Turkey is expanding its economic and cultural influence over the Balkans, and analysts say the strategy, which targets the region’s large Muslim minorities, is worrying some of its Western allies.
The Balkan region was the center of the Turkish Ottoman Empire. That historical legacy has made the area a priority for Turkey’s ruling AKP under recently re-elected President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Turkey’s growing influence was visible at this month’s inauguration ceremony of Erdogan. While Western European leaders stayed away, five heads of state from the Balkans attended.
“Since AKP has this mental construction of re-establishing the Ottoman past, it’s [the Balkan region is] important for them,” said professor Istar Gozaydin, who has studied the Balkans extensively.
“The Balkans as a region, as it has for so many centuries, was under the Ottoman rule and influence. I do see the renaissance of Islamic identity of Turkish influence in the region,” said international relations professor Huseyin Bagci, an expert on the Balkans at Ankara’s Middle East Technical University.
“Turkey is using smart power there culturally, economically and language-wise,” he continued. “When you look to those Turks living in the Balkans, they get more and more under the increasing Turkish influence.”
Some European leaders are already voicing concern. “I don’t want a Balkans that turns toward Turkey or Russia,” French President Emmanuel Macron declared in May. Erdogan quickly shot back, saying the comment was “unbecoming of a statesman.”
The Turkish economy dwarfs those of its Balkan neighbors, and economic muscle is at the forefront of Ankara’s projection of influence. “Turkey is building airports, even investing in several sectors, like in Bulgaria and Romania, from textiles to many others,” Bagci said.
“There is an aggressive economic policy toward the Balkan countries, which cannot compete with Turkey,” Bagci said. “In the Balkans, we have two big countries getting influence. One is Germany and the other one Turkey.”
Trade has helped Ankara overcome past animosities. “These countries, many of them, don’t have automatic access to the EU [European Union], and many of them look to Turkey for trade,” said columnist Semih Idiz of the Al Monitor website.
“During the recent Balkan war, Turkey and Serbia were at opposite ends of the fence. They looked at one another with great enmity. Today, we see Serbia and Turkey are quite close, despite differences over Kosovo and Bosnia and things like that. A country like Serbia values its friendship with Turkey, and I think it applies to a certain extent to countries like Croatia, too,” Idiz said. He was referring to the events that led to the breakup of Yugoslavia.
Serbia is now Turkey’s main Balkan trading partner, with $1 billion in commerce.
Reaching out to the Balkans’ large ethnic Turkish population, through the promotion of religion and cultural awareness, is also an essential tool deployed by Ankara.
“They are using religion. They are using diplomacy. Institutions like Tika and Diyanet have been working quite efficiently and hard in the region,” Gozaydin said.
Tika is the Turkish state’s development agency, while the Diyanet administers Turkey’s Islamic affairs nationally and internationally. The two institutions are at the forefront of expanding Turkish influence in the Balkans.
“They work with the authorities in those countries. They try to influence the politics there,” Gozaydin said. “In Bosnia, they are trying, for example, to be influential in the appointment of religious authorities so they can work together.”
Turkey has been funding mosque projects across the Balkans, including two of the region’s largest mosques in Albania and Bulgaria. Turkish cultural foundations also work to promote ethnic Turkish identity.
While Ankara has been successful in projecting its influence, there are signs of growing unease, Gozaydin warned. She said she had met quite a few people in the Balkans, including some authorities, “who were not happy with Turkey trying too hard to have an influence on them. So that was considered to be an interference in their domestic politics.”
Last year, the United States voiced alarm about Ankara’s policy. “The Balkans is an area of grave concern now,” said then-national security adviser H.R. McMaster.
Ankara dismissed such criticism, contending that it was only re-establishing cultural ties that date back centuries and claiming that Russia and other European countries were jockeying for influence in the Balkans. In May, European officials held talks with western Balkan leaders in Bulgaria to reaffirm the “European perspective” of that region.
Given the Balkans’ recent history of ethnic and religious conflict, however, analysts warn of the risk of a nationalist backlash if Ankara does not tread carefully.
“The Turkish minorities, or Muslim minorities, yes, they are always considered as a potential threat by the majority of the Balkan countries,” Bagci said. “The more the Muslim identity gets stronger, the more populist movements in the Balkans, like in Germany and other countries, will increase and get stronger. This is the potential conflict.”