Turkey’s recent economic activity in the Balkan countries, a region once dominated by the Ottomans, added to statements by officials, signal a Turkish comeback.
Stories on Turkish Airlines’ latest interest in Serbia’s national carrier and developing trade between the two countries upon a customs deal show how strong this economic revisit is. However, many non-Muslims, especially in Orthodox Christian Serbia and Bulgaria, view the Turkish inroads with growing alarm and suspicion
The minarets and Turkish coffeehouses in this southern Serbian town are reminders of the Ottoman Empire. Now Turkey, the modern state that replaced the empire, is staging a comeback. Turkey’s fast-growing economic clout is allowing it into Europe through the back door, even as its dream of joining the continent through the path of EU membership founders.
Turkey’s trade with the Balkan countries increased to $17.7 billion in 2008 from about $3 billion in 2000. Turkey’s companies have built the largest university campus in the Balkans, in a suburb of Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. And its banks provided 85 percent of the loans for building a highway through Serbia for Turkish transit of goods to the EU.
On a 2009 trip to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu explicitly linked his nation’s Balkan strategy to the Ottoman Empire, which ruled the region between the 14th and early 20th centuries.
“The Ottoman centuries of the Balkans were success stories. Now we have to reinvent this.”
“Turkey,” he declared, “is back.”
Many Muslims in the Balkans welcome Turkey’s growing influence. Avdija Salkovic, a 25-year-old student, has spent his whole life in Novi Pazar but considers Turkey his motherland.
“Our feelings toward Turkey have always been the same,” said Salkovic, sipping strong black tea in a smoky cafe in the shadows of a mosque in this predominantly Muslim town. “The difference is that Turkey is back to its historic lands, and is finally looking at us.”
Those feelings of kinship are strong in Turkey as well. Many Turks trace their roots to the Balkans and still have relatives living in the region, a legacy of Ottoman days. A fascination for one another’s popular culture – from music to soap operas – strengthens the affinity.
But non-Muslims, especially in Orthodox Christian Serbia and Bulgaria, view the Turkish inroads with growing alarm and suspicion. Turkey is on a mission to establish “hegemonic control” over the Balkans, warns Bulgarian political scientist Ognyan Minchev.
The EU and U.S., too, are increasingly wary of Turkey’s growing clout, particularly in places like Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and Albania, which like Turkey itself are stuck in the limbo of a snail-paced EU membership process. Washington, while recognizing Turkey’s value as a go-between with Muslim communities, is loath to share influence in a region where it has strong strategic interests.
In place of distant European dreams, Turkey is offering an immediate embrace. And as Ankara also courts hard-line regimes like Syria and Iran, some in the West fear its growing leadership in the Balkans could complicate EU attempts to instill Western democratic and financial standards here.
“For many years, the perception has been that Turkey needs Europe more than Europe needs Turkey,” said Misha Glenny, a prominent Balkans political analyst. “If Europe does not look hard at the dynamism of Turkish economic and foreign policy, it may miss the boat.”
The Balkans still aspire to EU membership, but Turkey allows them privileged access to a huge and rapidly growing domestic market of 74 million people, compared to about 55 million in the entire Balkan region.
“If the Balkans find that too many obstacles are strewn about the road to Brussels, they may well be tempted to set out on the shorter road to Istanbul,” Glenny said.
A confidential diplomatic cable sent last year by the U.S. Embassy in Ankara describes Turkey’s “back to the past” policy toward the Balkans as “problematic.” In fact, it said Washington’s biggest strategic headache in the region is Turkey, which is trying through political “pawns” to impose its domination.
However, the cable, released by WikiLeaks, also underplays Turkey’s chances, saying it has “Rolls Royce ambitions, but Rover resources.”
Dusan Reljic, an analyst at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, agreed that Turkey would struggle to become the dominant power, because the region is still politically focused on joining Europe.
“It is a kind of an imperial over-stretch,” said Reljic. “But they can’t deliver.”
However, economic signs of Turkish influence in the region abound.
In 2008, Turkish Airlines, or THY, bought a 49 percent stake of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s national carrier, BH Airlines, and is negotiating the takeover of Serbia’s troubled national carrier, JAT airways. Dozens of Turkish firms have flocked to Bosnia, and the two nations have signed an arms-production deal. Since January last year, Serbian exporters have been selling their products in Turkey free of customs duties.
Perhaps most significantly, Turkey has been using its recent diplomatic rapprochement with Moscow to lobby for making the Balkans a major strategic hub for a Russian gas pipeline planned to stretch from Central Asia to Western Europe, via Turkey.
Turkey has been less successful presenting itself as a diplomatic broker in the Balkans, wading into several political disputes in a region torn apart by a series of bloody ethnic wars in the 1990s.
However, there is one role Turkey, a largely secular Muslim nation, may be ideally positioned to shoulder: stemming the rise of Islamic radicalism in some Muslim-dominated areas of the Balkans.
“Turkey does point the way in how to integrate Islamist-based politics into the political life of a country, and thereby reduce the possibility for violent groups to emerge in the country,” said Fadi Hakoura, a Turkey analyst at U.K.-based Chatham House.
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