On October 10 2017, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan went on a state visit to Serbia. While there, he met with his Serbian counterpart, Aleksandar Vučić, and stated: “Together with Serbia and with the entire Balkans, we want to make steps to resolve all the problems.” Vučić reciprocated by saying that “today, Serbia considers Turkey as its friend.” Although Erdoğan’s visit to Serbia was primarily bilateral, it also showed that Turkey had once again become a major player in the Balkans. Indeed, given the stuttering state of Turkey’s international relations, the Balkans appear to be the one place where Turkish foreign policy is a success.
With the long shadow cast by the history of the Ottoman Empire, emphasizing the strong ties between Turkey and the Balkans may not be revolutionary. It does, however, mark a significant departure from nearly a century of Turkish foreign policy. After the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in the Balkan Wars and the Empire’s ensuing collapse after World War I, the Balkans ceased to exist for Atatürk’s Turkey. For the foreign policy of the new Turkish republic, the Balkans simply did not exist as a strategically important region. Instead, Turkey’s diplomacy was guided by the Atatürk’s famous principle “Peace at Home, Peace in the World.” Operating under this maxim, Turkey stopped trying to be a major power in its former Ottoman provinces. This remained the case for much of the Cold War, with Turkey’s policy towards the Balkans mostly reduced to bilateral diplomacy. The region was important for Ankara only in context of countering potential Soviet threat—most notably the failed 1950’s Balkan Pact between Turkey, Greece and Yugoslavia.
The collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of Turkic speaking countries in Central Asia, coupled with the disintegration of Yugoslavia and the wars that followed, reawakened the notion of Turkey as a regional power in Eurasia. Turkey’s support for the Bosnian Muslims and Albanians in the Bosnian and Kosovo wars awakened fears in the capitals of the Balkans—particularly Belgrade and Athens—that a long-forgotten threat was reawakening. During the 1990s, this fear was symbolized by the concept of the “Islamic Arc,” sometimes called “the green transversal,” which is a term of art used to describe a string of territories inhabited by Balkan Muslims. Those territories connect Turkey, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Albania, the Muslim-populated Serbian province of Sandžak, Kosovo, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Some people interpreted that support as an attempt to isolate Greece from its Balkan hinterland and to sever the Belgrade-Athens land route and the alliance. It is now easy to forget that in the 1990s there was broad fear among key U.S. policy figures, including arch-realists like Henry Kissinger and prominent neoconservative thinkers including Joshua Muravchik, that the Bosnian wars could spread to Kosovo and Macedonia, sucking Greece and Turkey into the wider Balkan conflict along the way.
Turkey’s Balkan policy took on a more tangible and coherent form under the stewardship of Ahmet Davutoğlu, a political scientist who later became the Turkish foreign minister (2009–14) and prime minister (2014–16). As an academic Davutoğlu wrote Strategic Depth: Turkey’s International Position—a book that was never translated into English. Davutoğlu argued in this book that Turkey should once again become a major power in Eurasia. It would do so by restoring its influence in the country’s former Ottoman provinces, including the Balkans, through an activist foreign policy. Turkey’s Balkan policy has never received the type of international attention that its newly active policy in the Middle East has received. Missed by many in the West was the special attention Davutoğlu gave to the Balkans in his book. Indeed, Davutoğlu specifically referred to the Balkan Wars, citing the Balkans as the region where the Ottoman Empire’s collapse began. Davutoğlu stressed that it was through Turkish presence in the Balkans that Turkey could assert itself as a European power. Davutoğlu also claimed that without a zone of influence and a defensive parameter in the Balkans, Turkey would not be able to exercise its influence effectively in either the Middle East or the wider Eurasia. To achieve these complex ends, Davutoğlu wrote, Turkey needed to form alliances and strengthen Muslim communities throughout the Balkans.
