“Listen you Turks, don’t you walk in my fields! Listen! Don’t you plow our roads!” An apparently key detail of an epic classic of Serbian literature “Plowing of Kraljevic Marko” seems to symbolically depict the attitude toward modern Turkey’s foreign policy in the Balkans. Some, who find their main point of reference in the past, call this foreign policy neo-Ottomanism. On the other hand, there is still no precise answer as to how distant the influence of the Ottoman history is, after all Turkish rule lasted for 500 long and hard-to-erase years, or how many reruns of it are being prepared.
By: Predrag Ćurković
Speaking of reruns, Turkish soap operas have conquered local TV more thoroughly and fully than any elite Janissary units are passionately watched in the Balkans by large masses. And not only their premier episodes, but the reruns too, no matter if they lasted for one thousand and one nights. Suleiman the Magnificent was, and continues to be, more popular in downtown Belgrade than any other Hollywood “A” production star. Of course, the reference here is made to an actor who plays the character of the leader of the Ottoman Empire in a TV series of the same name and to which hundreds of millions of Turkish lira were spent to promote Turkey in the world.
Others believe that Turkey’s engagement in Bosnia and Herzegovina is no different from the engagement of the United States, Germany, or Russia. A more intensive return of Turkey in the Balkans started in the nineties of the last century, and by applying the policy referred to by some as neo-Ottomanism, Turkey has tried to restore its influence in the areas that are of priority importance for it, i.e. the Balkans, the Middle East and Caucasus. Those who claim that the modern-day Turkey goes in the direction of neo-Ottomanism believe that the Turkey’s attempt to capitalize this ’historical depth’ – a term that was forged in the book “Strategic Depth”, by Ahmet Davutogly, Turkey’s Foreign Minister and a distinguished professor of international relations, who advocates restoration of Turkey’s influence in the Balkans in new circumstances, by modern pragmatic means – support their claim with the fact that Turkey ruled a large part of this area for a long time until the First World War.
Their opponents believe that the term neo-Ottomanism is unnecessarily exaggerated, first of all because it is intentionally associated with some imperialistic times and linked with an attempt to interpret the present through some past historical times. Besides, they assert, speaking about Turkey coming back to the Balkans makes no sense, as Turkey, geographically, historically and culturally belongs to the Balkans. They find it quite normal that Turkey, being a Balkan country, and given its recent economic boom, should promote certain economic and political ideas, something that other countries do as well. They support the claim with a parallel with many other countries with some negative record of involvement in B&H, so that they see no reason why only one country should be given such an aggressive title, and the others be spared.
Proponents of neo-Ottomanism, as a determinant of the Turkish relation toward the Balkans, do not contest the legitimacy of Turkish engagement in the economic sphere, but they underline the fact that top Turkish officials constantly invoke, at the level of symbolism and rhetoric, the need to restore some kind of Muslim or ottoman unity, especially when they find themselves in the areas with majority Muslim population – in the case of Balkans – Bosniaks and Albanians. Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan has become rather famous recently for his statement in Prizren that Kosovo is Turkey and that Turkey is Kosovo. His chief diplomat, Ahmet Davutoglu, made an even more notable statement in Sarajevo invoking the restoration of the golden times of Ottoman Balkans. At the same time, none of the countries that are present in this area – and Germany and the United States certainly are – do not consider the future of the Balkans by reminiscing about the past. The past that no Balkans people consider to be “a golden age”.
Turkey definitely does not have the intention of making an Islamic country in the Balkans, because it is simply impossible. On the other hand, in all of the conflicts in former Yugoslav territories, Turkey overtly took one side, the side of the Bosniaks in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Albanians in Kosovo and Metohija. In his book “Strategic Depth”, which gives a very precise overview of Turkish foreign policy toward a number of countries in the world, Ahmet Davutoglu does not even mention the policy toward Serbia and Greece. The current chief Turkish diplomat only explains that the Serbs and the Greeks are by default opposed to Turkish strategy, i.e. to its strategic interest and that this is the reason for his not elaborating on politics toward Serbian or Greek nations.
Nevertheless, the optimists would say that Ahmet Davutoglu’s geopolitical philosophy aims at establishing some kind of geo-economic union in the Balkans, aimed at making Istanbul as powerful as possible. This is one of the reasons for Turkey’s insisting on trilateral meetings among the highest representatives of Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Turkey. Turkey wants to be an intermediary in overcoming the problems that still persist between the Bosniaks and the Serbs, be it in Serbia or in Bosnia and Herzegovina. On the other hand, the proponents of labeling Turkish politics as neo-Ottoman would like to see the Croatian president also involved in sorting out the situation in the region and the normalization of relations with B&H. The former President of Serbia, Boris Tadic, signed the so-called Istanbul Declaration some time ago, which brought nothing concrete, but gave the Turks a kind of vantage point, and an opportunity to boast that they managed to get that non-binding paper. Tadic signed the Declaration with the Bosniak representative of the Presidency of B&H, Haris Silajdzic, an unwise thing to do politically, because Dr. Silajdzic did not have the approval of the Presidency of B&H to sign that declaration, because, at that time he was practically politically dead.
