Since the collapse of
Yugoslavia, Ankara has extended its influences across the Balkan peninsula
through trade, investment, cultural exchanges, humanitarian assistance, and
religious contacts. In general, all countries welcomed Turkey’s involvement and
viewed the country as a developing economy and a trusted NATO member. However,
with Turkey kept at arms length by the EU and its democratic system regressing,
the government is now perceived as overly intrusive.
Ankara continues to apply pressure on
the region’s governments in demanding the extradition
to Turkey of adherents of Fethullah Gulen – an ostracized Turkish cleric living
in exile in the US since 1999. President Erdogan claims that Gulenists
organized the coup attempt in Turkey in July 2016 and accuses the movement of being the main danger to the
state. Unable to convince Washington to extradite Gulen himself, Erdogan has
focused on Gulenist supporters in Europe, with the Balkans viewed as the
scandal recently erupted in Kosova over the expulsion of six Turkish citizens
allegedly linked with Gulen but without the knowledge of Kosova’s Prime
Minister Ramush Haradinaj. The Prime Minister fired the Interior Minister and the
head of Kosova’s Intelligence Agency after news of the deportations was
announced. Erdogan accused Haradinaj of protecting terrorists and claimed that
Ankara would continue to intervene in Kosova. Officials admitted that
Turkish agents had conducted the operation in cooperation with some members of Kosova's
Erdogan also implied
that Washington was behind Haradinaj’s decision, claiming that the
Prime Minister was acting on the orders of another country. Any attempts to turn Albanians against
the US is a futile proposition. On the contrary, public opinion is likely to
turn against Turkey. Already a growing number of officials and analysts
complain about overbearing Turkish influence and an imperial “big brother”
syndrome toward Muslims similar to the Russian variant among Slavic and
Christian Orthodox populations.
Turkey’s President portrays
himself as a protector of Muslims
in former Ottoman dominions.
He also uses this image in domestic politics, as millions
of Turkish citizens have Bosnian or Albanian backgrounds. However, the extent of
Turkey’s political impact in the region varies. In
Macedonia and Bulgaria, Ankara has supported
pro-Turkey parties and civil society organizations among local Turks and other
Muslims and has enlisted people who are loyal to Erdogan. These bodies do have
influence at the local level where there are sizeable
Turkish populations and when they enter government coalitions. Nonetheless, it
is in Muslim-majority states that Turkish influence is more challenging.
Kosova and Albania are largely immune to pan-Turkism or
pan-Islamism and Turkey is important only as far as
its policies are in harmony
with those of the EU, which both countries seek to enter. Turkey is
not a political role model for these secular Muslim societies and the only way
it could gain more influence is if these countries were to be
abandoned by the EU and US.
However, there are two
populations that may be more susceptible to Ankara’s interventions – the
Bosniak Muslims and the Sandzak Muslims. Bosnia-Herzegovina is home to private schools founded by the Gulen movement and Ankara has been demanding that they all be closed. These educational institutions are accused by Ankara of fostering a personality cult around
Gulen. Supporters of the institutions contend that they provide a
balanced education and are opposed to their closure.
In the ongoing dispute between Erdogan and Gulenists and
with increasing pressure on Bosnia, intra-Muslim disputes could escalate.
This would assist the separatist agenda of leaders of the Serbian entity backed
by Moscow who contend that Bosnia-Herzegovina is an unstable and
failing state. Bosnia’s limited progress
toward EU membership and its stagnant economic conditions would feed into the
The Sandzak is a Muslim-majority region along the
Serbia-Montenegro border where Turkey claims
significant influence. The region was created by the
Ottomans in order to separate Serbia and Montenegro and to connect the Ottoman Empire
with Bosnia. Sandzak Muslim loyalty toward Turkey stems from close
historical and cultural ties, and because Ankara is
viewed as a potential source of protection from Serbian nationalism. The region is also
connected to Turkey by a large diaspora, with some estimates that nearly five million Bosniaks live in
Turkey, most of whom originate from the Sandzak.
If there is unrest in Bosnia, the
Sandzak would be directly affected and Ankara
could be pulled into the fray if new waves
of nationalism increase religious and ethnic divisions.
Since the wars in the 1990s, Turkey’s moderate Islam has been viewed as a
valuable counterpoint to radical Salafist penetration from Saudi Arabia.
However, the intra-Turkish struggle between Erdogan and Gulenism and Ankara’s heavy-handed approach may contribute to
Europe's Edge is an online journal covering crucial topics in the transatlantic policy debate. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.
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