The 2008 financial crisis served this purpose for Turkey perfectly. The EU and the United States became distracted with domestic issues. Turkey, whose economy did not suffer as acutely as those of the major Western countries and other external powers, filled this vacuum with diplomacy and economic support. Ankara became quite assertive in promoting its new Balkan role and its special relationship with Balkan Muslims. The frequency of confident and bombastic statements made by Turkish officials to this effect dismayed Belgrade. Other Balkan nations, like Bulgaria, tended to display divisive attitudes towards Turkey. Memorably, during Erdoğan’s 2013 visit to Prizren, Kosovo, the prime minister said: “Do not forget, Turkey is Kosovo, Kosovo is Turkey!” Similarly in 2016, shortly before he was removed from office, Davutoğlu said while attending the reconstruction of a war-torn mosque in Banja Luka, which is in the Serbian section of Bosnia: “We were here, we are here, we will be here for eternity.”
Turkey has worked on other diplomatic initiatives in the Balkans. It mediated between two conflicted Serbian Muslim communities, one based in Belgrade and the other based in Sandžak. It launched a trilateral reconciliation mechanism between Turkey, Serbia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Ankara has also established an important partnership with Macedonia. This was not just done to undermine Greece, but because Turkey perceived Macedonia to be in the Balkan’s geographical heartland—as it borders Serbia, Albania, Bulgaria and Greece.
The Balkans appears to be the one place where Turkey’s foreign policy has been a success. In Central Asia, and Caucasus, Turkey met with Russian resistance. In the Middle East, Turkey’s relationship with its neighbors are filled with animosity and suspicion, which has utterly compromised what Davutoğlu originally styled as the new Turkish approach of “zero problems” with its neighbors.
Since the first manifestation of the refugee crisis in 2015, Turkey has gained further additional impetus in the Balkans. Because of Erdoğan’s ability to threaten the EU through his much touted “control” of migratory flows, which have the side effect of endangering Balkan countries in the process, Turkey has become ever-more important for the countries of the Balkans. Turkey has also tried to win the hearts and minds of local Muslims, something which can be seen in its funding of the Namazgâh Mosque in Tirana, Albania, which is slated to be the largest mosque in the Balkans. In light of growing authoritarian tendencies in the Balkans, Erdoğan’s Turkey is also positioning itself as a political model for Balkan countries that find themselves outside of multilateral institutions and lacking champions in the West.
This growing Turkish presence has not gone unnoticed by the EU. As the crisis in EU-Turkey relations has grown, Turkey, like Russia, is frequently accused of trying to suppress the EU’s influence in the Balkans. Some people even claim that Turkey might go so far as supporting the unification of all Albanians into a single Albanian state.
Despite some successes, Turkey faces real constraints in its attempts to turn the Balkans into a region of strategic influence. Firstly, most Christian nations of the Balkans consider Turkey a biased mediator that prioritizes Balkan Muslims. This was never seen more clearly than in 2013 when Belgrade, in response to Erdoğan’s mentioned statement in Kosovo, withdrew from a trilateral meeting with Turkey and Bosnia. Given the legacy of the Ottoman Empire, Turkey must walk a fine line between supporting Balkan Muslims and alienating Balkan Christians. Secondly, for Turkey, its troublesome Middle Eastern neighborhood will always be a priority compared to the Balkans and thus would divert much of Turkey’s efforts and resources. Thirdly, Turkey’s efforts would be threatened by strengthened diplomatic ties between Serbia, Bulgaria and Greece. Together, these countries would try to counteract Turkish regional influence. Above all, Turkey’s economic presence in the region is meager compared to that of the EU. Despite talks from Turkish development agencies, like TIKA, often overplayed with promises of investment, little money ever appears even in Turkey-friendly areas like Sandžak.
For Turkey, the most effective way to continue successful reengagement in the Balkans would be to pursue genuinely pragmatic, interest-based cooperation with the Balkan capitals. This must be done without invoking the Ottoman legacy, which places a severe emotional strain on the countries that have long memories of Islamic occupation.
Done carefully, Turkey and the Balkan countries might yet create a very successful model for regional cooperation. Turkish presence in the Balkans does not need to be seen as negative. It is true that Turkey is significantly stronger than its Balkan neighbors. It is normal that Ankara should wish to translate this strength into influence. The capitals of the Balkans expect this—and they have not been given many other options. The EU and the West have taken the Balkans for granted and kept them waiting for far too long. The people of the Balkans may want to join the EU, but they cannot be asked to wait forever. In the absence of better offers, the Balkans will be more susceptible to the overtures of external powers, like Turkey. The West cannot say that it has not been warned.