The end of the Cold War, the dissolution of Yugoslavia and the fall of the one-party system in Albania were turning points in Turkey’s engagement in the Western Balkans (WB) for a number of reasons.
The WB is considered as a bridge between Turkey and Europe, an area of vital importance for Turkey’s economy, energy, transportation and tourism. Turkey’s interest in the European Union (EU) membership is another reason for the region’s importance, because despite setbacks Turkey has not lost its interest in becoming an EU member1, and it regards the countries of the Balkans as potential supporters of Turkey’s EU bid in the future2. Migration is another element of Turkey’s engagement, given that the conflicts in the Balkans have caused waves of mass migration by Turkish minorities3 and Muslim populations. Another reason is that by taking an active role in the Balkans, Turkey attempted to prove its importance to the Western world4 because the maintenance of its ‘Western’ identity was an important factor in the formulation of Turkish policies in the 1990s. A final driver of Turkish policy in the Balkans was the fear that the dissolution of Yugoslavia would lead to Greek hegemony in the region5, therefore downplaying Turkey’s role as a regional power.
As a result of its strong economic growth in the early 2000s, and the rise of the newly formed Justice and Development Party (AKP), Turkey found itself capable of playing a bigger role in the region. A leading intellectual figure in the AKP and the architect of its foreign policy was Ahmet Davutoğlu, who took the helm of Turkey’s foreign policy in 2009. His doctrine, often called ‘neo-Ottomanism’, projected a new era in Turkish foreign policy6 by portraying Turkey as a major actor in the region. Since coming to power in 2002, AKP has adopted three broad, successive approaches7 towards the WB. First, a continuation of its traditional Atlanticism. From the early 1990s until the late 2000s, Turkey’s WB foreign policy was in sync with and complementary to the West, particularly the US. The AKP’s foreign policy approach in general at this time was to maintain and improve its relations with nearby countries, labelled as “zero problems with the neighbours”. During this period Turkey expanded visa-free travel and free trade agreements with its neighbours, which lasted roughly until Turkey’s appointment of Davutoğlu as foreign minister in 2009 and Turkey’s disagreements with the West – when the second phase of the AKP’s WB ‘neo-Ottoman’ turn began. This phase was marked by an intensification of Turkey’s diplomatic outreach to the WB, which was nuanced with references to the Ottoman past. The third and most recent phase of the AKP’s strategy towards the WB is a more pragmatic approach led by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. This phase marks a pragmatic focus on greater economic ties and a prominent role for the Turkish president, by direct engagement and through personal ties with Western Balkan leaders.
Turkey and the three Muslim-majority countries of the Western Balkans: A three-dimensional relationship
This article explores three main areas as the main pillars of the relationship between Turkey and the three Muslim-majority countries of the WB: Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), and Kosovo. The first part is dedicated to the economic ties, the second to the political ties, and the third part analyses the cultural ties among countries.
In order to explore the extent of Turkey’s economic engagement in the region, three indicators will be taken into consideration: the imports, exports and foreign direct investments (FDI) of the three countries. Although those three indicators have their limits in revealing the full intensity of the economic cooperation among countries of the region and Turkey, they are still solid data points that provide a picture of their economic volume. In overall economic terms, Turkey has the advantages of geographical proximity with the WB, which allows for a reduction in transportation costs, as well as an existing similarity in consumption habits. Turkey has also signed free bilateral trade agreements with Albania, BiH, and Kosovo. Nevertheless, as indicated by the following official data, Turkey does not play a significant role in the economies of the WBs’ Muslim-majority countries. Nevertheless, even though Turkey’s economic relevance is considerably less than other states, Turkey manages to appear more relevant than it actually is by investing in popular and highly visible projects such as highways, hospitals, schools, mosques, bridges and restorations of buildings from the Ottoman heritage.
Figure 1: Albanian Institute of Statistics, Data for 2019. Albania’s imports & exports by country.
