Opinion

Turkey: expansion and leadership. The Balkans

Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Aleksandar Vucic

In a previous article, we already spoke of the exceptionality of Turkey, which gives the modern Ottoman state a role as mediator between east and west, offering the possibility of being a key player in the current Mediterranean scenario, both as a member of the Atlantic Alliance, and because of the historical role that Ankara has traditionally played with respect to its former areas of influence. This fact has made foreign policy one of the pillars on which the Turkish state is based under the leadership of the AKP (Justice and Development Party), and over the last decade it has taken advantage of the possibilities that this quality, the exceptional nature and the state's instrumentalisation of the Ottoman legacy and cultural, historical and religious ties to develop an aggressive foreign policy, Neo-Ottomanism, which has made it possible to extend Turkish influence towards regions of capital strategic importance. 

The author of this policy, the former Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, an intellectual marked by the events of the first half of the 1990s, conceived his political ideal on the basis of the idea of Turkish responsibility in the Balkans, an idea that could be extrapolated to all those regions that once fell under the domination of Istanbul, in order to establish Turkey as a global power. Within this strategy for positioning Turkey, four countries are of greatest importance: Albania, Bosnia, Macedonia and Serbia. In this way, throughout the Mediterranean and the Middle East we can observe how Turkey maintains a complicated network of relations in which, depending on the scenario, it can confront or collaborate with other state and non-state players, giving rise to paradoxical situations, such as collaboration with Russia in Syria and at the same time confronted not only in Syria, but also in Libya, where both Russia and Turkey support different factions. The relationship with Iran, similar to the Russian one, oscillates between collaboration at specific moments, for example, to achieve a peace agreement in Syria, and indirect confrontation in Yemen, where, again, both states support different factions. 

In Europe, two main players determine foreign policy under President Erdogan's government: the relationship with the EU and the Balkan region. In the Balkans, Turkey's natural area of expansion, Ankara has been meticulous and selective in its support, relying on the various regional players to influence the identification of states and their citizens with common values, history, religion and culture.  In many cases, the main factor that distinguishes and links Ankara is religion, a key aspect in the strategies of a religious party like the AKP to weave a network of individualised alliances, marked by the ambivalence of Turkish foreign policy. It is possible, however, that despite the sultan's religious vagaries, cultural expansion is the real driving force behind Turkey's political process in the Balkan region. 

Two aspects are also the most relevant in which Turkish foreign policy in the Balkan region has an influence at the moment: the economic one, especially that destined to large investments in critical infrastructures and the free circulation of people and goods, and the security one, where the objective is to annul the influence of Fetullah Gülen's organisation, putting pressure on his allies to accept extraditions, which in many cases go against the laws of the countries themselves. To a lesser extent, Turkey's second objective is the handing over of Kurds and political dissidents following the 2016 coup d'état. Turkey has responded to the establishment of schools belonging to the Gülen brotherhood throughout the region with the state-owned Maarif schools in Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo and Macedonia. In all this game of alliances, silk gloves and iron fists play a fundamental role in Turkish diplomacy, as a channel for Ankara's investments, the TIKA (Turkish Agency for Cooperation), created in 1991 as part of a programme to revive relations and cooperation with all the territories belonging to the USSR with Turkish language and culture, has become a tool for economic, political and cultural cooperation that is indispensable for Turkish diplomacy. 

TIKA currently manages cooperation, investment and development projects in more than 150 countries, the Yunus Emre cultural centres, similar to what the Cervantes Institute represents in Spanish foreign and cultural policy, located in Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia and Serbia, and the DIYANET (Presidency of Religious Affairs). We could think that Erdogan's intention would be to create a kind of Turkish 'Umma' through which he could extend his leadership and influence throughout the region, as in his first trip to Serbia in 2017, when he was received in Sanjacado by the crowd under the cry of sultan, comparing him to Murad I, the sultan who led the Ottoman troops to victory in 1381 in the field of Gazimestan, during the mother of all battles in the history of Serbia.

