]

Other Western Balkans leaders, such as Bakir Izetbegovic in Bosnia, Edi Rama in Albania, and Nikola Gruevski in North Macedonia, did other kinds of moves to please Erdogan. The most notable was the rejection of awarding Orhan Pamuk, a Nobel Prize winner for honorary citizenship of Sarajevo, a city that was then run by Izetbegovic’s Party of Democratic Action (SDA).

Overall, the previous policy, characterized by a combination of some kind of ideological foundation, multi-actor (both state and independent) and multidimensional approach, has been changed into still a multidimensional policy, but completely under the control of Erdogan’s regime and its only foundation was the will of the local leaders to conform the regime. As we shall see in the following text, Turkey remained focused on preserving its influence among the Muslim populations in the Western Balkans, however, practical considerations based on economic benefits also came to the fore, as Serbia became the main focal point for economic cooperation in the Western Balkans.

 

New Position of Turkey vis-à-vis the West and the position of the Region

 

The consequences of the 2016 failed coup and the apparent rift with the US has changed the geopolitical situation in the region. Indeed, Turkey remains a NATO member state and a candidate for EU membership, but its position has dramatically diverted in comparison to the time when Erdogan came to power. Furthermore, Turkey is increasing its links with China, and given also the rise of the presence of China in the Western Balkans, this is also an important element for the West to look at partnership with Turkey as limited.[5] Turkey is hence becoming both a partner (in a transactional sense) but also a competitor in the Eastern Mediterranean and Balkans as a whole.

Turkey’s EU perspective, despite having the process of negotiations still formally opened, is sealed for the foreseeable future. There is no possibility that the EU enlargement to Turkey can happen, primarily because of the negative attitude of the citizens in some of the EU states. The EU communication document, the so-called Western Balkans Integration Strategy from 2018,[6] clearly separated integration prospects of the region from the ones of Turkey. Ever since the migrant crisis, the relationship between the EU and Turkey is becoming increasingly transactional, while the integration process is just leverage to Erdogan to criticize the EU. For him, the EU integration process was extremely useful to deconstruct the role of the military in the country (under the guise of the EU integration process) and to secure that the security structures cannot change the government to preserve the constitutional foundations of the country, as it happened several times before 2000. But at this moment there is no reason any more to coordinate with the EU on the Western Balkans or to necessarily support the pro-EU reforms, particularly the ones regarding the rule of law. Nevertheless, for Turkey would be important if the Western Balkans states become EU members, as it could count to have new friendly countries within the EU. However, there is always a question if the Europeanization of elites, which would slowly develop with the EU integration, would leave the doors open for Turkey in the capitals of the region, as it has at this moment.

As for NATO, Turkey remains a part of it, and there is no procedure for the expulsion of member states, thus Ankara will remain officially a partner as long as it wishes to. However, that does not mean that Turkey is still seen as a partner. It is quite obvious that the relationship with the US has changed, and that the US for its main partner in the south-eastern flank of NATO now sees Greece, alongside two other non-NATO countries, Cyprus and Israel. Increasing cooperation has also been in development with Bulgaria and Romania.[7] Thus, it seems the importance of the Western Balkans for the US has somewhat increased, as a hinterland to Greece, Bulgaria, and Romania, but also as a place where Turkey could project its power, both soft and hard, contrary to the interests of the West. For example, in the case of the eventual pullout of American troops from the KFOR mission in Kosovo, there would be ample space for Turkey to complement the mission with its troops. In that regard, support to the signing of the 2018 Prespa Agreement between North Macedonia and Greece, recent admissions of Montenegro and North Macedonia into NATO, as well as the recent US engagement in Kosovo and Serbia dialogue could elements of stabilization of hinterland of NATO’s new east flank. Also, the content of the so-called Washington Agreement from September 4 on economic normalization between Serbia and Kosovo, 2020 subtly suggests that part of the interest for Serbia Kosovo relations is the development of infrastructure that could be also useful for NATO/the US army in the future (in particular Art. 2 on a feasibility study for linking Belgrade-Pristina railway to a deep seaport in Adriatic).[8]

 

Practical outcomes Turkey’s influence in the Balkans

 

