Turkish Strategic Moves in the Western Balkans

Since the end of the Cold War and the USSR dissolution, we have witnessed the transformation of a bipolar global system to a US-dominated unipolar New World Order. Undoubtedly balances have critically shifted since the early 1990s and the US unquestioned dominance has gradually given its place to a new more complex reality, characterized by multipolarity in the world stage. Particularly during the last decade, we have seen many regional players of limited scope remerging as notable powers with a significant international presence. Certainly, Turkey falls within the latest category; in previous articles, we have examined the Turkish strategy in the Mediterranean and MENA. We will now have a look at Ankara’s plans towards its Western neighbours in the Balkans.

Purposeful Moves and Multifront Diplomacy

Last Wednesday, December 11, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu welcomed the Minister of Foreign and European Affairs of Croatia, Gordan Grlić-Radman, on his first official visit to Turkey. The two Ministers have met again quite recently, during the NATO Foreign Ministers summit in Brussels in November. It is worth noting that in each instance, Cavusoglu is focusing on two things. Firstly, on further strengthening the ties between two countries, and eventually among the wider community of Western Balkans, paying particular attention to Bosnia. Considering though, that this approach holds a significant place in the Turkish agenda for years, there is another, more interesting point, explaining the reasons the Turkish motives behind the latest close interaction with Croatia. From January and for the first six months of 2020, Croatia will overtake the Presidency of the Council of the European Union. Croatia has openly supported Turkey’s EU integration bid in the past, though the Croatian Ambassador in Ankara. Also, this has been one of the issues that Cavusoglu brings up every time he has the chance, highlighting his belief that Croatia will have the same attitude during the EU Presidency term.

This persistence for EU accession might seem puzzling to anyone following the most recent Turkish moves. The research and drilling activities in the Exclusive Economic Zone of Cyprus, the wide-scale offensive in north-eastern Syria, Ankara’s involvement in the Libyan civil war -violating the UN-imposed arms embargo- and the latest controversial pact with the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord are just a few issues that have met the unanimous condemnation of the EU members. Still, Turkey is lobbying in favour of the potential EU membership. Such tactics should not raise questions though, as this strategy is an integral part of the Turkish foreign policy, where a multifront approach is applied. Ankara systemically creates a flexible and unpredictable context, where the capability to adapt its policy depending on the given circumstances, is fundamental.

Religious ties and Ankara’s power struggle

As we have repeatedly mentioned before, Turkey during Erdogan’s terms has emerged as a guarantor of the Islamic world. So far, we have examined the implementation of this strategy in the Middle East, where Ankara has been assisting fellow Sunni Muslim nations or groups through material and military means, considering the continuous tension and the ongoing conflicts in the region. In Balkans the scene is set in a diametrically different way, as the Turkish President is seeking to achieve similar ends, but with completely different means. Considering that it’s over two decades since the conflicts in Sarajevo and Kosovo came to an end, the situation in Western Balkans presents a much more stable, in terms of violent conflict, albeit politically volatile context. To this end, Turkish influence in the area should be established through soft power, and this has been exactly the case so far.

Apparently, the countries, where Turkey predominantly focused, are the ones with the largest percentage of the Muslim population, namely Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo and Albania. This narrative goes way back, to the first years of the AKP rule in Turkey and can be attributed to one of Erdogan’s former closest allies, now turned to a political foe. Ahmet Davutoglu, in his emblematic book Strategic Depth, analyzes why Turkey should base its expansion in Western Balkans upon Muslim Albanians and Bosniaks, two categories that sympathized with their Ottoman legacy and saw positively the AKP Balkan policy. Further to the religious ties, Turkey has also adopted a similar stance in terms of foreign policy, standing for Bosniaks and Albanians during the Sarajevo and Kosovo crises respectively.

Alongside religion, Turkey has also invested in expanding its influence, through culture by establishing Turkish schools in the aforementioned countries. Using education as a tool to achieve long-term foreign policy objectives is not a new case; however, in the instance of Turkey, this strategy has brought undesired consequences for Erdogan, considering that numerous Turkish school abroad have been a part of the so-called Gülen Movement network, ran by Erdogan’s worst enemy and alleged orchestrator of the failed 2016 coup in Turkey, Fethullah Gülen. As Ankara has been regrouping most of those schools in the Balkans, have been eventually shut down and in many cases were replaced under the Maarif Foundation umbrella, a government-run cultural organization, established to serve the Turkish “expansionist agenda” abroad, as described earlier.

In the meantime, Ankara seems to seize every opportunity, to make clear its influence in other Balkan states. Erdogan retains close ties with the Party for Democratic Action, SDA, the main Bosniak party in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Last summer Erdogan’s visit to Sarajevo has been a chance for the Turkish President to back the candidacy, shortly before the party elections, of his ally and SDA Leader, Bakir Izetbegović,  who managed to get re-elected in September. Also, Turkey never forgets to flex its muscles and stress out Ankara’s political reach, when it comes to the long-lasting dispute with Gülen supporters. Recently Bosnia’s Security Ministry has cancelled the residence permits of four Turkish citizens, after pressures from the Turkish government. Additionally, during a covert operation in Kosovo last year, six Turkish citizens -accused of having links to Fetullah Gülen- have been arrested and deported to Turkey; this incident caused wide controversy and a political scandal in the country and clearly depicted the deep involvement of the Turkish state in the internal affairs of other Balkan countries.

Strategic Points and Conclusions

Turkish policy in the Western Balkans fits in a soft power context, where common traditions and mutual interests are utilized to secure Ankara’s influence in their neighbouring countries. In instances where the cultural, historical or religious elements cannot facilitate this process, Ankara has alternative strategies that have been proved rather successful so far. Turkey has traditionally been at odds with Serbia, not only due to religious and historical grievances that could be traced centuries back but mostly because Ankara has been openly supporting Belgrade’s enemies in recent past. Nonetheless, Erdogan has managed to turn this around, by focusing on the financial sector and encouraging Turkish investments and joint major projects in Serbia. Indeed, over the last decade, the trade volume between the two countries has grown exponentially.

On the other hand, Turkey is predominantly adopting coercive diplomacy towards Greece and Cyprus, characterized by force projection and provocative rhetoric. The actual threat about Greece though could be better comprehended, when Ankara’s stance towards Athens is assessed alongside the policy implemented in Balkans, as has been described here. While Turkey is acting aggressively in the South, the policy of establishing friendly ties with the Western Balkan countries -most of them neighbouring with Greece- could eventually lead Athens to a military and diplomatic dead-end.