Turkey: An ambivalent actor in the Balkans?

The AKP has shifted Turkey’s foreign policy by defining itself as the inheritor of the long-standing Ottoman cultural tradition, alongside its Sunni priorities and its attempts to influence the former Ottoman territories more assertively. Erdoğan has established networks with other Balkan leaders who are encountering criticism for their increasingly authoritarian rule; for some of these leaders, Erdoğan is a role model.

Hamdi Fırat Büyük & Ahmet Erdi Öztürk

“President Erdoğan was sent by God,” said Bakir Izetbegović, a Bosniak member of the Bosnian Presidency at the time, in an election rally organized by the Bosnia branch of the Union of International Democrats (UID) in Sarajevo on May 20, 2018. The UID was founded in 2004 and started its propaganda activities in Western European countries as the long arm of Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP). Since Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was not allowed to organize election rallies in Europe, the UID organized its Sixth Ordinary General Assembly in Sarajevo and invited Erdoğan as a speaker. During the meeting, which was accepted as a game changer for Bosnian and Turkish politics, Erdoğan emphasized Turkey’s internal political outlook and underlined the Ottoman-Islamic elements of Turkey’s current foreign policy towards the Balkans. Even though these two issues are not welcomed by Balkan countries, Izetbegović could not stop singing Erdoğan’s praises during this controversial visit. 

As might be surmised, there was in fact another story underlying Izetbegović's fawning statements. Izetbegović has long enjoyed Erdoğan’s strong support to maintain and later to consolidate his power. He has employed the generous support of Turkey’s state institutions in his different activities and campaigns, including the restoration of Bosnia’s monuments, zero-interest loans from Ziraat Bank, and support from Anadolu Agency’s Bosnian language service and other Turkey-funded media, such as Stav magazine and Factor website. 

Izetbegović is a great example of the selective policies employed by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in building Turkey’s relations in the Balkans, but he is not the only such example. The use of leadership-oriented relationship models and the effect of leaders on foreign policy are not unique to Turco-Balkan relations. At issue is state identity and foreign policy behavior. State identity is an artificial entity that can be constructed by history, culture, memory, values, experiences, individuals, guidance by political actors, and the institutional norms of the state. However, the leadership effect is exceptionally crucial as it occurs in Turco-Balkan relations. 

On that note, given the importance of Erdoğan’s effective role in policy-making processes, we argue that even though Turkey’s policy towards the Balkans is mostly based on its domestic political transformations and the activities of Turkey-originated transnational state apparatuses, such as the Presidency of Religious Affairs (Diyanet), leaders’ relations are also an important determinant that make Turkey an ambivalent actor in the region.

League of Balkan autocrats: Replication of political strategies

Turkey’s rapid political transformation has been formative along multiple dimensions, with an impact on foreign policy. The instrumentalization of Turkish history, culture, and religion under the influence of Erdoğan’s controlling mentality of management has become a core component of Turkish foreign policy in the second decade of the 2000s. In this regard, the AKP has shifted Turkey’s foreign policy by defining itself as the inheritor of the long-standing Ottoman cultural tradition, alongside its Sunni priorities and its attempts to influence the former Ottoman territories more assertively. Beyond these points, one might argue that one core component of this new foreign policy is the personalization of the decision-making processes. Using this approach, Erdoğan has started to establish a different network of relations with the Balkan leaders, compatible with the patrimonial nature of Turkey’s current regime under the AKP rule.

Under these circumstances, Erdoğan has established networks with other Balkan leaders who are encountering criticism for their increasingly authoritarian rule; for some of these leaders, Erdoğan is a role model. The official opening ceremonies of Erdoğan’s major infrastructure projects, his party congresses, his inauguration ceremonies, and even his children’s weddings always witness a high level of Balkan attendance. For instance, Bosniak leader Izetbegović and Albanian Premier Edi Rama were among witnesses of the wedding of Erdoğan’s daughter in 2016. Serbia’s strongman President Aleksandar Vučić is another Erdoğan best man. Even his sartorial style increasingly echoes that of President Erdoğan —he has joined the team of politicians who wear the Scots plaid jackets now identified with Erdoğan. Their similarities however extend far beyond their styling. Building their own media houses, demonizing opponents and critical media, using popular and nationalist discourse, establishing patrimonial networks within the state, undertaking “crazy” mega construction projects, and sliding towards Russia are only a few such parallels. 

