Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s growing ‘soft-power’ influence in the Western Balkans may be bolstering local economies, yet his illiberal agenda could hold up the region’s already slow path to European integration by discouraging reform and sowing instability.
Over the past decade or so, Ankara has sought to extend its sway over Albania and the ex-Yugoslav republics of Macedonia, Serbia, Kosovo and Bosnia through the promotion of investment and trade, the latter growing from $435mn in 2002 to $3bn in 2016. Erdogan has seemingly taken advantage of the hiatus in the European Union accession process, caused in large part by Brussels’ concerns over lingering regional governance issues and, more recently, its preoccupation with the EU’s debt and migrant crises.
Amid fears that the Western Balkans might be cut adrift and become vulnerable to the influence of Ankara and Moscow – a matter raised explicitly by French President Emmanuel Macron – EU leaders met their counterparts from the region in Sofia in May for the first such meeting in 15 years, promising cooperation on a range of subjects but, significantly, insisting no fast-track membership process was on the table.
Europe’s caution towards the Western Balkans is in marked contrast to Turkey’s ready embrace of the region, whose Muslim populations have a strong affinity with Ankara, stemming mostly from their Ottoman roots. Bosnia has been particularly receptive to Erdogan’s overtures and many local Muslims see him as their protector, an impression he has sought to encourage. Yet, rather ironically, his biggest trading partner in the Western Balkans is Serbia, even though several members of the Belgrade regime in the 90s were convicted of crimes in predominantly-Muslim Kosovo.
Economic links with Serbia — Reuters reports 20 Turkish plants have either opened in the past year or are under construction — seem set to strengthen, with Erdogan apparently keen to deliver Russian gas to the country via the TurkStream pipeline project. The ties with Belgrade challenge suggestions that Erdogan’s Balkan shift is part of a neo-Ottoman enterprise aimed at frustrating European integration efforts. While Erdogan is critical of Brussels, Ankara has stressed that it supports the EU accession process. It is a goal that Western Balkan governments are unlikely to abandon anyway, notwithstanding the hurdles and their respective citizens’ increasing disillusionment over the lack of progress. More to the point, Turkey offers the region no alternative to joining the union, which remains its biggest trading partner.
Rather, the Turkish president’s intention seems to be far more pragmatic and tactical. He is investing in, and trading with, the Western Balkans as he regards it as lying within Ankara’s legitimate sphere of influence — a pledge to invest $3.5bn in a planned highway between Sarajevo and Belgrade being the most notable of recent commitments. And though Erdogan’s portrayal of himself as a defender of Muslims strikes a chord with his Bosnian co-religionists, who unlike the republic’s Serbs and Croats have no neighbouring state to look after their interests, it seems more directed at his supporters in Turkey and the Turkish diaspora. His recent staging of a pre-election rally in Sarajevo, attended by thousands of Turks from Western Europe, attests to that.
Yet the rally, held in Bosnia’s capital because several EU countries have banned similar events, was not universally welcomed by Bosnian Muslims – some worried that it might impair relations with Brussels – and unsettled some representatives of non-Muslim communities. The Bosnian Serb leader, Milorad Dodik, complained that Erdogan was “interfering a lot” in Bosnia’s affairs — ominous words from a politician who has long agitated for a separate Serb statelet.
For many Muslims across the region, a big concern is Erdogan’s attempts to undermine support for his rival Fethullah Gulen, whom he accuses of plotting the 2016 attempt to overthrow him. Last October, Erdogan, on a visit to Novi Pazar, a predominantly Muslim town in the south of Serbia, pledged to “root out” the Gulenist movement from the Balkans, where it has a well-developed network. The president’s pursuit of his erstwhile ally’s followers has proved to be a divisive issue in the region.
Ankara has been urging regional governments to shut private schools run by Gulenists and to deport Turks linked with the movement. A political scandal broke out in Kosovo in March when six Turkish nationals allegedly linked to Gulenist schools were arrested and then extradited to Turkey. The incident led to the Kosovar interior minister and secret service chief being sacked by Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj who insisted that he had no knowledge of the operation. A month later, a Bosnian court rejected the extradition of an alleged Gulenist activist to Turkey.
The interference has alarmed the EU, which worries about the influence of Erdogan’s policies on the region, in particular over the governments of Serbia and Bosnia whose leaders have at times been zealous in their support for the Turkish president. Given Erdogan’s lack of respect for human and civil rights, the concern is that his illiberal agenda could prove to be a source of instability and slow progress on governance reforms, setting back European integration even more.
Erdogan has stressed that he wants to promote stability in the Western Balkans, and given the turmoil on Turkey’s southern flanks he would hardly want otherwise. Yet while his investment and trade are contributing to healthier local economies, his authoritarianism is a risk for the region. He professes to support its EU aspirations, yet his engagement may do just the opposite.
Yigal Chazan is an associate at Alaco. Alaco Dispatches is the business intelligence consultancy’s take on events and developments shaping the CIS region.