Is Turkey’s influence in the Balkans a matter of concern?

By on May 5, 2017

During his first years as Turkey’s leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan spared no effort to re-establish his country’s areas of influence dating back from the Ottoman era. Such Neo-Ottoman foreign policy, who had in the former foreign minister Davutoglu his main architect and ideologue, led Ankara to actively engage itself in the Middle East, in Africa and in the Western Balkans, portraying itself as a success story in mixing democracy, Islam and economic growth while offering a political and economic model for those countries. Turkish aspirations, however, proved short-lived: the failure of political Islam in the Middle East following the Arab Spring, Ankara’s ambiguous stance on the war in Syria, the crescendo of terrorist attacks by both ISIS and the PKK, together with Erdogan’s growing authoritarianism, emptied most of Ankara’s Neo-Ottoman dreams, turning once promising AKP’s Turkey into an angry and unpredictable wanna-be regional power.

Ankara, however, did not totally give up its ambition to exert some degree of influence on its neighbourhood, focusing on the least troublesome area once part of its empire: the Balkans. Through a multipronged approach, comprising of economy, language, religion, and education, Turkey tried to re-establish itself as a primus inter pares in the region, appealing to emotional and cultural links and offering an implicit alternative to a sluggish European integration. Pivotal to such approach are institutions like the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA), which through its assistance projects focused mostly in reviving the region’s Turkish past, for instance by restoring, between 2008 and 2016, 47 historical buildings including mosques, dervish lodges, shrines, fountains and baths from the Ottoman era scattered throughout the Balkans (Daily Sabah, February 15th). TIKA has been allocating about 18,5 per cent of its total aid to the Balkans, with Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia and Serbia figuring as the agency’s top recipients worldwide. As an institution working under the authority of the Prime Ministry, its activities have a strong political flavour: in such fashion, it helped to increase not only the sphere of influence of Turkey, but also contributed to Ankara’s visibility by the local populations.

On the same path, the government’s Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) is being instrumental in spreading the Turkish version of Islam to former Ottoman territories, including the Balkans, where it organises an annual Muslim leaders summit. Turkey’s cultural soft power in the region is also spreading through state media, with the opening in 2009 of TRT Avaz – a spin-off of Turkish national TV broadcaster whose programs are also televised in Bosnian – and the establishment of the Sarajevo office of the official Anadolu News Agency. Language diplomacy also plays a role: under a 2015 agreement between Turkey and Bosnia-Herzegovina, Turkish is taught in more than 80 schools across that country, while from September, Turkish students of Balkan origin attending middle schools can choose to add Bosnian and Albanian languages to their syllabus (Anadolu, March 6th).

Turkey’s presence in the Balkans has become more aggressive, in an effort that analysts see as an attempt to gain leverage against the European Union (DW, March, 18th). While the real effectiveness of Turkish influence in countries where sizable Muslim communities are present – Bosnia-Herzegovina, Albania, Kosovo and Macedonia, as well as Serbia, Bulgaria and Greece – remains open to debate, Ankara’s efforts have definitely been of a political nature. According to Serbian media, the recent calls by the leaders of Albania, Kosovo and the Presevo Valley to unify Albanian territories if European integration should fail were inspired and coordinated by Turkey’s security structures (B92.net, April 26th). Ankara is also apparently pointing at Greece: according to German security expert Erich Schmidt-Eenboom, MIT – Turkey’s main intelligence agency – is using the Turkish minority in Western Thrace as a proxy to destabilize Athens, in a potential hybrid warfare scenario (Ellada Tribune, April 9th). Still in Thrace, the low-interest loans given to local Turks by the Turkish state-owned bank Ziraat to buy properties have been increasingly regarded as an Ankara-led assimilation policy (Xanthi, April 5th).

As Turkey looks increasingly set to become a driver of turbulence in the international arena, its growing projection in the Balkans might bring further destabilisation in a region where tensions still ride high and where the prospects of European integration are losing appeal.


 

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