Regarding imports to Albania, Italy leads the figure with more exports to Albania than the next three countries (Turkey, Greece and Germany) combined. Turkey is second in line, but far less compared to Italy. With regard to Albanian exports, Italy imports as much Albanian goods as twice the amount of the next four countriescombined. Kosovo ranks second, followed by Spain, Germany and Greece. Turkey is ranked only 17th, and it lags behind all the other states to which Albania exports its goods: there are fewer exports to Turkey than to every other WB country except BiH. In terms of Foreign Direct Investments, Switzerland has the highest FDIs in Albania for the past three years, followed by the Netherlands, Canada, and Italy; Turkey ranks only fifth.
Figure 2: The chart includes data for the second quarterly stock of direct investment-liabilities in Albania by country for 2018, 2019 and 2020- BPM6. Source: Albanian Institute of Statistics, December 2020
The data from three economic indicators reveal the massive role of Italy in Albanian trade, while Turkey only plays a limited role. As regards trade between Albania and Turkey, the current trade exchange is favourable for Turkey, as it exports large amounts to Albania while importing only little.
When it comes to Kosovo’s trade relations, Germany leads the figure with the most exports to Kosovo, followed closely by Turkey, China and Italy. Albania tops the list of Kosovo’s exports as it receives twice as much as the combined amount of the next two countries. North Macedonia is ranked second, followed by Germany. Turkey is ranked only 13th in the list and constitutes only 1.8% of Kosovo’s exports. On the other hand, Germany and China have had the highest FDIs in Kosovo for the past three years; Turkey is third and the United States is fourth.
Figure 3: Kosovo’s Agency of Statistics, data for 2019
The data from these three economic indicators reveal that Kosovo does not have any particularly significant trade partner, and Turkey plays only a small role in its economy. The country mainly imports from Germany, China and Turkey, and mainly exports to its immediate neighbours Albania and North Macedonia. Like Albania, the trade exchange between Kosovo and Turkey is favourable to the latter, as Turkey exports significantly to Kosovo and imports very little.
Figure 4: Data from the Central Bank of the Republic of Kosovo, December 2020
Germany leads the figure with the most exports to BiH, followed closely by Italy, Serbia and Croatia. China is ranked fifth and Turkey sixth. Germany also tops the list of BiH’s export destinations, followed closely by Croatia, Serbia and Italy. Turkey is ranked only eighth in the list.
In terms of Foreign Direct Investments, Austria tops the list of countries with the most FDIs in BiH, followed closely by Croatia and Serbia, while Turkey is only ranked 12th.
Figure 5: Trading Economics, Data for 2019
In contrast to Albania and Kosovo, which both have (albeit unfavourable) considerable trade volumes with Turkey, BiH does not enjoy such levels of trade. The data from first two economic indicators reveal that BiH has several trade partners such as Germany, Croatia, Serbia and Italy. Turkey is not significant in the overall trade volume of BiH, ranking sixth highest in exports to BiH and eighth in imports from BiH. Furthermore, Turkey also plays an insignificant role in BiH’s FDIs, as it is ranked 12th.
Figure 6: Data from the Central Bank of Bosnia & Herzegovina (CBBH), December 2020
While Turkey does not play a significant role in the region’s economy at the moment, it is important to mention that economic volume alone does not fully explain the overall connectedness of Turkey and the WB countries. The political and cultural links coupled with the economic aspect comprise the mosaic of the overall ties between the countries.
In order to understand Turkey’s role in the region, one must look at the broader geopolitical dynamics of the international system. In the literature, uni-interpolarity best explains the features of today’s international system8, although the post-Covid-19 situation has called its legitimacy into question9. Uni-interpolarity is a structure characterised by comprehensive interdependence. It is based on a superpower with undisputable global influence and some major powers with lesser influence than the superpower. Multilateralism is a key component of a uni-interpolar configuration because certain fundamental issues such as security, economic and environmental concerns cannot be tackled by a single state, not even the most powerful one. The superpower in the international system is the US; the major power closer to the WB is the EU, while Turkey’s role is that of a regional power. In this realm, Albania, BiH and Kosovo can all be described as small states10. Although a variety of factors affect the foreign policy alignments of each state – such as economic, cultural, historical and ideological values – from a Realpolitik perspective, the best option for the small states is to align their foreign policy with the superpower, the second-best option is the major power, and the last is the regional power.
