Why Balkans Matter for Turkey?

In the last few years we are witnessing a shift in Turkey’s foreign policy, moving from once being a bastion of Western civilization to a more undefined Eurasian understanding. Turkey’s leadership started flirting more actively with Moscow with ties getting normalized, after the apology for downing of a Russian airplane over Syria. Vladimir Putin was faster than Western politicians in condemning the failed coup. Some even say Putin himself warned Turkey’s president that coup is under its way. Disappointed with Western’s attitude, Ankara started more openly speaking of getting even closer with Kremlin. President of Turkey and political establishment in Ankara are sending threatening messages to Western leaders regarding the Turkey’s NATO membership and recently went even as far to announce a possible referendum on abandoning EU accession process. Besides the threatening rhetoric definitely there were some moves in recent months confirming this stance of Ankara. Turkey’s political elite is condemning the West on every occasion in their statements and Turkish media, especially media close to the government, is bombarding the public with anti-Western sentiment almost for a year now. It was Israel before, seen as an archenemy, but certainly, the West now has taken that place. Fear of Turkey turning to ‘Eastern alliance’ became even more threatening after the recent referendum on constitutional changes, which give more power to President. Western countries aware that they might lose Turkey changed their harsh rhetoric and started delivering more reconciling statements. If Turkey decides to turn to the East, to Russia in particular, that will certainly have a great impact on Turkey’s foreign policy. Some regions which Ankara sees as its natural hinterland will suffer more, some less. The region that will bear the most consequences of Turkey’s decision are the Balkans, especially its Muslim population.

When it comes to Turkey’s foreign policy, one name is often quoted. That name is Turkey’s ex-Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu. New dynamism that started with him back in 2009, as he became a Foreign Minister, was seen as a symbol of Turkey’s growing international importance. His book The Strategic Depth was a popular quoting source, and it was seen as the manifesto of Turkey’s new foreign policy. Written before AKP came to power, the book is arguing that Turkey should be a more active player in its wider neighborhood which once was the Ottoman realm. He calls this area the “strategic depth of Turkey”. In the book, he gives a detailed analysis on how Turkey’s policy should look like when it comes to the Balkans. He sees two communities in the peninsula as crucial for Ankara’s foreign policy. These are Albanians and Bosniaks, who happen to be Muslims, thanks to being a part of Ottoman Empire for centuries. He believes that these two ethnic groups are Turkey’s leverage for successful policy in the region. More or less during his time and still today Turkey managed to build its position in the Balkans thanks to having close ties to these two groups. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that almost all Balkans politics are implemented via these ethnic groups and their nation states. Turkey’s foreign policy, especially in the Western Balkans, with other groups, is at a minimal level. Keeping close ideological ties with Albanians and Bosniaks was an entry card for the position in the Balkans.

But what would be the impact of Turkey’s turning East on its Balkans policy?

Albania, Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina are three nation-states that set Euro-Atlantic integration as their ultimate foreign policy goal. Turkey was attractive in that sense, being a NATO member and a candidate for entering the EU. On the other hand, Belgrade is seen as a common threat by Sarajevo and Pristina and to a much lesser extent by Tirana. After the nationalist regime of Slobodan Milosevic was defeated back in 2000, Belgrade doesn’t represent anymore a threat being feared of. But there is a country which is seen as a historical threat to both Albanians and Bosniaks. That threat is Russia. If we take a look in past centuries, Russia was seen as the main sponsor of Orthodox population in the Balkans always siding with irredentist Serbian state, the very same state that has forced Balkan Muslims to migrate in big numbers to Anatolia. To many Albanians and Bosniaks Russia was and still is synonymous with Serbian nationalistic irredentism. During the bloody years of the nineties, Russia sided with Milosevic regime, the same regime which has caused 100 thousand dead in Bosnia and Herzegovina and some 15 thousand deaths in Kosovo. This was the very reason why these two communities decided to look Westward for ending the bloodshed and for EU and NATO membership after gaining the independence. Russia is still backing Republika Srpska, a Serb majority part of Bosnia, which occasionally threatens Sarajevo with separation. There is a constant fear of Russia, in these communities. For Muslims of the Balkans, Turkey for many reasons was looking friendly as it is a secular Muslim majority country, looking to becoming a full member of European Union, NATO member, plus all the common history which lasted for five hundred years. Ankara in its statements always was supportive of regions’ path of integrating with EU and NATO, or with the same West which she now despises so much. Turkey’s anti-West sentiment, at times irrationally high, is dragging the country towards losing its position in the Balkans. Once lost, the region will be hard to get back. There is a silent outcry among Muslims in the Balkans with this new dynamics, as they feel left behind by Ankara. If Turkey turns in that direction, they certainly will be.

President Erdoğan with Chairman Izetbegovic of the Bosnia and Herzegovina Presidential Council

President Erdoğan with Chairman Izetbegovic of the Bosnia and Herzegovina Presidential Council

Some would suggest that it is the double standards of the Western governments that have pushed Turkey to take the Eastern course. There might be some truth in that statement. But, double standards with interests are probably two constants of foreign policy from the early days of nationhood. It is true that inconsistency is present in the West, but the same attitude is harshly criticized by various voices in the West as well. Political elite shouldn’t get trapped ignoring the benefits Turkey offered in the past being a Western ally.

