Easing Back In: The Balkans’ Re-Introduction to Turkey

Athina Tesfa YOHANNES
04 April 2011
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Turkey’s role in the Balkans dates back to the years of Ottoman rule in the region, which ended a little over a century ago. Lasting over 500 years, the Ottoman legacy within the Balkans has certainly left an indelible mark on the region. Since the establishment of the Turkish Republic, the renewed interest in the Balkans hasn’t reached such high levels as it has in recent years. Turkey has overhauled of its’ image as militarily dominant powerhouse into one of a regionally supportive neighbor, willing to use soft-power tactics to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of the region. By investing financially and using cultural ties to cite common interests in trade and development, Turkey is quickly breathing new life into its relationship with the Balkans by playing a key role in bringing peace and stability to the region.


With so-called EU ‘enlargement fatigue’ setting in (with the exception of Croatia, which is on the path to becoming a member as early as 2013), Turkey has used this opportunity of less EU presence to foster a stronger Turkish presence and build tighter links with fellow candidate countries and their neighbors. Given its’ development policy, Turkey’s actions indicate an inclination towards building the capacities of its’ Balkan neighbors so that these countries will have great ownership over their internal development as a confidence-building measure. Despite EU visa liberalization being awarded to most Balkan countries except Kosovo and Turkey, Turkey has moved past the issue, and established visa-free zones with its’ own neighbors instead, including Western Balkan countries. Turkey continues to utilize its’ strength in negotiation. It was with Turkey’s insistence that Serbia issued an apology to the victims of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia. Davutoğlu has called the ruling AKP’s strategy as a ‘pro-active and pre-emptive peace diplomacy,’ and the world is paying attention to this new face. While Turkey has served as Iran’s quasi liaison with the West, Turkey continues to pound the pavement in the Balkans, its’ immediate neighbors with similar EU interests.


Turkey’s Past Balkans Footprint

After the fall of the Ottoman Empire and its’ withdrawal from the Balkans, the newly founded Republic of Turkey chose to remain neutral throughout the great World Wars. The 1934 Balkan Pact signed by Turkey, Greece, Romania, and (then) Yugoslavia was one of the first steps towards regional reconciliation, stemming territorial disputes and budding ethnic quarrels. Soon after WWII, as a matter of self-preservation, Turkey (with Greece and Yugoslavia) then signed the Balkan Pact in 1953, which aimed at stopping Soviet expansion into the southern regions of Europe. A few days before this agreement was signed, Turkey and Yugoslavia additionally signed a trade agreement further establishing business rules and regulations between the two countries. (1) Throughout the growth of Yugoslavia and the tension of the Cold War, Turkey remained cordial with the region.


The Ottomans also brought Islam to the region, leaving behind thousands of ethnic (Muslim) Turks who presently remain in the region, numbering highest in present-day countries like Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Macedonia. Although many of these citizens fled to Istanbul following the aftermath of the Yugoslavian breakup, many Turkish speaking communities remain strong in several Balkan countries like Kosovo, Macedonia and BiH, reviving Turkish language and culture in the region. These cultural links explain Turkey’s kind gestures with the new Balkan republics after Yugoslavia began to separate in the 1990s.


Turkey’s Regional Support

Turkey showed its’ solidarity by being one of the first countries to recognize the independence of various Balkan states including Macedonia and Bosnia. Turkey was a critical supporter of these countries, providing economic and political aid from Ankara during the budding years of these new republics. Following the Yugoslavian split, during the 1992-1995 Bosnian war, the Turkish voice rose above the rest in asking Western countries and NATO to intervene in the conflict and bring a fast resolution for the sake of all parties involved. In 1994, a highway was even built between Zagreb and Rijeka as a result of Turkish negotiations between Croatians and Bosniaks, helping to fortify themselves against a Serbian military front.

Turkey was more vocal about its’ support during the Bosnian war compared to the recent establishment of an independent Kosovo. Many argue this could be attributed to Turkey, a state with some minority woes of its’ own, wanting to avoid any cries of hypocrisy from the international community with its’ actions in an ethnically troubled conflict like Kosovo. The Bosnian conflict seemed more fitting for Turkey to intervene, due to the its’ involvement of many more actors during a struggle that was primarily between two independent political entities. Either way, Turkey has kept a watchful eye over the region, helping to negotiate peace and secure investments in the region.


Figure 1: TIKA Graph: 2009 Aid to the Balkans


Development’s the Name of the Game

Turkey is using its’ strength as a growing economic power to heavily invest in the Balkans, developing the regions’ capacities to alleviate regional tension and ideally provide the foundations for stronger economic partnership. TIKA, Turkey’s development aid agency, has many projects in the region in various domains: education projects, healthcare (building hospitals in Kosovo, for example), building housing for war victims, and renovation projects. In 2009, TIKA spent $52 million towards peace building efforts throughout the world, with Kosovo ($10.57 million) and Bosnia ($8.07 million) being two of the major recipients of this aid.(2) According to 2009 figures, on a yearly basis, Turkey gives the following amounts (in millions): Albania ($4.72), Bosnia-Herzegovina ($20.79), Croatia ($21.54), Macedonia ($0.88), Montenegro ($0.02), and Serbia ($3.67). To the entire Balkan region, official bilateral development aid reached $105.47 (million), not faltering much despite the nearly 10% drop in overall assistance aid, demonstrating Ankara’s continued support to the region.

