Turkish Interests and Involvement in the Western Balkans: A Score-Card

By Petrovic, Zarko; Reljic, Dusan | Insight Turkey, Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

Turkish Interests and Involvement in the Western Balkans: A Score-Card


Petrovic, Zarko, Reljic, Dusan, Insight Turkey


Turkey's increasingly assertive engagement in the Western Balkans leaves many people wondering about the purpose of such activism. Javier Solana, the former EU High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy (1999-2009), emphasized in a recent article for the Serbian daily Danas the need for cooperation between the EU and Turkey in order to achieve a permanent solution in Bosnia and Herzegovina. (1) It is telling that he considered it necessary to state the obvious--that Turkey has leverage and increasingly has capacities in the Western Balkans and that the EU has to recognize this. Some participants at a conference devoted to Turkey's Western Balkan policies, organized by the International Security Affairs Centre (ISAC Fund) on April 8, 2011 in Belgrade, insisted that Turkey understands far better the intricacies of the region's problems than the West and is thus better qualified to act as an "honest broker". Turkish diplomats argue in private that contrary to the traditional Western "win-lose" thinking, Ankara is seeking a "win-win" solution for everyone. As a result, according to a Turkish political analyst, Turkey can play "a complimentary and even crucial role that could actually ease the task for the EU" in solving some of the region's most serious problems. (2) On the other side, the distinguished Albanian scholar and human rights activist Piro Misha has disapproved of the new Turkish "geopolitical vision", suspecting that it considers "increased European presence ... to be unwanted competition" (3)

Turkey has received both excessive praise and criticism for its new role in the Western Balkans. The perception of Turkey's actions is habitually emotional and hardly ever pragmatic. This paper attempts to provide a non-exhaustive fact-based assessment of the various aspects of the new Turkish approach to the region. It aims to show that while relations between Turkey and the Western Balkans countries have never been more intensive in the history of the Turkish Republic, Ankara cannot aspire for regional hegemony and it has not yet established permanent economic strongholds in the Western Balkans. Its cultural influence remains limited to the Muslims in the Western Balkans, with non-Muslims still in need of a lot of convincing to trust a country with a partly Islamic identity that is arguably growing stronger. Finally, this paper gives both a reality check by looking for evidence to gauge the potential and the limits of Turkey's enhanced role in the Western Balkans, and affirms that EU membership prospects of the Western Balkan countries remain the most significant check on further Turkish influence in the region.

Turkish Involvement in the Western Balkans: Bosnia and Beyond

The list of Turkish diplomatic and other undertakings in the region is impressive. After Ahmet Davutoglu became foreign minister in the spring of 2009, he launched a number of initiatives in the Western Balkans, some of them going far beyond Turkey's previous approach of bandwagoning with the US efforts in the region.

Ankara's mediation between Serbia and parts of the Bosniak (Muslim) political elites in Bosnia and Herzegovina, previously hostile to any signs of reconciliation with Belgrade, captured the attention of the international public. Similarly, mediation between the conflicting Bosniak political and religious factions in Serbia's Sandzak area gave Turkey additional prominence. Largely as a result of the rapprochement between Turkey and Serbia, relations between Sarajevo and Belgrade have somewhat thawed. Following Ankara's involvement, the ambassador of Bosnia and Herzegovina could return to Belgrade after a long delay. On April 24, 2010, the Turkish and Serbian presidents and the then Bosnian Presidency Chairman Haris Silajdzic signed the "Istanbul Declaration," which, among other things, reaffirms the territorial integrity of Bosnia and Herzegovina. About a month before, the Serbian parliament adopted a declaration condemning the genocide in Srebrenica. …

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