|Turkey’s Interaction with Other Actors in the Balkans|
|Athina W. TESFA-YOHANNES|
|Tuesday, 17 May 2011 10:36|
With the slowing of EU accession talks for the Western Balkans, Turkey has found new opportunities to expand relations throughout the region, but not without competition from major external state actors (United States, EU, and Russia) in both political and economic realms. Turkey is set to fill the ‘overseer’ power vacuum left in the Balkans due to stalling regional EU accession talks, which includes Turkey’s own slowed accession process.
The EU has only given reasonable EU accession hope to Croatia, which is likely to enter the union in 2013, while other countries have experienced untimely roadblocks in their accession path. Aside from the EU’s solid support for Croatia’s upcoming eventual accession and funding through the EU’s Europe Aid (IPA-Instrument for Pre-Accession) instruments, most of these countries’ relations with the Balkans have been done on a bilateral and non-governmental basis. For example, with regards to Kosovo, the EU is fairly unsure of how to act; while stating that it sees a ‘European future’ for Kosovo and its’ predominantly youthful population, Kosovo is becoming increasingly isolated, left out of the EU’s visa-free regime with the rest of the Balkans. The EU as a whole cannot even act in a unified manner towards the new nation-state, since 5 of its members (Spain, Romania, Cyprus, Slovakia, and Greece) don’t recognize the country. As of recently, only 117 out of 192 member countries of the UN recognize the country’s existence. The U.S. has reiterated its’ position over Kosovo (dating its’ allegiance back to the NATO bombing of Belgrade), serving as the new nation’s de facto guardian until its stability can be assured. The U.S. having nearly 1,400 troops still serving in a peace keeping strategy reinforces its’ interest in having a safer Kosovo.
The United States: Passively Watchful Eye
Within the Balkans, Turkey has stronger relations with particular countries, namely Albania, Kosovo, and Bosnia/Herzegovina. These countries are also particular key interests for the United States as well. Turkey, being an ally of the U.S., has enjoyed relative freedom in dealing with these countries, as their intentions for these countries are aligned with U.S. wishes to see the region enter the European Union and NATO.(1) While the U.S. has remained a stable presence in the region, the area has not been a priority as the on-going war in Afghanistan, the state-building process in Iraq, and concerns of a stronger Iran have drawn American focus away from the Balkans. In late March, a U.S.-Balkans summit was held state-side regarding opportunities for commerce in the region (with the exception of Serbian representatives, which continue to uphold a policy of refusing to attend meetings in which Kosovar representatives are present). The meeting, meant to entice U.S. businesses to invest in the Balkans, was seen as generally successful and critical to spurring general trade to the region. With the meeting it is hoped that American investment will help the region experience a ‘bandwagon’ effect that encouraged trade to a region that has traditionally been seen as risky investment due to the historical instability. The United States views the region as hopeful if it continues the economic, judicial and social reforms needed for social harmony and stability in the region.
The only hiccup in this generally positive process has been growing regional concerns of Saudi-funded Wahabbist and Salafi movements, both forms whose archaic/traditional practice have been viewed as a threat in the Balkans (which has Muslim populations with a unique and characteristically Sunni tradition of Islam). These claims have caught the eye of the Americans also because these concerns have similarly been raised by Israel. Israel has been experiencing a Kosovo-like isolation due to its’ fallout with Turkey, and is reaching out to new relations with the Balkans as a result, including Romania and Bulgaria in these renewed relations as well. The role of the Orthodox Church in the region isn’t often brought to the foreground, but this regional influence was critical in directing regional politics during the region’s wars. Bringing these religious leaders to the negotiation table is just as important as talking to the regions’ muftis about bringing solutions to the region. Given its’ supportive track record, Turkey holds significant influence over these regional Muslim populations, and can help quell American and Balkan concerns by uprooting (not only exclusive to Islam but Orthodox Christian) regional extremism that exploit the social fragility of the Balkans.
