The Balkan Peninsula and the South Caucasus are priority regions for Turkey, based on the neo-Ottomanism ideology. In the face of the failure of the policy and prestige of the United States and the European Union against the backdrop of the intensifying economic and energy crisis in the West, Erdoğan is in a hurry to create a broad coalition of pro-Turkish forces, including in the Balkans, to cover this region with the integration idea of the “Great Turan” he has been promoting.
Turkey went into the offensive in the Balkans in the early 2000s. Subsequently, this vector began to increase in Turkish politics, especially when its hopes for the “peaceful conquest” of Europe by joining the European Union were scrapped by the firm position of Germany, which did not want to share its leadership in the EU with anybody else. At the same time, it is also necessary to note one geopolitical aspect, namely the death of the socialist bloc at the end of the last century, after which spheres of influence in the Balkans were divided between the United States, the EU, Turkey and a number of Arab countries.
The Balkans in general, after the withdrawal of the USSR from the region’s political scene in 1991 and the American aggression in Yugoslavia in the same year, became a region of “special attraction” of the West represented by the United States and the Old World. In particular, because they belong to a part of the Slavic and Christian world that has retained its identity, which does not suit the masters of the “Western civilization.” Therefore, these latter have been actively trying to split and absorb Balkans in recent decades, and rather successfully. As a result, the Balkan countries have become an active sphere of influence of Western and Islamic projects, while the remnants of the former Russian presence in the region are being actively squeezed out.
Back when he was head of the Turkish government, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan stated that Thrace, a historical and geographical area on the Balkan Peninsula, which is divided between Turkey, Greece and Bulgaria, is “one flag, one people, one state.” Indeed, large Muslim communities live in many modern Balkan countries, which is one of the natural conduits of Turkish influence in the Balkans. For instance, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, local Muslims are designated as one of the titular ethnic groups and one can sometimes hear there memories of the alleged “testament” that Alija Izetbegović, who was president of BiH in 1990-1996 and drowned Bosnia in blood, allegedly bequeathed Erdoğan “to protect and preserve his Bosnia.” However, it should be noted that the society of Bosnian Muslims is in fact very heterogeneous and diverging in its attitudes towards Turkey. Yes, the conservative-minded population, for whom Islam plays an important role, supports Turkey more, but today the European Union and, first of all, Austria and Germany are much more important to BiH.
Therefore, when the Justice and Development Party of Turkey’s incumbent President Recep Erdoğan came to power, Turkey placed a special emphasis on public diplomacy and the promotion of “soft power” in the Balkans. In particular, via such organizations and institutions as the Yunus Emre Institute, the Presidency for Turks Abroad and Related Communities (YTB), the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA), the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) – as a channel of communication with Balkan Muslims. At the same time, in order to achieve the victory of the policy of pan-Turkism, the focus of Turkey’s policy in the Balkans is sometimes adjusted, depending on the needs. An example of this is the restoration of the Bulgarian church in Istanbul a few years ago as a demonstration of Turkey’s readiness to take a step towards Bulgaria.
Considering those facts, Turkey, since the 2000s, has been developing pragmatic relations with all countries in the region, including Serbia, often trying to act as a mediator in the emerging contradictions between the Muslim and other communities in the region (for example, Serbo-Albanian relations and the situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina). Taking into account the fact that the Turkish diaspora and numerous segments of the population in the Balkan countries maintain ties with their relatives in Turkey, and ethnic immigrants from the Balkan region live in a significant part of Anatolia and a number of other Turkish regions, President Erdoğan quite often pays visits to the Balkans. Especially during election campaigns and moments of internal tensions in Turkey.
And now, when not only the economic but also the political situation in Turkey and the Balkans has become complicated, the Turkish president went on a tour of three Balkan states and visited Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and Croatia from September 6 to 8. As stated in official reports, the main purpose of this trip was “to ensure regional peace and the development of economic relations.”
Starting his tour from BiH, where general elections are scheduled for October 2, President Erdoğan said before this trip, “We will try to find a solution to the political crisis in Bosnia and Herzegovina during our visit.”
However, in addition to the political aspect, the Balkan region has also become an attractive market for Turkish investors in recent years, and the level of presence of Turkish business in Albania, Northern Macedonia, Serbia itself, not to mention BiH and Kosovo, is high. This is largely due to the favorable investment environment, skilled workforce, as well as tax and financial benefits. And this was confirmed by the results of Erdoğan’s visit to Serbia, where both countries demonstrated their desire to increase the volume of bilateral trade to $ 2.5 billion. The head of Serbia also confirmed his intention to start purchasing Turkish Bayraktar drones from 2023, adding that he would invest hundreds of millions of euros in the deal. At the same time, Erdoğan stressed that Turkey considers Serbia as “a key country for peace and stability in the Balkans.”
But the Turkish leader’s visit to Belgrade attracted attention not only by this, but also by Erdoğan’s anti-Western statements, in which the policy of the West was frankly called “provocative.” As the Turkish leader noted, he does not consider the attitude of the West to be “correct,” especially with regard to Russia, warning the world community that “Russia should not be underestimated.”
However, it should be noted that the Balkans do not spark much interest in the official Turkish media. And if they are interested in something, then, first of all, it is the specific diplomatic successes of President Erdoğan’s regime in these countries. Which was the ultimate result of the latest trip of the Turkish leader.
Vladimir Odintsov, political observer, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.