Academic journal article Insight Turkey

A Golden Age of Relations: Turkey and the Western Balkans during the AK Party Period

Academic journal article Insight Turkey

A Golden Age of Relations: Turkey and the Western Balkans during the AK Party Period

Article excerpt

While Turkish foreign policy has become increasingly active and assertive, it has recently confronted with a number of challenges in the Middle East, leading critics to claim that the AK Party government's "zero problems with neighbors" vision has failed. (2) In the meantime, however, Turkey's relations with the Western Balkans (3) have displayed a completely different picture. During the last decade, Turkey has not only maintained, but also advanced its good neighborly relations with all countries in this region.

This article aims to provide a general overview of Turkey's relations with the Western Balkans during the AK Party government. It will argue that compared to the 1990s, diplomatic, economic, social, and cultural relations with this region have improved significantly, even though Turkey's concerns and aims with respect to the region remained largely the same. This improvement was thanks to the convergence of a number of factors such as Turkey's diplomatic activism, its better economic performance vis-a-vis other regional players, the strengthening of civil society and business sector in Turkey and the slowing down of the Europeanization of the Western Balkans. The improvement of relations has been most observable in economic and social terms, and from the late 2000s onwards, the Turkish government also expended considerable effort to convert it into political influence. However, in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, Turkey's diplomatic engagement with the region has been in decline. While Turkey's economic activity in the region is still increasing, the window of opportunity for a stronger political position may narrow in the future.

Turkey's Western Balkans Policy since the 1990s

After the Cold War

Many aspects of Turkey's Western Balkans policy have shown strong continuity since the end of the Cold War. (4) Having remained virtually separated from the region by an iron curtain for almost half a century, Turkey has been endeavoring to (re-)establish itself in the Balkans for about two decades. As the dissolution of the Communist bloc and the emergence of new states brought about swift and radical changes in the international and regional systems and created new opportunities as well as challenges for Turkey, the policymakers in Ankara realized the necessity of developing a new outlook for approaching the region. (5) Given the atmosphere of transition and uncertainty, Turkey felt an urgency to act pro-actively to forestall security threats, contribute to regional peace and stability and strengthen its social and economic bonds with the Balkans, among other surrounding regions.

In addition to geo-strategic concerns, economic and socio-cultural motivations (6) drove the Turkish policymakers in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War to develop a new, more active, policy in the Balkans. (7) Accordingly, Turkey offered its contribution to the security and welfare of the region by participating in security operations and, albeit sporadically, offering political initiatives for dialogue, concluded bilateral agreements, encouraged trade and provided technical, educational, and developmental assistance. However, these efforts did not bring about a rapid change in Turkey's political and economic status in the Western Balkans. While the ensuing conflicts and tensions in the region prevented new venues and opportunities for international cooperation, political quarrels as well as economic crises in Turkey throughout the 1990s and early 2000s prevented this country from fulfilling its political, economic, and social potential in materializing its foreign political ambitions. In other words, neither the political circumstances in the Western Balkans nor its own political, economic, and social resources allowed Turkey to more actively engage with the region.

In terms of domestic, international, structural and agency-based factors, the early 2000s were a turning point for Turkey's relations with the Western Balkans. …

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