It is paradoxical that a nation that has built a large part of its national identity on the story of hatred for the Turk has now undoubtedly become one of Turkey's main supporters and allies in the region. In the words of President Erdogan to the Serbian newspaper Politika, bilateral relations between Serbia and Turkey are at this moment better than ever, reaching the highest levels of cooperation in many years and while the Turkish president plays at being the leader of the Umma, President Vučić has become more strongly supported by Ankara in Belgrade. Aleksander Vučić's policy of rapprochement towards Turkey, to the detriment of Russia, has made Serbia the largest recipient of Turkish investment in the region over the past year. Supported by the free trade agreement signed by both governments in 2009, and the free transit agreement, the volume of investment between the two countries has grown since then to reach just over one trillion euros in investments in 2019, focused on infrastructure, the economy and the energy sector, where TIKA plays a very important role as a channel for Turkish investments. During the business forum between Serbia and Turkey held in Belgrade in early October, President Erdogan reiterated the good harmony between the two countries, and announced an increase in Turkish investments in Serbia, aimed at increasing turnover to five million euros in a few years. Among the projects, the construction of a section of the TurkStream, through Serbian territory, stands out. 

An increase in cooperation between the two countries in the area of security was also announced, reaching agreements in defence, police cooperation and industry, an area where, according to the Balkan Insight media, Serbia would be interested in acquiring Turkish technology destined for security. Since the extradition in 2017, against the criteria of the United Nations, of a Kurdish politician who was a refugee in Serbia, demanded by Ankara, cooperation between Serbia and Turkey has been constant. Turkey's current battleground with Serbia in particular is the situation in Kosovo, with relations that are increasingly deteriorating, despite attempts to reach a mutually satisfactory agreement, unresolved war wounds, the situation of the Serb minority reduced to half the city of Mitrovica, but above all the issue of tax rates on Serbian and Bosnian products in Kosovo.  

"Kosovo is Turkey and Turkey is Kosovo". When he visited Kosovo in 2013, President Erdogan uttered this grandiloquent phrase, which could well be very significant of the importance, politically, historically and culturally, that an irrelevant territory on the European periphery has for Turkey. However, in recent history, relations between the two governments are undoubtedly marked by an operation in 2018 to extradite five Turkish citizens belonging to Fetullah Gülen's educational institution in Kosovo and one citizen, also of Turkish nationality, of Kurdish origin, accused of being members of the FETÖ. This operation was carried out behind the back of the then Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj, but with the knowledge and consent of President Hasim Thaçi, who was very close to President Erdogan and confronted his then Prime Minister. 

The police and the Kosovo Intelligence Agency collaborated in the operation with MIT (National Intelligence Organisation), the Turkish secret services. After the incident, Ramush Haradinaj dismissed his Minister of Interior, the head of the Police and the director of the Intelligence Agency, and promoted a commission of inquiry on this operation in the Pristina Parliament, to which President Erdogan reacted by accusing Haradinaj of harbouring terrorists and wanting to dynamite relations between Kosovo and Turkey. The commission of inquiry, made up of the two main opposition parties, presented its conclusions at the beginning of February 2019, condemning many obstacles in carrying out its work, in particular the lack of cooperation from President Hasim Thaçi and his refusal to hand over sensitive documentation to the commission. 

They also found the operation to be illegal, accusing the Kosovo Police, Intelligence Agency and air authority of collaborating in an operation outside the government. Fetullah Gülen's organisation is present in Kosovo via the educational organisation Gulistan, which manages primary and secondary schools, making Kosovo one of the main targets of Turkish security policy.

Ramush Haradinaj, who resigned from office in February this year on charges of war crimes during the conflict between Serbia and its autonomous territory in 1999, is not a dissenting voice in Kosovar society. The relationship with Turkey is not well perceived by the ethnic Albanian population, which is mostly Eurosceptic and Atlanticist. Atlanticism is more oriented towards the US and the Atlantic than towards Europe, the EU and the Mediterranean, so that what Kosovan society perceives as interference by other states, especially Turkey, in its internal politics, is a source of confusion. 

A significant example could be the controversy over the failed 2012 project to build a new mosque in Pristina, financed by Turkey through the DIYANET, as a gift for the anniversary of independence. Around 90% of the population in Kosovo is Muslim, so an initiative in this direction should be welcomed. However, the project was mostly seen as a Turkish attempt at cultural and religious penetration. To date, only one stone has been laid and its memory is a large plot of land in the centre of Pristina. Turkey, according to the Turkish foreign ministry, is the third largest European investor in Kosovo, with a turnover of nearly EUR 1 billion and investments of over EUR 350 million. 350 million. Investment is concentrated in strategic sectors: banking; mining, where Turkish companies are the best placed in the process of privatising the state-owned coal mines; energy, where it controls the Kosovo Electricity Distribution through the Limak business consortium; and the project for the construction of a new airport in Pristina. 

