Turkey’s limited soft power in the Balkans  

Over the past two decades Turkey’s influence in the Balkans has increased on all fronts, from politics to the economy, culture, and military cooperation. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has not helped Turkey to further improve its standing. Turkish vaccines might be on the way, but it will probably be too late for the Balkans.

Since the 1990s, Turkey has been rediscovering the Balkans, which were for the first 70 years of the Republic largely ignored. This was in sharp contrast to the Ottoman Empire, a significant part of which was a Balkan empire. Until the early 1990s, Turkey didn’t show any particular interest in the Balkans, not even in its Muslim communities. This changed with the war in the former Yugoslavia, where solidarity with Bosnian Muslims played an important role in raising awareness of the historic bonds between Turkey and the Balkans (populations).
Emotions made their way into concrete policies in the early 2000s under the reign of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). For their first 14 years in power, the central person shaping this approach was Ahmet Davutoğlu, who had a peculiar interest in the Balkans, especially in the Muslim communities and tried to install Turkey as a mediator, donor, big brother and cultural magnet.
A proactive Turkish foreign policy especially after the enlargement in 2004 was then met with a reluctant EU concerning further enlargement. ‘Enlargement fatigue’ has been joined by additional factors over the past 15 years, which diverted the EU’s attention from the Western Balkans, from the financial crisis (2008), to refugees (2015) and recently Brexit and the East-Med. This situation created a ‘power vacuum,’ which several other players have been trying to fill, Turkey being one of them. The other main EU-competitors are Russia, China and the UAE.
Soft power played an important role in Davutoğlu’s strategy of intensifying relations. Turkey focused its soft power strategy on Balkan Muslims especially and four main areas: religious institutions, Islamic history, education, media, and popular culture. These was carried out by institutions like Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA), the Yunus Emre Institute, and Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet). Additionally, soap operas became popular via the Balkans changing the image of Turkey and Turks by depicting them as modern, hard-working, urban people.
Another important factor in Turkey’s strengthened position in the Balkans was the economy. Contrary to Turkey’s soft power efforts, the economic relations follow no clear cultural logic, but are instead highly pragmatic. Turkey has signed free trade agreements with all Western Balkan countries. Overall trade developed quickly, but from a very low starting point when the AKP took office. In 2002, trade between the Western Balkans and Turkey stood at about 435 million dollars. By 2016, it rose to 3 billion dollars. In the first nine months of 2019, this jumped to almost 10 billion dollars.
The pandemic hit the Balkans hard. The local health systems were ill-prepared to confront such a crisis with a lack of specialized medical workers and equipment. Balkan countries looked for help abroad. The EU was not the first to help. Serbia’s President Vucic commented bitterly on March 15, 2020, that “European solidarity does not exist. That was a fairy-tale on paper. I have sent a special letter to the only ones who can help, and that is China.” Not only China was ready to help, but Russian, Hungarian, UAE, and Turkish planes arrived in the early stages of the pandemic at airports throughout the Balkans, often welcomed with special ceremonies and well covered by the local media. For Hamdi Fırat Büyük, a PhD candidate at Sarajevo University, “aid-sending countries aim to gain increased public support by playing to a nationalist and imperial discourse that rests on the argument that they were powerful enough to help where the EU wasn’t.”
In the first wave of the pandemic, Turkey was quick to be assert itself among those helping out. Already on March 11, 2020, the first round of medical aid was sent to Bulgaria. In April and May medical supplies were sent to Albania, Serbia, BiH, Montenegro, Kosovo, and North Macedonia.
With vaccinations starting in late 2020, things began to change. The number of countries able to produce and send vaccines is more limited than concerning medical equipment. While the EU’s position was interpreted as ‘vaccine nationalism,’ China and Russia practiced ‘vaccine diplomacy.’ According to political scientist Dimitar Bechev, “For China, it’s a golden opportunity to embarrass the EU and the West more broadly.” However, Turkey is not the main profiteer of it Alida Vračić told Duvar English, saying, “The pandemic has certainly put Turkey in the backseat in comparison to Russia and China, which offered free vaccination distributed in Belgrade. Turkey has been much less present.”
On April 20, the EU announced that the six non-EU Balkans countries would receive 651,000 vaccine doses between May and August. Austria’s Foreign Minister Schallenberg, who will coordinate the EU vaccines, commented that “as the European Union, we are sending out a clear signal that we are not just navel-gazing, that we are looking beyond the horizon, and that it is quite clear to us that we ourselves will only be safe when our closest neighbors are safe as well.”
That is, if it is not too little and too late to improve the EU’s tattered image in the Balkans.
Turkey is not solidly in the backseat, lacking its own vaccine diplomacy, because it has yet to start developing its own vaccines yet and started late to the process. In mid-March 2021, there were 7 Turkish vaccination programs (and 10 drug programs). The most advanced one, led by Kayseri’s Erciyes University, began phase 1 in November 2020 and phase 2 in February 2021, which ended on 9 April. This also means that, at the earliest, the vaccines might reach the market in fall 2021, as phase 3 has yet to be completed. By then, there could be more than 50 vaccines on the market (there are currently 4), since in March 2021, there were 21 in phase 3 and 28 in phase 2. Therefore, to have a substantive impact in the Western Balkans, this schedule might be too late with the EU stepping in. However, Turkey could use these national vaccines for African and/or Asian countries, which have not yet started their vaccination programs and where Turkey has been trying to increase its influence. Turkish vaccine diplomacy is very likely to happen, just maybe not in the Balkans.

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