Albania and Kosovo’s foreign policy priority is to join the Western political and economic structures, thus aligning itself with the superpower (US) and the major power (EU). In the case of the WB, these countries aspire not only to align their foreign policy with the major power (EU) but they want to become part of it; as a result, these relations are particularly important.
Albania is a NATO member and EU candidate country, whose foreign policy course reflects a balance between the state’s European and American orientations11 which have constituted the two pillars of its foreign policy in the post-Cold War era. The US has been the most important foreign actor in Albanian politics since the beginning of that country’s transition process12, which culminated with its accession to NATO in 2009. Similar to Albania, Kosovo’s foreign policy orientation has been shaped by its efforts to integrate into the EU and the Euro-Atlantic structures. The US led the 1999 NATO bombing campaign that paved the way to Kosovo’s independence in 2008, and the US’s continuous support has been particularly important for Kosovo’s path towards international recognition of its independence and its ability to join international organisations. Nevertheless, despite both Albania’s and Kosovo’s open allegiance to a Western political model, Turkey has significant political clout in both countries, occasionally supplemented by declared political friendships. This was witnessed when President Erdoğan’s hunt for his political opponents in both countries forced the extradition of five Turkish citizens from Kosovo and one from Albania who were accused of being involved in the 2016 Turkish coup attempt.
Regardless of its Euro-Atlantic orientation, the situation in BiH is substantially different from that of Albania and Kosovo. In recent years, BiH has been facing a crisis which exceeds the country’s habitually difficult traditional political, security, economic and social situation. As a result of the country’s complicated institutional setup established by the Dayton Peace Accord, the political leaders of the Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims), the Bosnian Croats (predominately Catholics), and the Bosnian Serbs (mostly Orthodox) seem to be abandoning the UN=brokered peace accord, and are now focusing on their own narrow ethnic interests13. In this environment, and without having a positive US legacy14 such as Albania and Kosovo, the country is more vulnerable to foreign interference, especially when each ethnic group is increasingly interdependent with their allies. Turkish leverage in BiH is noticeably higher than in Albania or Kosovo, thanks to the Turkish President’s political friendship with the leader of the Bosniaks, especially their leader Bakir Izetbegović, who once described Erdoğan as “a man sent from God with a special mission.”15
Considering the international system and the regional role of Turkey in the WB, it is important to examine Turkey’s foreign policy orientation and how that may affect the WBs’ course. Although a NATO member since 1952, Turkey has been decoupling with the West during the last decade, especially since the Gezi Park protests in 2013 when then-PM Erdoğan used harsh rhetoric towards the West. From a Turkish perspective16, President Erdoğan’s rapidly escalating anti-Western approach was a reaction to Western meddling in Turkey’s domestic affairs. From an EU perspective17, this decoupling started in 2016 when the failed military coup in Turkey prompted President Erdoğan to reinforce his ties with Moscow and to embark on a series of foreign policy interventions18 in Libya, Syria, the Eastern Mediterranean, and Nagorno-Karabakh that have been contrary to, or at least uncoordinated with, the Western allies’ interests. Regardless of this perceived transformation of Turkey from regional to major power, the country is still looking for positive relations with the US and the EU. President Erdoğan recently stated that Turkey hopes to “turn a new page in its ties with the US and the EU”, and that Ankara had been subjected to “double standards” by both Washington and Brussels19. In a videoconference with the President of the European Commission, the Turkish President stated that he believes Turkey’s future is in the EU, and that steps should be taken in resuming membership negotiations.20
Turkey is clearly a regional power, and it cannot replace the role of the US or the EU in the region. Like the WB countries, Turkey itself is interested in resuming the EU membership process and aligning its foreign policy with the US, or at least maintaining a flexible relationship with both in order to serve its best interests. It would also make exports to its main trading partner (the EU) easier; it will indirectly increase Turkish leverage with the EU; and it might help Turkey’s own aspirations to EU membership.
