Ankara in the Balkans: A Turkish Century?

Translated by Sufyan Jan

08/06/2018 (Rana Al-Harbi)

“The next century will be a Turkish century” – these were the words of the then Turkish President Turgut Özal about the future prospects of his nation. That particular prophecy seems to be unfolding in the Balkans, a region, ironically so, where Western European countries are also trying to “return” to.

“We announce that the Turkish President Mr. Recep Tayyip Erdogan as an honorary citizen” – these were the words of the Mayor of Novi Pazar, said during last month’s celebrations marking the 557th anniversary of the construction of the city in South West of Serbia. The “symbolic gesture” aimed at “thanking” the Turkish president for his “efforts in re-building the infrastructure” of the Muslim-majority city, which he visited in October amid a popular reception from the local population. The spectacle that the Turkish leader was entertained to in the city, which some Turkish circles boast was built by an Ottoman military commander in 1461, symbolises the growing Turkish influence not only in certain parts of Serbia – a country that has long been “cautious” with Ankara, but in the Balkans as a whole, Erdogan first felt the ecstasy of him being more than a President for the Turks but a leader to all Muslims around the world.

The Turkish-Balkan or Balkan-Turkish rapprochement is not surprising, given the historical, cultural, and humanitarian ties that connect the peoples of these regions, as well as the common interests with regards to economics and politics. All of this notwithstanding, Turkish activity in the Balkans came as a surprise to the Europeans, who, after 15 years of disregard, held a meeting with six Balkan countries (Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia and Kosovo) yesterday, to try to stem the tide of their losses. European observers fear that they may be too late.

Alternatives to Europe

In his book “Strategic Depth: Turkey’s International Status” the former Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu saw the Balkans as the door through which Turkey could impose itself as a genuine European power and regain its rightful place as a superpower in international politics. The “genius politician” who assumed the post of Foreign Minister between 2009 and 2014 and the post of Prime Minister between 2014 and 2016, made plans to re-visit former Ottoman colonies and try to form strong relations with those regions, taking into account that the revival of the empire should start from where the collapse began, namely the Balkans. This Turkish ambition was re-discovered by a cable leaked by Wikileaks, dating back to January 2010, which says that the then Foreign Minister Davutoglu “is seeking to restore to Turkey the influence it enjoyed in the former colonies of the Ottoman Empire”.

Since 2009, based on its deep historical understanding of the issues associated with local loyalties and allegiances in the Balkans, Turkey has quietly cloaked itself with the robe of the formerly Ottoman empire and succeeded, to some extent, in filling the voids left unattended by the European Union in that particular part of the world.

The Europeans focused mainly on the countries of Western and Central Europe, and, with the exception of Bulgaria and Romania in the east of the continent – a move that was already faced with fierce opposition from some of the more conservative and nationalist leaders in those countries, the rest of South Eastern Europe remained outside the EU’s priorities these past 30 years, thereby creating a void for Ankara (along with Russia) to fill both in the political and economic spheres.

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On April 24, 2010, while Europe was pre-occupied with its own economic and financial crisis, Istanbul was able, for the first time since the outbreak of the war, to gather the leaders of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia at an “historic” summit culminating in the “Istanbul Declaration”, which announced that all parties are keen on preserving the status quo.

Ankara succeeded in its role as the rotating president of the “South East Europe Cooperation Process”, a forum for dialogue between Balkan countries and its immediate neighbors between June 2009 and June 2010, whereby Turkey sponsored the Croatian-Bosnian rapprochement, as a result of its successful diplomacy Turkey has presented itself as an effective and influential regional power. Ankara’s relations with the Balkan countries were bolstered during that period. According to economic data, Turkish exports to the region reached $2.9 billion by the end of 2000, rising to $7.53 billion by 2011, and the figures have been on the rise since then. In this regard, the Turkish-Serbian rapprochement has finally drawn the attention of the EU, especially since Serbia is a “serious” candidate to join the European Union ever since 2012.

On the 8th of this month, Erdoğan mocked the “annoyance of some foreign powers at Turkey’s successful inroads into the Balkans and its strong cooperation with Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina,” stressing that “Turkish efforts struck a strong blow to those who have ambitions in the region and hold their hopes to take advantage of the crises and turmoil in them.” The Turkish president also stressed that his country will continue its efforts to “rebuild and revive the historical monuments in the Balkans” through the “Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency, or TIKA”, “whether the West likes it or not”.

In a joint press conference with his Serbian counterpart Aleksandr Vucic, the Turkish president expressed his happiness about the fact that the volume of trade exchange between Turkey and Serbia last year has for the first time crossed the 1 billion dollar ceiling, noting that TIKA has more than 220 projects in Serbia. For his part, the Turkish Economy Minister Nihad Zibekji said that his country and Serbia are looking to raise trade exchange between them to 5 billion dollars annually in the coming years, adding that the volume of trade between the two countries rose by 40 percent during the first four months of 2018, compared with the same period in 2017.

Serbia is not the only country involved in this exchange, as the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina is among the first to benefit from Turkish investments. In February, Prime Minister Denis Zvizdić revealed that the volume of trade with Turkey over the past three years had risen to €700 million and was expected to reach €1 billion by 2020.

Turkey is one of the most important partners in Kosovo. In 2016, Ankara ranked second (35 million euros) in the list of countries with “foreign direct investment”, while Switzerland ranked first (62 million euros).

