Türkiye and Balkans: 2 intertwined cultures must reexplore dialogue

Balkans
Mon, 26 Feb 2024 9:19 GMT
Ηaving been the predominant lands of the Ottoman Empire for centuries, Türkiye and the Balkans region enjoy significant historical and cultural ties.
Türkiye and Balkans: 2 intertwined cultures must reexplore dialogue

Ηaving been the predominant lands of the Ottoman Empire for centuries, Türkiye and the Balkans region enjoy significant historical and cultural ties. However, in the past decades, these two old partners have forgotten how to healthily advance mutually beneficial cooperation and must reexplore dialogue.

In the early years of the republic and following the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, Türkiye refrained from engaging in any kind of territorial claims in the Balkans but rather started to establish official ties with the new states. In 1934, it also signed the Balkan Entente with the focus of ensuring regional peace, restore stability and cooperation, and guaranteeing the territorial integrity of the signatories, namely Greece, Romania, Türkiye and Yugoslavia. Even so, the balance in the Balkans was turned upside down with the disintegration of the socialist federation of Yugoslavia. A significant deepening of relations was not seen during these decades as Türkiye had been focused on internal issues, terrorism, regional affairs and followed a pro-Western policy, especially during the years of the Cold War.

As Ankara’s foreign policy approach started to change with the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) period, the Balkans were again designated as a strategic region, albeit not an area of priority. Mutual visits and agreements saw a revival, and Türkiye tried to support the development of the region, underlining the importance of humanitarian bridges and presented itself as a mediator in tensions such as Serbia-Kosovo or the ongoing problems in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Türkiye is also a founding member of the South East European Cooperation Process (SEECP), which similar to the Entente, aims at strengthening good-neighborly relations.

Being itself a Balkan country, Türkiye currently competes for influence in the Balkans with the EU, U.S., Russia and China, and ties are moving on in a positive atmosphere.

Foreign Ministry spokesperson Öncü Keçeli on Wednesday spoke about the foreign minister’s many crucial visits since he came to office and particularly singled out Hakan Fidan’s recent Balkans tour in which he visited Albania, Bulgaria and Romania. Describing the visit as an “inclusive” one, Keçeli pointed out the minister held talks with several different layers of society in the region.

Although political and economic relations are on track, a neglected area has been boosting people-to-people relations. It may come as a surprise to many, but despite the historical ties, the many Balkan Turks living in the country and the kin groups in the region lack in-depth knowledge of one another, which from time to time leads to misinterpretations.

Having visited Bosnia-Herzegovina as well as Serbia with the Yunus Emre Institute (YEE) in December, I had the chance to meet with local journalists, academics and influencers and talk about the perception of Türkiye in these two countries. From Ankara’s perspective, it can easily be said that the Turkish population is uninformed of the political balance, inter-state relations of the region or its systems such as the multi-ethnic system of government in Bosnia-Herzegovina resulting from the Dayton Accords. Moreover, a lack of Balkan specialists and academics is visible. The Turkish media similarly suffers from a lack of knowledge, following developments in the region only from incident to incident rather than on a systematic and routine basis.

On the other side, disinformation about Türkiye dominates the problem on the Balkan's part. This is rooted in several factors, but Gülenist Terror Group (FETÖ) led propaganda against Ankara, as well as Western-funded media outlets' negative stance against Türkiye and especially President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, are the main reasons. Through these outlets, Ankara is viewed as an adverse actor in the region and is mentioned alongside Moscow and Beijing. Some actors in the region also view increased cooperation with Ankara as a phenomenon that would hamper ties with the West and advocate that the focus should be on the Western bloc, as the main goal of many countries in the Balkans right now is to join the European Union.

Another argument I have heard against Türkiye from fellow local journalists in Bosnia-Herzegovina was that a negative outlook exists on Ankara’s growing ties with Serbia. The relations between Ankara and Belgrade have reached the highest level in history and are progressing positively, while commercial and economic relations are developing with strong momentum.

Türkiye is among the largest foreign investors in Serbia and ranks seventh in the number of implemented investment projects, according to the Serbian Foreign Ministry. Turkish investors in Serbia currently employ over 6,000 workers and investments of Turkish companies in Serbia in the last few years are intensifying with the prospect of further growth.

As a rivalry exists between Sarajevo and Belgrade, the local Bosniak community has expressed criticism about more investments being made in Serbia than in Bosnia-Herzegovina despite the closer cultural ties. However, Türkiye’s increased economic activity with Serbia does not rule out cooperation with Bosnia-Herzegovina and is not due to a special preference for one over the other. The political system put in place in Bosnia-Herzegovina is complicating economic activity and discouraging investors; whereas Serbia bears an easier investment climate for businesspeople, even offering itself areas for investment and cooperation with ready plans for Turkish companies. The labyrinthine system in Bosnia-Herzegovina makes processes burdensome, while investors face difficulties in claiming their rights in times of crisis due to the bureaucracy.

Bosnia-Herzegovina is in the midst of a political row between the Bosniaks and Serbs living in the country. Bosnia-Herzegovina has seen a separatist push since Milorad Dodik, the Serb member of the country’s tripartite presidency, blasted legal changes banning the denial of genocide and the glorification of war criminals. The country was split into two autonomous regions – the Serb Republic and the Federation, which is dominated by Bosniaks and Croats – after its 1992-1995 war. The three institutions represent the key pillars of joint security, the rule of law and the economic system.

Furthermore, Erdoğan's meeting with Dodik is also interpreted by the Bosnian community as a negative stance toward themselves, preferring Serbia.

However, Türkiye is trying to maintain a balance in its ties with states in the region and has an interest in furthering ties on a multifaceted basis, ranging from trade, economy, culture, sports and politics. Institutions such as the YEE, the media and civil society have a huge role to play in developing mutual understanding, preventing disinformation and fostering people-to-people ties. The historical solidarity between the cultures must be revived, the Turkish ecole in the region must be strengthened and people educated by the Presidency of Turks Abroad and Related Communities (YTB) and YEE, sympathetic toward Türkiye, must be backed and followed after graduating from these institutions as vital pillars that will contribute to future relations between Türkiye and the Balkans.

By Dilara Aslan Özer for DailySabah

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