On the cultural front, TIKA has invested heavily in renewing the country's deteriorated cultural heritage. One of the biggest problems facing Kosovo's economy, which affects the regional economy, because of the repercussions it has on the so-called Balkan mini-Schengen project, among other things, is the unilateral imposition of 100% taxes on products from Serbia and Bosnia, due to the cancellation of the 2011 free transit agreement between Kosovo and Serbia by the Serbian government. Despite these disagreements, President Erdogan has tried to mediate between Vučić and Thaçi over the last few years, trying to reach a meeting point that would definitively resolve the status of Kosovo. 

The good relations between Belgrade and Ankara have also had an impact on the trilateral relations, promoted by Turkey, with Bosnia. Erdogan's man in Bosnia is Bakir Izetbegovic, son of Alija Izetbegovic, president of the SDA (Democratic Action Party), who is advised and supported by Erdogan's AKP, which he simultaneously supports and finances from Turkish institutions and boosts the political career of Sebija, Izetbegovic's wife, one of the most relevant figures in the current Bosnian political scene. 

Support from the Turkish government has not only been translated into financing and advice for the main Muslim party in Bosnia; it has also been translated into information campaigns in Turkish media and agencies, such as Anadolu, and into the priority allocation of TIKA funds, destined for agricultural projects, the banking sector, modernisation of infrastructures, such as the hospital in Sarajevo, and the privatisation of Bosnian flag airlines, B&H Airlines. In one of the bilateral meetings held during the past year, the rotating president of Bosnia, Dodik, and President Erdogan were confident that, with the approval of the Sarajevo-Belgrade highway project, the business volume between both countries would exceed 1,000 million euros per year, making it possible, probably, to include Bosnia in the Turkish Stream project. The approval of this project was one of the most relevant announcements in the field of economic cooperation that took place in Belgrade last October 8th, during the aforementioned economic forum between Serbia and Turkey. An agreement was reached with the government of Bosnia and Herzegovina for the construction of an infrastructure that is intended to be the axis through which the Balkans will join the heart of Europe. Similarly, an appeal was made to Croatia to increase cooperation with Turkey, Serbia and Bosnia by taking advantage of the new motorway. This project was given the final push last July during the SEECP (South East European Cooperation Process) meeting in Bosnia and Herzegovina. 

During the forum, President Erdogan insisted on the importance of cooperation between the different states that make up the region, and he did not miss the opportunity to insist on criticising the EU, and to insist that the countries that are opting to join must do so united in a bloc that Turkey is willing to lead. In this sense, Ankara has already stated that it is more than willing to endorse Bosnia's candidacy for NATO. This meeting, which was attended by the presidents of Turkey, Macedonia, Montenegro and Slovenia and the prime ministers of Serbia and Bulgaria, was vetoed by Kosovo because both Serbia and Bosnia do not recognise its status, and because of increased tension with both countries, especially with Bosnia, chaired on this occasion by the Serb Milorad Dodik, whom Hasim Thaçi blames for the deterioration in relations between the two governments. 

In solidarity with Kosovo, Albania also declined the invitation to participate, but in an undeniable gesture of Albanianness that Pashko Vasa spoke of, the country's president, Ilir Meta, came in a personal capacity, without permission from the government, not without first expressing his solidarity with the situation in Kosovo. Albanians are also reflected in the similarity of the political situation in Kosovo to that in Albania, where Prime Minister Ilir Meta is in conflict with Prime Minister Edi Rama. Edi Rama, as we have seen, is one of President Erdogan's men in the region, a personal friend, and one of the two political leaders invited to the wedding of the Turkish president's daughter, at first sight an irrelevant fact, but significant if we consider the complexity of the network of Turkish diplomatic relations in the Balkans. 

Turkey was one of the first states to send aid to Albania, through the Turkish Red Crescent, after the Dürres earthquake and the first in terms of the quantity of material sent to help the government of Tirana in the reconstruction of the earthquake damage. In addition, the Turkish government committed itself to financing and building 5oo houses and launching an aid and investment package in Albania to boost the area's recovery from the earthquake. 

For Edi Rama, this gesture, even more so after being ignored by the EU when it postponed its candidacy for membership, brings it even closer to the Turkish circle, with the possibility of Albania being forced to choose between Brussels and Ankara being plausible until now. In 2018 President Erdogan boasted of having invested more than 3 billion euros in Albania, and challenged Brussels to do the same, doubting the EU's true intentions towards Albania. Turkish investments in the Adriatic country have been, as we have seen in other countries, in critical infrastructure, energy, banking, the steel industry, telecommunications, a sector where the former state operator Albtelecom is owned by Turkish Telecom, as well as its mobile phone subsidiary, Eagle Mobile and the very advanced project to build an airport in the tourist city of Vlöre. 