Turkey’s exports to the region have significantly grown after the conclusion of the free trade agreements and their upgrades with the Western Balkans countries (1999-2019). The post-2016 drop of the value of the Turkish lira encouraged a relative rise of exports to the Western Balkans, while the fact that the currencies in the region are directly or indirectly pegged to Euro contributed to the drop of imports. But, for the region, the principal trade partner remains the EU with 68% of export and 61% of import goes to the Union. Turkey is much less important as a trade partner with 2% of exports and 7% of imports.[9]

When it comes to investments, post-2016 suggests a change of approach. Before 2014 principal destinations of Turkey’s investments were Western Balkans countries that have a significant portion of the Muslim population – Bosnia, Kosovo, Albania, and North Macedonia. Today, it seems that the Turkish interest shifted in the direction of Serbia and Montenegro, due to a good relationship with its leaders, a strong policy of subsidies to foreign investors provided by Serbia, and the fact that Serbia is on the main transport corridors to Western Europe. Consequently, most investments from Turkey now go to Serbia. This situation is also causing friction with the public in some of the above-mentioned countries.[10] Nevertheless, the principal focus of Turkey in the region remains to contribute to the development of infrastructure in parts of the region with significant parts of Muslim populations and to connect them with principal transport corridors. In early 2010, the focus was on airports. Turkey then overtook or helped the construction of airports in Kosovo, North Macedonia, Albania, and Serbia. Today the main infrastructure project where Turkey participates in the construction of the highways which would connect Bosnia (Sarajevo and Banja Luka) with the main transport corridors in Serbia. Also, Turkey is engaged in the construction of local transport routes in the Sandzak region.

Since recently, Turkey becomes a sort of an independent energy player in the region, as it became a hub for both Russian and Western-backed natural gas projects – Turk Stream/Balkan Stream and TAP/TANAP. It has also increased the domestic research of natural gas reserves and their exploitation (also in waters around Cyprus, thus recently clashing with this EU member state and the EU itself). To which extent Turkey wishes to leverage this position is a subject of debate, but its new position is extremely important for the diversification of energy supply in the Western Balkans.

Finally, Turkey does not lack soft power tools in the region. Above mentioned activities of TIKA and Maarif Foundation are complemented with the engagement of the Turkish Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet), and related institutions that support through different programs and projects the traditional Hanafi school of Islam in the region, primarily due to the challenge of rival teachings sponsored by the actors from the Arab world. In short, these are the practical tools aimed at securing the traditional role and influence Turkey has over the Muslim populations in the region. Also, some consider that the regime in Ankara utilizes these tools for interests of the Erdogan’s regime. Just a few years ago, some media in Turkey came up with the information that Diyanet was collecting intelligence about the persons connected to Hizmet across Europe, including the Western Balkans.[11]

Another tool is the media. A particularly active vehicle in countries of the Western Balkans with significant Muslim populations is Anadolu Agency, which has regional headquarters in Sarajevo and is used as a principal channel for communicating the standpoints of Erdogan and his regime. It is also important that it offers, unlike the privately owned agencies in the region, it offers its content to other media for free. Since a few years ago Turkish National radio-television (TRT) offers also online news and radio programs in all languages in the Balkans.

Finally, the most interesting aspect of enticing interest in Turkey in the region is the explosion of the Turkish entertainment industry in the Western Balkans. Turkish soap operas are extremely popular in all of the countries in the region. Apart from presenting the modern-day life in Turkey, many are covering historical topics important for the Balkans.

 

Conclusion

 

Unlike the other third states whose influence is significant such as Russia and China, Turkey is still an insider, culturally and historically much closer to the region. In the focus of the influence are still the parts of the region with significant Muslim populations: Bosnia, Kosovo, Albania, and North Macedonia. There, Turkey attempts to first preserve its image and historical position as a sort of historical protector and staunch supporter of the international ambitions of the elites of these states. A significant portion of Turkey’s population claim ancestry from the Western Balkans and this engagement has been very useful in the internal discourse and it is often used by President Erdogan for presenting Turkey as an important power to the citizens.

