Imperial Legacies and Neo-Ottomanism: Eastern Europe and Turkey

By McDonald, Deniz Bingol | Insight Turkey, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview

Imperial Legacies and Neo-Ottomanism: Eastern Europe and Turkey


McDonald, Deniz Bingol, Insight Turkey


   From Hungary he's soon away,
   In Austria by the break of day,
   Bavaria is just at hand,
   From there, he will reach another land,
   Soon the Rhine perhaps, he will come (1)

In this article, I will examine how the historical legacy of the Ottoman Empire in Central and South-eastern Europe (2) affects the foreign policy stances and public opinion towards Turkish membership to the European Union (EU). My task is made difficult in that it needs to take into consideration questions of institutional and cultural legacy in such large historical swathes within the limited confines of this paper. However, I would argue that the Ottoman legacy does affect countries' stances towards Turkish accession to the EU, in that the Ottoman legacy plays a role in their own identity constructions vis-a-vis the European project. I suggest that the new EU members, whose support Turkey may realistically lobby for in its EU bid, come equipped with significant historical memories of the Ottoman Empire with varying degrees of associations from their direct contact with Ottoman rule. (3)

The central contention of this article is that the historical legacy of the Ottoman Empire in Central and South-eastern Europe and Turkey may interact with Turkey's new foreign policy assertiveness in its neighborhood. Furthermore, while historical arguments may explain how historical legacies create diverging institutional structures and policy outputs and how assumed common legacies are believed to make target countries more receptive to foreign policy overtures by Turkish foreign policy makers. Historical legacies and ideational aspects on both sides are mirror images of one another, and remains under explored. I will first discuss the Ottoman Empire as a European power and its impact on Eastern European countries. I then reflect on Ottoman institutional and cultural legacies in South-eastern Europe and the Balkans. This analysis, I conclude, is particularly apt as some analysts worry about a shift in Turkey's foreign policy, which has been dubbed neo-Ottomanism, that aims for a greater involvement and influence in the former Ottoman territories, even though its architect, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, has repeatedly rejected this title and highlights Turkey's multi-dimensional and conciliatory orientation. (4)

The Ottoman Empire as a European Power

One of the chief ideational aspects of Turkey's perception abroad is how the Ottoman Empire's legacy is perceived in the region. (5) Turkish accession to the EU lies at the heart of how Turkish foreign policy is evaluated and where most work on ideational aspects are conducted. (6) The perception of the Ottoman Empire as European or non-European has important repercussions when it comes to judging modern Turkey's place and stature in Eastern European eyes. A brief discussion of the historical trajectory of the Ottoman Empire's presence in the eastern part of the continent is necessary in order to map out the physical and ideational borderlines of the historical legacy argument.

The Ottoman rule in Eastern Europe lasted in some territories for close to 600 years. The capture of territory in the Balkans started in the 14th century (the early years of the Ottoman conquest were 1354 to 1453), and the second conquest and consolidation of power (1453-1595) mainly involved a sort of self-government that became institutionalized later in the 15th and 16th centuries, culminating in the "golden age" during the reign of Suleyman the Magnificent, when parts of Hungary and Romania came under Ottoman vassalage.

Acquiring their first foothold in Europe with the conquest of Adrianople (1365), the Ottomans then proceeded the Black Sea coast (in modern day Bulgaria), and occupied much of Macedonia, including Salonika (1387). The first Battle of Kosovo two years later was immortalized in the "Kosovo epic", which was revived by Serbian nationalists following the break-up of the Yugoslav state. …

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