Serbia has been a tricky stepping ground for Turkey, because it’s a strategically important country that is a key to regional security. Turkey and Serbia have been strengthening their relations, but the Russian influence in Serbia is undeniable. Although Serbia is now included in the EU’s new visa-liberalization scheme, many of the country’s citizens are merely content with reaching this goal, unlike pushing for full membership as (Serbian president) Tadić has slated on Belgrade’s short-term agenda. This potential lack of impetus could have left the door ajar for Russia. Despite U.S. concerns that Serbia is being used as a pawn in Russian regional politics,(2) Russia continues to use historical Slavic/Orthodox ties as its’ link to Serbia, supporting Serbia and its’ refusal to recognize Kosovo (which would also have an impact over Russia’s own Chechnya’ issue). Such moves have gained Russia, namely Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, support throughout the country, along with Serbs in northern Kosovo and Bosnia’s Republika Srpska.
Turkey is playing tit-for-tat with these numerous foreign governmental and non-governmental actors throughout the Balkans through a variety of means. Aside from the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Turkey’s development organization TIKA also serves in various capacities, developing facilities and training qualified officials throughout the region. In addition to Turkey’s Ministry of Education which has promoted inter-scholar exchange between Turkey and Balkan countries, individual state municipalities and private religious foundations within Turkey have also contributed funds for various educational and religious projects throughout Balkan countries. Aside from other lucrative trade and military contracts between Turkey and Balkan countries, Turkey’s bi-lateral development aid alone to Balkan countries reached just over $100 million in 2009. This can be viewed as a drop in the bucket compared to bigger regional actors like the EU, which has given over €7 billion to the region since the breakup of Yugoslavia in 1991. But for a rising economic power like Turkey, such a large (and increasingly growing) yearly award package cannot be overlooked, and demonstrates Turkey’s newfound commitment to the region. Turkey is quickly making allies and inking contracts as many EU countries and the U.S. have cooled relations with the region due to numerous regional governance and security issues.
Aside from Russia, Turkey is the second external actor that has made significant gains in the region, and this alone has attracted the attention of other major outside influences in the region. Whether they’ll act united or independently on how to coordinate efforts with Turkey, time will tell. One thing is certain: to ensure confidence-building measures and a stronger local public opinion, external forces in the Balkans will need to coordinate their efforts and see a united positive force that wants to see a progressive Balkans relationship; otherwise, it could be a case of a ‘too many cooks spoil the pot’ potential scenario, a fragile situation that the Balkans cannot risk once more. Turkey, perched on top of its’ recent regional successes in multiple negotiation circles, is now more poised than ever to take that ‘head chef’ role. How the country successfully utilizes its’ soft power towards helping these Balkan nations negotiate their own identities, in addition to solidifying Turkey’s newly created self-identity as a regional negotiator, will be critical in determining whether this regional returnee can survive and lead in a Balkan territory overrun by conflicting external influences and interests.
(1) Philip, Gordon H. ‘Overview of U.S. Relations with Europe and Eurasia.’ House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe and Eurasia. Washington D.C. March 10, 2011. <http://www.state.gov/p/eur/rls/rm/2011/158214.htm>.
(2) Tanner, Adam. “Russia aims to draw Serbia away from the West: cables.” Reuters. March 21, 2011. <http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/03/21/us-serbia-russia-usa-idUSTRE72K2UP20110321>.
(3) Biocina, Marko. ‘Croatia, Russia sign South Stream contract.’ Southeast European Times. March 4th, 2011. <http://www.setimes.com/cocoon/setimes/xhtml/en_GB/features/setimes/features/2010/03/04/feature-02>.
(4) ‘Macedonia Harshens Tone Towards EU and US critics.’ Balkans Insight. March 14, 2011. <http://www.balkaninsight.com/en/article/macedonia-boosts-negative-remarks-towards-eu-and-usa>.