TIKA has also worked to build capacities in these countries, which are plagued by huge diaspora populations due to the war and economic brain drain issues. In 2009, TIKA trained 141 experts in Albania, and 104 in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Turkey’s goal in strengthening Balkan institutions is critical in the longevity of stability in the region, and providing the proper environment for not only investments to flourish, but enough time for people within the region to regain faith in their local governments and proper ownership over their future. Since 2006, Turkey’s peacebuilding activities have been regularly included in development assistance reports addressing MDG (Millennium Development Goal) completion. This highlights Turkey’s new role as a donor country being positively solidified within the region, with the increase of conflict resolution-aimed regional activities. Turkey’s role as a stable democracy in the region has also added legitimacy to its’ regional operations, and its’ approach towards boosting development in these countries can be seen as a means for these countries to ameliorate low standards of living that often fuel inter-ethnic tensions and brain drain in the region, ensuring a foundation for peace in the process.


Erasing Memories and Creating Legacies

Turkey has tried to keep its military operations in the region fairly low-key to avoid arousing common accusations of ‘neo-Ottomanism resurgence’ claims. Given the generally negative tone that the phrase ‘neo-Ottoman’ embodies, the term has been used in an accusatory manner towards Ankara and its’ renewed interests in not only the Balkans, but also Central Asia (as can be seen through increased investment and abolishment of visas throughout the region). Although Turkey’s (foreign minister) Ahmet Davutoğlu rejects such claims in this quasi ideological war, it is no coincidence that Turkey has used cultural connections of the past to pave paths of regional mutual cooperation for the future. It is a natural process, much akin to regular modern day cooperation between Western countries and their former colonial territories. Ankara now finds itself walking along a fine boundary towards strengthening its’ regional interests, and it is lined with critics both within and outside of the targeted regions. For Turkey, ‘catching more flies with honey than vinegar’ has been key to its revival in the Balkans. Understanding the trauma that the region has experienced (with them partially to blame), Ankara is making strides in gaining the support throughout the Balkans, with the strongest support coming from largely Muslim states like Albania, Kosovo, and Bosnia. In hopes of quelling general outside suspicion, Ankara is re-envisioning its’ dark Ottoman legacy, and redefining the term as one of “pro-active” measures, using its’ once strong presence in the Balkans as a foundational basis for political legitimacy for hosting mediation and investment talks.


Turkey’s Use of International Organizations

Through its’ NATO membership, Turkey has been a part of many military missions to the region, including the 1999 bombing of Belgrade. Aiming to overcome this bitter regional memory, Turkey currently maintains hundreds of troops in the region as part of NATO peacekeeping missions, with nearly 250 in Bosnia and over 500 in Kosovo. For example, Turkey represents the Organization of Islamic Conference on the steering board of the Peace Implementation Council, which implements the Dayton Peace Agreement in Bosnia. Through this platform, Turkey has advocated for a stronger institutions in Balkan states like Bosnia, including better regional cooperation. Mirroring the EU goals, Turkey has advocated for more Balkan countries to become members of NATO, with Albania and Croatia only making the cut so far. The OECD as named Turkey as one of its’ member countries that is actively contributing to helping the organization realize their goals in the region. In the Balkans, Turkey has acted as an unofficial arm of the OECD, which aims at improving democracies, reforming economies, and raising standards of living in developing countries.

Davutoğlu meets regularly as part of a tri-partite mechanism between Turkey, Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, aimed at pushing regional reforms and reducing conflict. These countries’ memberships in the South East European Co-operation Process (SEECP) will be critical in promoting cross-border cooperation through strengthened stability measures that boost economic development and investment, key pacifiers to the region’s current woes. Serbia is set to take over the year-long SEECP rotating chairmanship this May. Turkey is poised to use its’ growing relations with Serbia as a means of helping Serbia quickly administer political reforms that encourage improved relations with both BiH and Kosovo, two nations where Turkey holds special interests. With Serbia’s upcoming SEECP chairmanship, Turkey can encourage Serbia to take on Kosovo as an observer in the organization, thus including the new nation in the critical economic and political talks within the region. In addition to promoting regional cooperation and economic security, SEECP observer status for Kosovo would be monumental under the Serbian presidency, and another regional achievement for Turkey.


The Image of Turkey in the Region

Turkey’s idealistic goal of having ‘zero problems’ in its neighborhood is quickly becoming an unexpected reality, with social and political relations greatly improving, particularly with their neighbors in the Balkans. With various negotiation successes under their belt, Turkey earned itself a unique geopolitical position to refining its’ neighborhood and challenging previous regional alliances with friendly political re-introductions. Turkey will also need to beware of its’ image in the region, and whether or not it holds favoritism over the region’s Muslim populations. One of the ways to achieve this balance is by serving as a coordinator of international political and development efforts in the region. While the EU has lost steam in the Balkans regarding accession due to various internal economic crises, Turkey has stepped up with its’ commitment to the region, proving itself as a reliable trade and development partner with a unified goal of a economically strong and socially unified Balkan neighborhood. If Turkey continues to effectively use its’ membership in regional organizations, it will gain a more significant status within the Balkan politics.



1. ‘No. 3460: Turkey and Yugoslavia. Trade Agreement (with annexes and exchanges of letters).’ Ankara, Turkey. Signed February 26, 1953. United Nations Treaty Collection. Accessed online on February 18th, 2011. <http://untreaty.un.org/unts/1_60000/7/12/00012571.pdf>.

2. ‘2009 Turkish Development Assistance Report: Turkish International Cooperation and Development Agency. Page 23. <http://www.tika.gov.tr/yukle/dosyalar/2010/raporlar/trkalkinmaing.pdf>.





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