The cultural aspect is one of the main factors in the ‘soft power’ approach in international relations, and countries often decide where to invest based on their own foreign policy goals and national interests, taking into consideration their historical, cultural, political, geographical and economic ties with the recipient country. In the case of Turkey, this ‘soft power’ approach was advanced by Davutoğlu’s foreign policy which placed a strong emphasis on the ‘Ottoman heritage’.22 This new foreign policy relied23 first on utilising various Turkish institutions such as the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA), thanks to whom the WBs have been getting more than 2 percent of its overall budget since 201024 focused on the rebuilding or rehabilitation of a number of significant Ottoman heritage monuments;25 the Yunus Emre Institute, Turkish universities, Turkish media outlets broadcasting in regional languages, as well as the Diyanet (the Turkish Religious Affairs Directorate).26 The Diyanet’s role has been strengthened as a foreign policy tool primarily focused on providing quality educational and humanitarian services to local communities, but also as a competitor to the Gülen Movement. Second, the new Turkish foreign policy has aimed to make Turkey a tourist destination for people in the Balkans27, while at the same time encouraging Turkish people to set up businesses and invest in the Balkans, as well as streaming Turkish soap operas on Balkan media platforms. In addition, the countries of the WB and Turkey are also connected by their diaspora28, including Bosnians and Albanians in Turkey and small Turkish minorities in the WB, which in Davutoğlu’s thinking29 creates an organic link between Turkey and the Balkans.
This soft power, and especially the foreign aid, should be taken with a grain of salt, because foreign aid is not used only to unconditionally help developing countries, but also to promote the donor country’s geostrategic interests as well as its political, economic and security goals. Therefore, all the countries of the WBs should clearly distinguish not only what benefits they gain in the short term, but also how it could damage their national interests in the long term.
The implications of Turkey’s engagement in Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo
In contrast to Davutoğlu’s assumptions, the role of Turkey in the WB is that of a regional power and not a major power. Turkey is neither interested nor able to change the Euro-Atlantic path of the WB countries. Regardless of what role it chooses to play, however, there are still several overall implications of Turkey’s engagement in the WBs.
Given that the WBs are a multi-religious region, there is a concern that Turkey’s careless public diplomacy rhetoric30 describing itself as a ‘protector’ of Muslims, may deepen the longstanding divisions among different ethnic groups in the Balkans31. Turkey has shown no strategic favour to Muslim-dominated areas of the Balkans, and its trade and relations follow no clear cultural logic, but are instead highly pragmatic32. However, Turkey’s religious rhetoric may cause further divisions among the multi-religious countries in the region, where strengthening ties with Turkey may create reactions among the other religious communities, and risks upsetting the religious balances inside those countries.
The WB countries have entrusted their state-development process to the EU enlargement strategy which is centred on the principle of conditionality – the offer of the EU rewards (most importantly financial assistance and membership) on the condition that WB states meet the demands set by the EU33. While the West has the conditionality principle of “carrots and sticks” which keeps the pressure on WB leaders to stay in line with the development process, Turkey has no state-reforming conditionality for WB leaders – it is enough for Turkey that the WB leaders do not challenge Turkey’s interests in the region. This triggers the second concern, that closer ties with Turkey might create a precedent that in the future could hurdle the EU conditionality principle, which is crucial for the process of Europeanising the WB and keeping the WB leaders’ authoritarian tendencies in check.
The dispute between President Erdoğan and Fethullah Gülen has also penetrated the region34. This is the root of the third implication of Turkey’s engagement in the WB: President Erdoğan’s hunt for his opponents in the region exports Turkish problems into the WB, violates the WB states’ national sovereignty, and also pressures WB countries into infringing their own justice systems. This might also set a precedent for other similar cases in the future. Although, to Turkey´s dismay, most WB leaders have refused to comply with Ankara’s strenuous efforts to interfere with domestic issues – which shows the true limits of Turkish power in the region – the existence of direct Turkish political interference was clearly exemplified by the arrest of six Turkish citizens in Kosovo35. The arrests were made without informing the prime minister of Kosovo, and the Parliamentary Investigative Committee, created in Kosovo to investigate the case, found 31 legal breaches. Turkey is not hindering the WBs’ path to the EU; on the contrary, it has constantly claimed to support the region’s integration with the EU, because Turkey’s strategic goals (contrary to those of Russia) would be still better served if the WB countries join the EU, as this would stabilise a region where Turkey has economic, political and cultural ties.