After Erdogan’s statement in Prizren, the Belgrade-Sarajevo-Ankara trilateral seems to be clinically dead. It is true that voices can be heard from Sarajevo and Ankara that the cancelled Belgrade meeting, which had been agreed to in New York does not mean an end to the trilateral talks. The current Serbian president, Tomislav Nikolic, has said that he would not meet the leaders of the two other countries unless Erdogan apologizes, which the Turkish prime minister has not done. According to the Turkish Foreign Minister, besides the fact that the meeting is canceled, the mechanism of trilateral are in force and operational. Erdogan did not apologize for his non-diplomatic statement, but Davutoglu offered an explanation that his chief diplomat’s speech in Kosovo had been misinterpreted and that his words had been taken out of context. A head of B&H diplomacy, Zlatko Lagumdzija, believes that the meeting will take place, especially because the topics planned are in the interest of all countries, i.e. economic, and that the request for an apology is not an issue any more, because it is a thing of the past. However, after the indefinite postponement of the summit, Turkey’s biggest opposition party contends that Prime Minister Erdogan and chief diplomat Davutoglu either do not know where the Turkish state borders are or are not happy with them. All that said, it is believed that it was at Turkey’s initiative that three countries reinforced their relations, and that it was under Turkey’s influence that the Serbian Assembly adopted the Declaration on Condemning Crimes in Srebrenica in 2010.
The opponents of characterizing Turkish policy toward the Balkans as neo-Ottoman, conclude the term neo-Ottomanism belongs to the register of completed history, because Turkey’s presence in the Balkans does not involve any strong military contingents ready to resort to violence, but political and economic potential and a pragmatic intention to reinforce its position in familiar parts of the world, primarily using economic means. Turkey is at present the 17th strongest economic power in the world and is still developing its strong geo-economic potential, such strength is inevitably followed by geopolitical potential, whether this country wants it or not.
Critics of the Turks’ Balkans expansion believe that it would be better if Ankara’s presence was economically and culturally more intensive and less biased and if Turkish officials could restrain themselves from the effusions of evocating the golden age of the Ottoman Empire. To support this, they contend that Turkey is a secular country and that religion is not so important there, but that Islamic radicalization has been noticed and that this causes the problems in the Balkans. Radicalization taking place in Turkey relates not only to its aspirations for the Balkans, but for Central Asia and China too.
Darko Tanskovic, an Middle Eastern specialist from Belgrade, even claims, in his statement for The Srpska Times, that the Turks are by mentality mostly neo-Ottomans, regardless of the level of their education or their pro-West views, and that Turkey applies neo-Ottomanism in deceptive ways, so that this is even not recognized by some – in the same way that they do not recognize Turkish strategy to invest where it has a long-term interest. The increasing engagement of Turkey in the Balkans is part of its foreign policy to play an autonomous role as a regional power. Still, according to independent analysts, Turkey’s twist in foreign policy does not imply that it moves the West from its list of priorities, but that it wants to expand its aspirations to the Middle East and Central Asia as well.
There is a rising consciousness in Turkey of horrendous crimes committed against the Armenians in 1915; at the same time the Turks see themselves as victims saying that five million of them were expelled during ethnic cleansing (many died or were killed) at the time of the breakdown of the Ottoman Empire. Prior to Erdogan’s party acceding to power in 2002, Ankara’s key goal had been to get the country as close as possible to the West, which had been a cornerstone of its politics since the founding of the Turkish Republic.
Turkey is a member of NATO; and no matter how painful or long it may seem, the negotiations with the EU on continuation of integrations are still ongoing; Turkey is one of the founders of the Council of Europe, OSCE. However Erdogan’s party has played down the importance of these priorities. Now it strives to transform Turkey into a regional power, able to act independently of the West. So, it is about Turkey’s endeavor to get geo-strategic autonomy. This is the principal change in its foreign policy, which is reflected in its relations with the Balkans.
Besides ideological and geostrategic, Turkey’s twist has to do with economic motives too. Turkey is already in the customs union with Europe, so one of the ways for it to expand its economic base, i.e. find new markets and investments is to make an excursion to the neighboring Balkans. This is even more enhanced by the increasing frustration caused by stalling in negotiations with the EU on membership, so that such a rearranging of Turkish foreign-policy priorities becomes more and more acceptable to the domestic public too. .
In his book “Strategic Depth”, Davutoglu advocates close relations with the countries that used to be a part of Ottoman Empire, like some kind of Commonwealth after the model of the Great Britain and its former colonies.
It is certain that a significant progress of Turkish diplomacy in the Balkans will strengthen the country’s negotiation position within NATO and EU. But, if Turkey wants to have a more positive image in the Balkans, it should present its own plans and expectations in detail, without bias and as soon as possible.
It can be often heard in Ankara that the Turkish engagement in the West Balkans is an expression of respect and interest of its own population for the well-being of their relatives in the Balkan. Besides, the West Balkans is an important crossroads on the way to important markets; there are strategic and political interests involved too. More and more Turkish cultural centers, school and universities are being opened in the territory of the West Balkans. Turkish media offers more than rich – heartbreaking TV serials have subdued and completely overcome the up-to-that point dominant Latin American soap operas. However, all things considered, those who seem to be the fondest of Turkey are the Bosniaks in B&H. Turkish flags are gladly waved in Novi Pazar too, and Turkey could get even more liked if the European future of the West Balkans countries continued to remain shrouded in doubt. Should the EU leave the Balkans countries waiting in an endless line, Turkey could find itself at the forefront of the so-called union of disowned relatives. Croatia has already wriggled its way out of that embrace, Serbia is already waving good bye, and only B&H is still waiting for anyone to give it a hug, no matter from which side it comes. B&H still finds it very difficult to be on its own.