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According to the figures, Turkey has invested more than $1 billion in Albania over the last 20 years, while Turkey lies third in terms of trade with Albania right behind Italy and Greece. The trade volume between the two countries is about $420 million. Turkey aspires to raise this value to five times that amount in the coming years, with the conclusion of 160 joint agreements in various fields.

The Balkans, on the other hand, offer little economic benefits to Ankara. Turkish exports to the region account for 1.32 percent of Turkey’s total exports, while imports account for only 0.32 percent. But in fact, the big Turkish “gain” is not economical but strategic depth.

Loyalty to Turkey

“I visited Ali Izetbegovic just prior to his death and he whispered in my ear that Bosnia and Herzegovina is now in your custody, this is all that remains of the Ottoman Empire.” Erdogan said last February during the 25th anniversary of Bosnia’s independence. Izetbegovic died in 2003, after which the Turkish president assumed the “trust” and established himself as the legitimate heir to a republic where minorities, including the Serb minority, said it was “not a private land to be inherited”.

Turkish penetration has become a reality that can not be ignored, especially in Serbia. In addition to the economic dimension, there is a security dimension (Turkey and Serbia signed six cooperation agreements, most notably a protocol of cooperation between the Turkish Police Academy, the Academy of Criminal Studies and the Serbian Police), and a further political agreement that was reflected in the Turkish President extending his gratitude to his Serbian counterpart for “the support of his country against the Gulen network … and the PKK terrorists”.

Ankara is part and parcel of every international initiative in the Balkans, the Turks have stationed in that region both military and police units who form part of the International force deployed there – to be specific we are talking specifically about Bosnia and Kosovo. The Turks are a part of the KFOR, EUFOR, and the civilian units belonging to the UN command UNMIK and the EULEX. Albania is also a recipient of Turkish military aid in its struggle to modernise its military; the Albanians have previously participated in NATO operations both in Kosovo and Afghanistan under Turkish command.

TIKA allocates 18.5% of all aid to the Balkans, particularly to Bosnia, Serbia and Macedonia, while targeting Muslim minorities in particular through the restoration of Ottoman monuments and buildings in the region, including hundreds of mosques, bridges and ancient baths. The organisation also works to spread the “Turkish Islam” by sending imams and building mosques (the Namazgah Mosque in the Albanian capital of Tirana is considered the largest mosque in the Balkans), and the building of Turkish language educational institutes throughout the Western Balkans. However, a special case is Bosnia, where even the schools have signed an agreement. We should remind ourselves that the former Turkish Foreign Minister Mr. Ahmet Davutoglu said that “the number of citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Albania and Kosovo in Turkey exceeds the number of people living in those countries”. As a result “the ties between these countries are deeply rooted”.

Last month the extent of Turkey’s influence in Kosovo came to fore as Ankara announced that it had repatriated 80 suspected Gulen followers after a “secret expulsion” order. One of these covert operations was carried out by the Kosovo Ministry of Interior and the Turkish intelligence service last March when they returned to Turkey five teachers and doctors believed to be “followers of Gulen”. The operation caused a major crisis between the two countries, as neither the President nor the Prime Minister were informed of these extraditions, prompting the latter to dismiss senior security officials, a move that angered the Turkish president.

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In a provocative and inflammatory statement, Erdogan said: “Who gave you the orders for such action? Since when did you start protecting those who tried to carry out a coup in Turkey?”

Europe worried: why now?

Many reasons caused the European leaders to hold the Euro-Balkan summit, here are some: Russia’s rise into world prominence, along with “Syria’s steadfastness”, and the expansion of China, along with Trump’s “America first” slogan and his soft coup against their interests, forced the Europeans into taking some steps in order to ensure their vital interests in the region.

World wide newspapers gave the summit an anti-Russian spin, somehow, however the Turkish influence took a back seat, while in reality they are no less dangerous. Perhaps the best example of this is revealed by the Syrian crisis. In his book Davutoğlu says that without a sphere of influence in the Balkans, Turkey could not flex its muscles effectively either in the Middle East or “Eurasia”.

With the outbreak of the Syrian front, Ankara exploited its geographical location to control a transit movement not only of insurgents but of refugees as well, allowing them to flow through the Balkan route (the main crossing point for refugees coming to Europe). Turkish control of that sensitive region soon turned into a trump card that subdued the European Union and revealed weaknesses within its own communities, which resorted to counter-extremism at the first glance of a breach in security.

But the seriousness of the refugee file for Europe goes beyond internal conflicts. The Syrian crisis, in one way or another, has raised the specter of growing Turkish influence in the Balkans, which analysts warn is already “a soft underbelly which might be used against Europe”.

Where does Russia figure in all of this?

If the Turkish role is ambitious in the Balkans, Russia also has its political weight, historically and culturally as well, especially in Serbia. Russia faces serious “Atlantic” attempts to expand, most notably the accession of the Republic of Montenegro to NATO last year. In April, President of the Supreme Council of the Russian Federation Valentina Matvienko announced that the expansion of NATO to include members of the Balkans “undermines security and stability in the region”, in reference to the accession of Montenegro and the possibility of Macedonia’s accession. After Vice President Mike Pence’s visit to Macedonia last summer, Russia’s “Kommersant” published an article on Washington expanding its presence in the Balkans through the white glove of NATO. “We are taking steps to strengthen the countries of the Western Balkans … against the negative influence of Russia or any other countries,” he said.

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