The role of Turkey in the region has been praised by Turcophiles and condemned by Turcophobes. Turkey is a natural ally given its proximity to the region, its common past, as well as the Euro-Atlantic course. However at present, and in real terms, Turkey does not have a significant role in the region’s economy, and it plays only a moderate role in the region’s culture. Turkey is clearly a regional power, and it cannot replace the US or the EU in the region. Moreover, Turkey’s strategic goals, in contrast to those of Russia, are better served if the WB countries join the EU. Therefore, the greatest challenge for the future of the WB is not posed by the Turkish engagement in the region, but by the US’s isolationism and the EU’s enlargement fatigue. For as long as the US and the EU are invested in the region, it is unlikely and unfavourable for the WB countries to relinquish their Euro-Atlantic commitments.
1 According to survey data, the public opinion of Turkish citizens who believed that joining the EU would be positive fell from 73% in 2004 to 38% in 2010, but bounced back up to 53% in 2014. See http://www.tepsa.eu/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/tepsa-brief-senyuva_final-2.pdf. More recent data from EU barometer 2020 indicate low percentages of Turkish people feeling attached to the EU, Available at https://ec.europa.eu/commfrontoffice/publicopinion/index.cfm/survey/getsurveydetail/instruments/standard/surveyky/2262. However, the waves of support and opposition are affected by both sides (EU and Turkey), and are very much linked with political developments in Turkey, in Europe and between Turkey & the EU.
2 Dyrmishi, 2015. Albania-Turkey Security Relations. Available at http://csdgalbania.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/Albania-Turkey-Security-Relations-1.pdf.
3 Eroğlu, 2005. Turkish Foreign Policy towards the Balkans in the Post-Cold War Era. Middle East Technical University.
4 Demirtas, 2013. Turkey and the Balkans: Overcoming Prejudices, Building Bridges, and Constructing a Common Future.
5 Dyrmishi, 2015. Albania-Turkey Security Relations. Available at http://csdgalbania.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/Albania-Turkey-Security-Relations-1.pdf.
6 Davutoğlu, 2008. ‘Turkey’s Foreign Policy Vision: An Assessment of 2007’. Insight Turkey.
7 Aydıntaşbaş, 2019. ‘From Myth to Reality: How to understand Turkey’s role in the Western Balkans’, European Council on Foreign Relations. See also Öztürk and Akgönül, 2019. Forced marriage or marriage of convenience with the Western Balkans? Taylor and Francis.
8 Tella, 2015. Polarity in contemporary international politics: a uni-interpolar order? Available at https://journals.co.za/content/polit/34/2/EJC187681.
9 Garewal, 2020. ‘Is pandemic leading to ‘bi-multipolarity’?’ Available at https://asiatimes.com/2020/04/is-pandemic-leading-to-bi-multipolarity/.
10 Jeanne, 2003. Small States in World Politics: Explaining Foreign Policy Behavior.
11 Lani and Schmidt, 1998. ‘Albanian Foreign Policy between Geography and History.’ International Spectator.
12 Seitz, 1991. ‘U.S. and Albania Re-establish Diplomatic Ties after 52 Years.’ The New York Times.
13 Latal, 2019. ‘Country Report 2 – Bosnia and Herzegovina. Western Balkans at the Crossroads: Assessing Influences of Non-Western External Actors’. The Prague Security Studies Institute.
14 The US’ late intervention in the war in Bosnia and the Dayton Peace Accord which it brokered are not perceived as the best scenario for BiH’s future. For more information see Daalder, 1998. Decision to Intervene: How the War in Bosnia Ended. Available at https://www.brookings.edu/articles/decision-to-intervene-how-the-war-in-bosnia-ended/.
15 BIEPAG 2018. ‘Erdoğan in Sarajevo: It’s my Party and I’ll campaign in Europe if I want to’. https://biepag.eu/erdogan-in-sarajevo-its-my-party-and-ill-campaign-in-europe-if-i-want-to/
16 Akyol, 2015. ‘What turned Erdoğan against the West?’ Available at https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2015/02/turkey-Erdoğan-anti-west.html.
17 Stanicek, 2019. ‘Turkey’s military operation in Syria and its impact on relations with the EU’, Brussels: European Parliament.