Furthermore, the international role of Turkey has been scrutinized in relation to the state’s use of religious soft power in order to win friends and influence people, yet Turkey’s religious soft power is both multifaceted and ambivalent, reflecting receiving countries’ regime codes, state identity, implementation models, and perception of foreign powers. Within this ambivalent and multi-layered schema, one might argue that Erdoğan has been trying to create an influence on the global ummah, for which the Balkans is a very critical area, with Serbia as the most vital point, but leader relations have a different impact. For instance, within a few years of Erdoğan’s “Kosovo is Turkey and Turkey is Kosovo” statement, after which Serbia left Turkey-sponsored talks between Serbia, Bosnia, and Croatia, President Vučić hailed Erdoğan as the most popular state leader during a joint official visit to Serbia’s Sandžak region in 2017. He even professed awareness that President Erdoğan is loved by Sandžak’s Muslim Bosniak residents more than he himself is, even though he is their president.  In this way, President Vučić is allowing President Erdoğan to play his favorite game: being the leader of Muslims all over the globe, and one can be sure he is doing so for a purpose. 

Moreover, economic interest has also been playing an important role between these two experienced political actors. As of 2019, Serbia is Turkey’s largest trading partner in the Western Balkans. Moreover, Turkey’s state and private institutions are also investing in strategic sectors within Serbia, such as banking, motorways, and energy. Previously stagnant trade relations between the two countries boomed especially after they signed a free trade agreement in 2009. In 2008, when Turkey and Serbia started to get closer, the annual trade volume between the two countries was only 340 million euros. By 2018, the annual figure had exceeded one billion euros, with great prospects for future increase. 

The other side of the coin: Turkey’s policies backfire

Particularly in the Balkans, Turkey’s new policy preferences and an eventual overdose of hegemonic tendencies have created division among the Balkan elites who have started to read “the new Turkey” as a new state with a new identity. Exportation of domestic conflicts, interfering in the internal affairs of host countries, and instrumentalization of Islam via Turkey’s transnational state apparatuses have been creating some uneasiness. Because of high leadership visibility, all of these reactions have started to become about Erdoğan himself. For instance, in Bosnia, the second most powerful Bosniak politician and media house owner (among other business interests), Fahrudin Radončić, is the most open critic of Erdoğan. On every possible occasion his daily Avaz Newspaper criticizes Erdoğan’s rule and his friendship with Izetbegović. The main motive behind this policy is not democratic but personal, since Erdoğan does not take account of any politician in the country except Izetbegović’s friends. According to our own sources in Sarajevo and Ankara, Radončić tried to meet with Turkish politicians before the elections in 2014 but was deliberately ignored by all. 

It is obvious that Turkey has been undergoing another domestic transformation period and has been creating new policy preferences vis-à-vis the Balkan countries without considering their different characteristics, demographical structures, and historical relations with Turkey. The impact of Turkey’s policy changes on the countries in the Balkan region varies depending on their internal dynamics, international positions, economic development levels, and ethnic and religious structures. Within these transformations, Ankara’s rift with the West, its deteriorating role in NATO, and its current rapprochement with Russia—as well as Erdoğan’s personal relations with Balkan autocrats and in particular with Serbia’s Vučić — cause confusion and uncertainty about Turkey’s agenda in the region. In addition to Erdoğan’s personal relations, newly established parallel Turkish structures in the region, including lobby organizations and party offices, cause another source of confusion about Turkish foreign policy. In a short-term outlook, these policies can be admired by a minority of politicians and groups who benefit from them, but this is a very limited direction, and not a promising one. 

It should not be forgotten that Turkey built its important role in the Balkans through its support for the region’s Euro-Atlantic integration, strong economic and democratic institutions, and its significant soft power influence. If Turkey follows any route other than this, including personalization of its relations, it will definitely forfeit its role as a credible partner in the long run. If the shift in its state identity and interventions of hegemonic leadership continue, Turkey will become an ambivalent power with an unclear agenda. Furthermore, if even one of those with whom Erdoğan has established personal links should lose power, Turkey’s relations will suffer. Democratic values, Euro-Atlantic integration, and trade relations through institutions instead of individuals should be Turkey’s prime focus in the region, and Ankara must be able to sit and talk with every group and every politician without selecting and favoring certain ones, as it is happening now.

*This is an abridged version of an article originally published in Turkish Policy Quarterly’s (TPQ) Fall 2019 issue. ​For the original article with footnotes, please refer to www.turkishpolicy.com  


Hamdi Fırat Büyük is a PhD Candidate in Political Science at the University of Sarajevo. Ahmet Erdi Öztürk is an Assistant Professor of Politics and International Relations at the London Metropolitan University.