Let us take a short historical journey to get this point more clear. Turkey as a country with glorious past and a large number of historical strongmen today has another one. Some might not like him, but Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is definitely the strongest political figure in Turkey after Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. At the moment Erdoğan is at the crossroad when it comes to foreign policy. His decisions will determine the future of Turkey for probably a long time to come. But what would Turkey’s past strongmen have done if they were in the same situation? It is important to think of this as history acknowledges only those statesmen who took the right decision at the crossroads.

I would argue that four brilliant statesmen decided the fate of Turkish people ever since they settled in Anatolian lands. The decision of these four statesmen has drawn the path for the development of Turkish nation and the state. First being Alp Arslan the Seljuk leader, followed by Osman the founder of Ottoman Empire, Sultan Mehmed the Second conqueror of Constantinople and Mustafa Kemal Atatürk the founder of Turkish Republic. Without entering into the details, many historians would agree that precisely these four leaders have decided the faith of Turkish people. All four of them had one thing in common. They all looked towards the West. Interesting?

Alp Arslan is responsible why today Turks live in Anatolia as he defeated Byzantine forces in the Battle of Manzikert. This opened the way for various Turkic tribes of Oghuz groups to permanently settle in Anatolian lands. So he looked towards the West, rather than East. Another one is Osman, the founder of Ottoman Empire. The basis of Ottoman state ideology was the Gaza (Holy war). Ottoman Empire was born as a ‘warrior state’ whose ultimate goal was to spread Islamdom by conquering Byzantine lands. In its first centuries, Ottomans were oriented to spreading the Empire towards west, rather than heading east. Sultan Mehmed the Second known as the Conqueror has conquered once Byzantine capital Constantinople. After taking the town one of the first things he did was to proclaim himself a Kayser-i Rum or Cesar of Rome. During his leadership, he was known for culturally transforming the state into more of European-like state rather than another Turkic state of Anatolia. Mehmed the Conqueror successfully absorbed the Greco-Roman tradition left behind by Byzantine civilization. He abolished a monopoly held by Turkic families for the state positions and focused on recruiting youth from the Balkans for the high state positions. This brilliant tactics have launched Ottoman state into becoming one of the mightiest empires of its time. He even went that far to call an Italian painter Gentile Bellini to paint his portrait despite harsh criticism by religious circles, as it was seen as blasphemous act. This clearly demonstrates his determination in looking towards the West. Incorporating Greco-Roman state tradition created the longest lasting Turkish state, compared to previous dynasties which managed to last only for one or two generations, as the fighting for the throne in endless civil wars between strong families was the destiny of all Turkic states. Mehmed the Conqueror brought the understanding that the state is above the family, thus established the rule of law.

Finally, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, with sometimes ruthless reforms, made a precedent in the Islamic world. After abolishing the Ottoman caliphate he proclaimed the secular nation state on the ruins of Ottoman Empire. Today there are many debates on his governing, which I will avoid to comment, but one thing is for sure. Building a parliamentary secular democracy, a process which had its ups and downs, was probably the main reason why Turkey didn’t end up like rest of the Middle Eastern countries after the Arab spring. In parliament all social groups for decades had a place to share their discontents. Many remember that Turkey was enormously popular during the early days of the Arab Spring. What was surprising was that Arab street saw Turkey as a Western country, and of course, that is the another geography where Turkey is going to lose if sides with Russia, as the majority of Arab street is composed of the Sunni population and have a very bad opinion of Russia, and definitely of Iran. So, the orientation of Atatürk towards the West has created some stress in Turkey, but from the distance, it was worth it. Being labeled as a Western and Muslim country, for a long time was the greatest asset Ankara has possessed in its foreign policy. It should be noted that this was the only reason why Turkey was entrusted an important role during the bloody nineties in the Balkans and thus positioned itself in the peninsula.

All the great figures in Turkish history made a move in the same direction; they strengthened the state tradition in Greco-Roman fashion. As they knew this was the key to building an empire and ticket for the Balkans as a gateway to Europe. And of course, they didn’t wait for the invitation from Europeans. Turks ignored the obstacles put forward by the European states, as they face some today. Without strong Greco-Roman tradition, Turkey would be an ordinary Middle Eastern state. That will for sure weaken Ankara’s position in the Middle East as well. The Middle East is too complicated; Caucasus not so valuable from the geopolitical point, Central Asia too far and under Moscow’s shadow, the Balkans should probably be the right choice at this crossroad.

Jahja Muhasilovic

Jahja Muhasilovic is a Ph.D. candidate at The Atatürk Institute for Modern Turkish History based at Boğaziçi University. The Institute has a multidiscipline approach to the modern history of Turkey and the neighboring region. The subject of the Ph.D. thesis is ’Turkey’s Soft Power and Public Diplomacy in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Sandzak Region’. He defended a Master Thesis on the subject of the ‘Image of the Ottomans and Turks in Bosnian History Textbooks’ and a BA Thesis on ’The Formation of Turkish Nation-State’. His area of expertise is Turkish foreign policy in the Balkans from historical, cultural, economic, political, diplomatic, sociological, as well as other aspects, about which he has numerous publications.

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