18 For more on the Turkish intervention in Libya, see https://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/turkish-parliament-approves-libya-troops-motion-161062. For Syria, see https://www.europarl.europa.eu/EPRS/EPRS-Briefing-642284-Turkeys-military-operation-Syria-FINAL.pdf. For the Eastern Mediterranean, see https://www.swp-berlin.org/10.18449/2020C62/. For Nagorno-Karabakh, see https://www.swp-berlin.org/10.18449/2020C53/.
19 Ekathimerini, 2020. ‘Turkey hopes to turn new page with US and EU in 2021, Erdoğan says’. Available at https://www.ekathimerini.com/260586/article/ekathimerini/news/turkey-hopes-to-turn-new-page-with-us-and-eu-in-2021-Erdoğan-says.
20 Presidency of the Republic of Turkey, 2021. Videoconference with President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen. Available at https://www.tccb.gov.tr/en/speeches-statements/558/123508/videoconference-with-president-of-the-european-commission-ursula-von-der-leyen. (Accessed on January 12, 2021).
21 Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs, 2018. ‘Bushati- Çavuşoğlu pave the road to setting up the Albania-Turkey High-Level Cooperation Council’. Available at: https://punetejashtme.gov.al/en/bushati-cavusoglu-celin-rrugen-e-ngritjes-se-keshillit-te-bashkepunimit-te-nivelit-te-larte-shqiperi-turqi/
22 President Erdoğan restated this “common culture” during the 2021 bilateral talks with the PM of Albania. See more at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OnEUI7dyDEs. (Accessed on January 12, 2021).
23 Latal and Büyük, 2020. Political Influence in Southeast Europe in Current Turkish Foreign Policy. Southeast Europe in Focus.
24 Data from; www.tika.gov.tr/en (Accessed 28 December 2020)
25 Kočan and Arbeiter, 2019. ‘Is TIKA Turkey’s platform for development cooperation or something more? Evidence from the Western Balkans’. International Journal of Euro-Mediterranean Studies.
26 The Diyanet, short for Diyanet İşleri Başkanlığı, is the Turkish Religious Affairs Directorate.
27 TURSAB: https://www.tursab.org.tr/.
28 Emin, 2020. ‘Is there a Balkan Diaspora in Turkey?’ Available at https://insamer.com/en/is-there-a-balkan-diaspora-in-turkey_3445.html. See also Vračić, 2016. Turkey’s Role in the Western Balkans, SWP Research Paper.
29 Davutoğlu, 2008. Turkey’s Foreign Policy Vision: An Assessment of 2007. Insight Turkey.
30 Populari, 2014. A Political Romance: Relations between Turkey and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Available at http://populari.org/files/docs/411.pdf.
31 Vračić, 2016. Turkey’s Role in the Western Balkans. SWP Research Paper.
32 See Aydıntaşbaş, 2019. ‘From Myth to Reality: How to understand Turkey’s role in the Western Balkans’, London: European Council on Foreign Relations. See also https://www.dailysabah.com/columns/ibrahim-kalin/2018/06/02/whatdoes-turkey-want-in-the-balkans [accessed 28 December 2020].
33 Elbasani, 2013. Europeanization Travels to the Western Balkans: Enlargement Strategy, Domestic Obstacles and Diverging Reforms. Routledge.
34 For BiH see Palickova, 2019. ‘Erdoğan visits Bosnia as part of bigger game’. Available at https://www.euractiv.com/section/global-europe/news/Erdoğan-visits-bosnia-as-part-of-bigger-game/. For Albania, see Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs, 2018. ‘Bushati- Çavuşoğlu pave the road to setting up the Albania-Turkey High-Level Cooperation Council’. [Online] Available at: https://punetejashtme.gov.al/en/bushati-cavusoglu-celin-rrugen-e-ngritjes-se-keshillit-te-bashkepunimit-te-nivelit-te-larte-shqiperi-turqi/
35 Radio Free Europe, 2018. ‘Turkey’s Erdoğan Slams Kosovo Criticism Of Deportation Of Gülen-Linked Turks’. Available at https://www.rferl.org/a/kosovo-investigation-arrest-deportation-turkey-teachers-gulen/29137309