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Understanding Turkey's role in the Balkans

Business, not Ottoman glory, drives Turkey's agenda in the Balkans
6 min read
25 May, 2022
Analysis: Following the end of the Balkan wars in the 1990s Turkey has deepened its relationships in the region.

Due to geographic proximity, history, deep cultural ties, and economics, the Balkans have been of particular interest to Turkey throughout the 21st century.

In pursuit of a balanced foreign policy in Europe’s ‘inner courtyard’, Ankara seeks to maintain healthy relations with as many governments and communities as possible.  

There’s a fair amount of talk about Turkey’s supposed desire to restore the Ottoman Empire driving Ankara’s agenda in the Balkans. Yet a degree of paranoia might be shaping that narrative.

In reality, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government and Turkish companies take a business-first approach to the region. Nonetheless, notwithstanding Ankara’s ambitions in southeastern Europe, Turkish influence in these countries has its limits.

Despite some European concerns about Turkish ‘expansionism’ in the Balkans, promoting stability is Ankara’s main foreign policy goal in the region.

The Turkish government believes that this is most realistic through these countries entering NATO and the European Union while also achieving more economic growth and stability. From Ankara’s vantage point, the two go together.

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Concerns over peace in the Balkans

Today there are legitimate concerns about Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) sliding back into an internal armed conflict. This situation worries Ankara.

With the Republika Srpska blockading state institutions and taking actions that leave Bosniaks feeling unsafe, BiH’s territorial integrity and the Daytonian equilibrium are under threat.

If BiH’s political crisis manifests in an armed conflict, instability and turmoil could spread to other parts of the Balkans. The possibility of this scenario unsettles Turkey.

“Stability means that in the specific case of [BiH] that [Milorad] Dodik and the Republika Srpska don’t create further tension through a potentially Russian-inspired, or at least supported, drive to separate from Bosnia,” said Matthew Bryza, the former US ambassador to Azerbaijan, in an interview with The New Arab.

Turkish emotions weigh heavily into the picture. During the 1990s, Turks constantly used the term ‘Serbian butcher’ in reference to the Bosnian Serb Army of Republika Srpska (VRS) and the Scorpions (a Serb paramilitary force) amid their genocidal campaign against Bosniaks.

To this day, the Turkish government plays a role in trying to prevent the world from forgetting about the horrors of Bosnia’s 1992-1995 war, which resulted in 100,000 deaths and more than two million Bosnians becoming refugees.

For example, the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TİKA), which is part of Turkey’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism, supports the Srebrenica Genocide Memorial in eastern BiH’s Potacari.

To this day, the Turkish government plays a role in trying to prevent the world from forgetting about the horrors of Bosnia’s 1992-1995 war. [Getty]

As Bryza explained, today Ankara “very strongly opposes Milorad Dodik’s actions that risk undermining the whole Dayton system and risk undermining the very existence of the very complex state that is [BiH]”.

That said, there are limits as to what Turkey can do independently to preserve peace and stability in BiH.

“Of course, Turkey is in a position to help [BiH] avoid spiralling back into conflict by virtue of Turkey’s cooperation with its European allies in NATO and partners in the European Union,” Bryza said.

“But on its own I don’t think Turkey has any aspiration to get into the middle of internal Bosnian political struggles”.

Energy dimensions of Turkey and Serbia's evolving relationship

There have been problems between Turkey and Serbia which are rooted in many years of history.

In recent times, Belgrade’s arming of Armenia in the 2020 Karabakh war, Serbia’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Serbian-Cypriot defence cooperation, as well as Turkey’s recognition of Kosovo’s independence and its push for other governments to also do so, have been among the most contentious issues in Turkish-Serbian relations.

However, Erdogan and his Serbian counterpart Aleksandar Vucic have engaged each other pragmatically in relation to BiH. Also in recent years the Ankara-Belgrade relationship has “reached unprecedented levels of cooperation”, as Vuk Vuksanovic, a senior researcher at the Belgrade Center for Security Policy, put it.

This year, Turkey and Serbia have been building on efforts to deepen ties in sectors including education, culture, and tourism.

At the same time, there is a defence dimension to Ankara and Belgrade’s relationship with Serbia having ratified a military framework agreement in 2020, one year after the two countries signed it.

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Within the context of the Russian-Ukrainian war, Serbia is increasingly interested in securing Azerbaijani natural gas via Turkey.

Vucic attending the Trans-Anatolian Gas Pipeline Project (TANAP) pipeline’s inauguration on 12 June 2018 may have appeared odd given Serbia’s geography. But it underscored how long before 24 February 2022 Serbia has been working to decrease its addiction to Russian gas.

“Serbia is playing a careful game where it’s very dependent on Russia and of course Russia is a special country and special friend of Serbia,” Bryza told TNA.

“But at the same time, natural gas supplies are business and in any business negotiation you want to have options. You don’t want to be dependent on a single supplier for one of your most important inputs or commodities on which your economic growth depends.”

Challenges for Turkey

Turkey’s government strongly supports Turkish firms investing in Balkan countries. Officials in Ankara realise that more economic growth in this region brightens the prospects for long term stability across the Balkans. Yet while Turkey pursues its national interests in this part of Europe, Ankara faces some challenges.

The perception that Turkey in the 21st century is conspiring to restore the Ottoman Empire is problematic for Ankara because it undermines trust in Turkey and creates suspicions.

“There’s a fear that Turkish businessmen and women want to somehow ‘infiltrate and then control the economies in the Balkans.’ I just don’t see that at all,” said Bryza.

“I know many significant Turkish businesspeople who are investing in the Balkans and have no goal other than to make money, and thereby help the Balkan economies grow.”

Additionally, Turkey must contend with the fact that other powers such as Western countries, Russia, and China are pursuing their interests in the Balkans too. Russian and Turkish interests clash in this part of Europe with Moscow’s relationship with Dodik being a salient example.

Within this context, Ankara’s ability to advance its agenda more successfully in southeastern Europe in the future will likely be facilitated through higher levels of cooperation with the West, considering the limits of Turkish influence in the Balkans.  

Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics. 

Follow him on Twitter: @GiorgioCafiero