Other investments include, with funds from the DIYANET, the construction of a new large mosque in Tirana, which now, unlike Kosovo, was welcomed by the Albanian society, where religion is of little concern to a traditionally secular population. It is possible that, in the future, Albania will be forced to choose between Brussels and Ankara. For the time being, the EU has invited Edi Rama's government to start final negotiations in the wake of the desired accession. However, it is possible that the EU's hesitant policies in the Balkans will not only excite Ankara's expansionist mood, since, as we have seen, there is one player, which is little talked about, but which has major economic and strategic interests in the region, as well as strong cultural ties: Russia. 

The Russia with which the Serbian population of northern Mitrovica identifies and which was once the standard bearer of pan-Slavery and Serbia's closest ally, is not currently competing for the region; it is instead collaborating with Turkey. Throughout last year, a series of reports were published, described as false, according to which the United States would leave Kosovo if the controversial taxes were not revoked, placing Russia and Turkey in a position to fill the supposed gap left in Kosovo by the United States. Russia, throughout history, has considered the Balkans as its natural expansion area, both for ethnic, cultural, religious, and now economic and strategic reasons. The Balkans currently represent the outlet to the Mediterranean and southern Europe for Russian hydrocarbons, so the energy sector is its main objective. 

The Turkish Stream project, a development of the failed South Stream, is currently the main Russian initiative in the region. Total Russian investment in the Western Balkans is around four billion euros, with its traditional ally, Serbia, the largest recipient of Russian investment with nearly 500 million euros. Once again, it is in the Balkans that Turkey and Russia test their ambivalent relations in a race that, at some point, will explode into open confrontation, given the multiple interests of both powers in the area. The Turkish and Russian influence even reaches regions in the Balkan periphery, such as Moldova, where the harmony between Presidents Igor Dodon and Erdogan has led the country to a rapprochement with Turkey and to fruitful cooperation in terms of both economy and security, where Dodon has not hesitated to extradite seven members of Fetullah Gülen's brotherhood who are refugees in Chisinau and have been claimed by Turkey. 

In return, it is sometimes curious to see diplomacy, he has received several water bombs as gifts for crowd control. One of the fronts on which Russia and Turkey are at odds is the accession to NATO of the countries that make up the Western Balkans, something that strategically does not suit Moscow and would cause Russia to lose weight in the region. In this sense, Moscow has promoted several initiatives to try to prevent or at least delay the accession of both Montenegro and Macedonia to the Alliance, orchestrating an attempted coup d'état in 2016 against the Prime Minister of Montenegro Milo Djukanovic and blocking a solution to the conflict between Greece and Macedonia that was finally sanctioned in the Prespa agreements, making it possible for the Balkan country to apply for membership in both the EU and NATO. 

Northern Macedonia is the country that has received the most support from Turkey in its process of articulation as a state, recognizing its independence after Bulgaria, standing by its side during the conflict over the name with Greece and supporting integration into the Atlantic Alliance without hesitation. However, the change of government in the country, with former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski having fled to Hungary, once again pits Prime Minister Zoran Zaev against President Erdogan by refusing to hand over 15 Turkish citizens who were refugees in Macedonia claimed by Ankara and accused of being part of Gülen's organisation and implicated in the 2016 coup d'état. 

Zaev's EU-backed position led to Turkey's threat in April last year to put the signing of Macedonia's NATO accession protocol on hold, a process that must be ratified by all alliance members. However, from Ankara they insisted that the collaboration between the two countries in the fight against FETÖ is fruitful, and bilateral relations good. Finally, in July, Turkey ratified membership, and Northern Macedonia is today, after ratification by the Spanish Senate, the last of the allies, as of March, a member of NATO.

On 18 February, on the occasion of the 68th anniversary of Turkey's accession to NATO, the Turkish delegation to the Alliance reiterated Turkey's commitment and solidarity with its allies, but the truth is that relations with NATO, following the path marked out by the Turkish government's external action, are not, as we have seen, fluid at the moment, and oscillate between formal support as a member and Turkey's particular interests. Since the purchase of the Russian S-400 antiaircraft system, relations with the United States are not the best, even suspending the joint intelligence programmes carried out by both countries in northern Syria. 