 In addition to that, Turkey attempts to strengthen its relationship with Serbia and Montenegro on more practical grounds – with a focus on the economy and political cooperation. These attempts were challenged with a different historical outlook on the Balkans’ history and the role of Turkey, but since 2016 Turkey has modified its approach. Namely, Erdogan’s regime is now focused on the wiliness of countries in the region to assist him in securing his power and position in Turkey. All the countries of the Western Balkans, directly or indirectly, did this and conformed to Turkey’s demands. It resulted in sort of a return of Turkey to the Western Balkans, and further strengthening its position in the region.

Turkey’s influence in the region has transformed in the past decades from complementary to the Western one, to independent and somewhat confronted. The rift that happened after the failed 2016 coup, in particular with the US, seems to be drawing new geopolitical points of struggle in the region. But until this moment it is more about what could be than what it is in reality. Until now, Turkey did not officially attempt to use its leverage in the region and to challenge the West, if we do not take into account the prosecution of Gulenist. On the other hand, Turkey is not able to offer an alternative to the EU or NATO, nor is it able to challenge them. But there is a danger of what Turkey could do if the situation in the Eastern Mediterranean or the Middle East becomes more volatile. Thus, of crucial importance is the engagement of the EU and NATO in the Western Balkans. While most of the countries in the region are a part of NATO or being under its umbrella (apart from Serbia), the EU integration is a slow process and challenged with many political and systemic issues. This slowness opens a space for potentially increased engagement of Turkey, as it is with the engagement of other third countries like Russia, China, and the United Arab Emirates.

 

Igor Novaković is a Research Director of the International and Security Affairs Centre – ISAC Fund.

 

 

 

[1] Igor Novakovic, Post “zero problems with neighbours” in the Western Balkans – A view from Serbia, International and Security Affairs Centre, Belgrade, 2019, p. 3

[2] See Alida Vracic, Turkey’s Role in the Western Balkans, German Institute for International and Security Affairs,  Berlin, 2016, p.6

[3] Erdogan: Haradinajeva karijera će se završiti, Radio Television of Serbia March 31, 2018, [online:] http://www.rts.rs/page/stories/sr/story/10/svet/3091374/erdogan-haradinajeva-karijera-ce-se-zavrsiti.html.

[4] Press Release on the Case of Cevdet Ayaz, azil.rs, December 24, 2017, [online:] http://azil.rs/en/press-release-on-the-case-of-cevdet-ayaz/

[5] See Ayca Alemdaroglu, Sultan Tepe, Erdogan Is Turning Turkey Into a Chinese Client State, Foreign Policy, September 16, 2020, [online:] https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/09/16/erdogan-is-turning-turkey-into-a-chinese-client-state/

[6] A credible enlargement perspective for and enhanced EU engagement with the Western Balkans, EU Commission, 2018, [online:] https://eeas.europa.eu/sites/eeas/files/communication-credible-enlargement-perspective-western-balkans_en.pdf

[7] John Psaropoulos, US, Greece hail strategic relationship after signing defence deal, Al-Jazeera, October 5, 2019, [online:] https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/10/5/us-greece-hail-strategic-relationship-after-signing-defence-deal

[8]Region & Diaspora

Kosovo and Serbia Signed Separate Pledges, Not an Agreement, Exit News, September 4, 2020, [online:] https://exit.al/en/2020/09/04/kosovo-and-serbia-signed-separate-pledges-not-an-agreement/

[9] Western Balkans-EU – international trade in goods statistics, Eurostat, [online:]  https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/index.php?title=Western_Balkans-EU_-_international_trade_in_goods_statistics&oldid=480316#The_Western_Balkans_trade_with_the_EU_and_other_main_partners

[10] Hamdi Firat Buyuk, Turkey’s ‚Sultan’ Unites Feuding Balkan Leaders in Admiration, Balkan Insight, October 16, 2019, [online:] https://balkaninsight.com/2019/10/11/turkeys-sultan-unites-feuding-balkan-leaders-in-admiration/.

[11] Željka Dobrić, Neviđeni Diplomatski Skandal, Glas Srpske, January 30, 2011, [online:] https://www.glassrpske.com/lat/novosti/vijesti_dana/nevidjeni-diplomatski-skandal/52487.