Politico: Turkey returns to the Balkans

“A century after the Ottomans lost the Balkans, the empire’s heirs are making inroads once again. As the European Union seeks to increase its sway in the western Balkans, the bloc will not only have to contend with a more assertive Russia, but also with the growing ambitions of Turkey.

This Thursday, EU leaders will meet their counterparts from six western Balkan countries — Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia — in the Bulgarian capital of Sofia. At the first such summit since 2003, the EU will restate that its door remains open to the region, while the Balkan leaders will pledge to undertake the reforms needed to become members one day”, Politico writes.

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The EU’s renewed interest in the southeast part of the continent is fueled by fears of Moscow’s role, but European leaders are increasingly scared of Turkey’s growing influence in the Western Balkan too, especially since Turkey has become more authoritarian – Politico, the influential online magazine, estimates.

Speaking to the European Parliament last month, French President Emmanuel Macron put Ankara and Moscow in the same bracket, saying he did not want the Balkans to “turn towards Turkey or Russia.” That remark ruffled feathers in Ankara, even prompting a rebuke from President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan himself.

Turkey considers the Balkans part of its natural sphere of influence as the former imperial power, with the Ottoman Empire famously stopping only at the gates of Vienna at its peak.

Erdoğan’s plan to hold a rally in the Bosnian capital Sarajevo on 20th May ahead of Turkish presidential and parliamentary elections in June also demonstrates the extent of his influence in the region. Western European countries banned similar rallies before Turkey’s constitutional referendum last year.

Serbian surprise

Close cultural, historic and religious ties make Turkey a natural partner for western Balkan countries with a sizeable Muslim population, such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, Albania, and Kosovo. More surprising has been a blossoming trade and political relationship with Serbia, where anti-Turkish sentiment was once widespread.

A drive along Serbia’s main highway, part of the artery linking Turkey with Western Europe, illustrates the change: In recent years, billboards in Turkish have sprung up advertising hotels and restaurants for weary truck drivers. Signs pointing out the nearest mosque tend to use the Turkish mescit rather than the Serbian word džamija.

Economic interests have persuaded both countries to set aside old enmities.

Serbia’s trade volume with Turkey last year reached nearly €1 billion, according to the Serbian Chamber of Commerce. Just two years earlier, the figure stood at €745 million.

When Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic visited Erdoğan in Ankara this month to discuss infrastructure projects and other issues, he proclaimed that Turkey is “the biggest power, the strongest country in the Balkans.”


The magazine also analyzes Turkish investments that have flooded the region.

Murat Ugur Ekinci, a Balkan expert at the SETA institute, which is a think-tank close to the Turkish government, says that official statistics show a significant increase in Turkey’s trade with the Western Balkans from 364 million euro in 2002 to about 2.5 billion euro in 2016.

Despite the increase, the Western Balkans makes up only a small part of Turkish trade. The volume of  Turkey’s trade with the EU, for example, is about 145 billion euro. However, Ankara has great hope for expanding economic relations with this region.

Danger of new conflicts

Yet some analysts fear that Erdoğan’s combative approach to politics could heighten tensions between and within ethnic groups in the western Balkans. The Turkish president employs tactics such as questioning the validity of border treaties to appeal to ultra-nationalists, on whose votes he depends to win the election.

That is dangerous territory in a region that still bears deep wounds from the wars of the 1990s that tore Yugoslavia apart

“Those things may be meant for domestic consumption, but that way of speaking has repercussions,” said Vessela Tcherneva, who heads the Sofia office of the European Council for Foreign Relations. Pushing nationalist and religious buttons “has much graver consequences in the Balkans than elsewhere,” she added.

She finds Erdoğan’s plan to hold a pre-election rally in the Balkans particularly worrisome. Suha Umar, a former Turkish ambassador to Belgrade, shares Tcherneva’s concern, telling the website Al-Monitor that such a rally would be “highly risky.”

But others say stirring up trouble is not in Turkey’s interests. “Any conflict or tension in the region would reduce Turkey’s ability to develop better ties and economic relations in the region, and those are Turkey’s priorities,” said SETA analyst Ekinci.

Most analysts argue that it would, in any case, be futile for the EU to try to reduce Turkey’s presence, given the longstanding historical ties.

Ülgen sees little difference between Turkey’s relationship with the Balkans and the United Kingdom’s relationship with Commonwealth countries, for example.

“The EU needs to adjust itself to this reality that Turkey’s influence is not something that they can prevent,” he said. “The outlook should be: ‘We acknowledge Turkish influence, so how can we work together towards common objectives?’”

(Blic, Politico, 15.05.2018)



This post is also available in: Italiano

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