Turkey's position in NATO, the alliance's second army, is complicated. From being a staunch US ally during the Cold War, it has come to have an ambivalent position, determined by the abandonment of positions in the Middle East and the Mediterranean by the US, and the formation of its own agenda subordinated to its own interests.

The Cyprus question has also played a role of some relevance in the relations between Ankara and Skopje. Turkey has been pressing for Macedonia's non-recognition of the island's government since 2000, but this issue is complicated by Macedonia's intention to join the EU, of which Cyprus is a member, which will force Skopje to recognise the government sooner or later, especially since Brussels has finally opened the door to both Macedonia and Albania to start final accession talks. 

Meanwhile, Turkey, through TIKA, has made investments in Macedonia over the last few years worth close to EUR 100 million, focusing on the agricultural sector, education, with the opening of nursery and primary schools and the founding of the Balkan University. Once again, we find Turkish investments in the aeronautical sector, where the Turkish consortium TGV manages the airports of Skopje, Ohrid and projects a new airport in the city of Stip.

It has been a long time since Greece was the main focus of Turkish foreign policy. Since the 2016 coup d'état, clashes between the two countries have been occasional, such as the claim by the eight dissident officers who took refuge in Greece after the coup, even offering 9 million euros to Greece in exchange for their extradition. At the same time, the last decade has seen a succession of clashes in the Aegean, stemming from Greek demands for Turkey to demilitarise the Dodecanese, and the Cyprus issue. Cyprus is now more important to Turkey than it has been in recent decades. 

The hydrocarbon reserves found in the eastern Mediterranean have put Mediterranean waters in dispute between Cyprus and Greece, supported by France and Turkey. Cyprus and Greece reached an agreement for the construction of a gas pipeline from the eastern Mediterranean to southern Europe, selling the rights to explore and exploit these reserves to several multinationals, including the French company Total; exploration was halted due to the presence of the Turkish Navy in the area. At the same time, Turkish vessels began prospecting in the waters off northern Cyprus in July last year, prospecting which was considered illegitimate by the EU, which considered it an invasion of Cypriot sovereignty, threatening Turkey with sanctions if it did not stop prospecting in Cypriot waters. 

The Turkish response was a unilateral break with the 2015 migration agreement with the EU. President Erdogan has never hesitated to use all means at his disposal to put pressure on both the EU and, in other circumstances, his NATO partners. Over the past few years, his best weapon to put pressure on the EU has been the management of migration flows from Syria to the EU. The latest episode occurred at the end of February, following the incident that cost the lives of 35 Turkish soldiers in an air strike in Syria. On the same day, Turkey requested support from its allies and invoked point 4 of the Washington treaty, whereby it formally requested assistance from NATO, or at least a formal declaration of support from the whole alliance. The issue in NATO is closed with the Greek veto and a personal statement by the Alliance's Secretary General in support of Turkey. 

That same evening, the Turkish Government announces the possibility of opening the border with Syria, an opening which takes place the day after this announcement, on 28 February, causing Greece, contrary to international humanitarian law, to suspend the right of asylum, which is included in the refugee status,  for a month and close the border with Turkey and the port of Mytilene and the island of Lesbos, starting a series of clashes in which refugee groups have been turned away by the Greek police, who have sometimes used very harshly, using water cannons and rubber bullets to repel the migrants. 

On 4 March President Erdogan met in Brussels with Charles Michel, the President of the Council, who reiterated his unwavering support for the decisions of his partners Greece, Bulgaria and Cyprus. Before going to Brussels for a second meeting with EU leaders on 9 March, President Erdogan called on Greece to open its border, saying that a humanitarian disaster would otherwise occur. Greece responds by accusing Turkey of encouraging refugees to cross by force, providing information on the most vulnerable points to cross the border and means to cut down fences. 

The European Union's High Representative for Foreign Policy, Spain's Josep Borrell, warns the Turkish government that the Greek border will not be opened under any circumstances. The meeting with Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen and Charles Michel ended with the promise of 6 billion euros destined to alleviate the situation of refugees in Turkey, after which the EU leadership, including David Sassoli, the President of Parliament, announced a trip, subsequently cancelled due to the emergency of COVID-19, to the Greek-Turkish border on 11th March to show the EU's support for Greece. In addition to this a Frontex mission to Greece comprising 100 agents was approved. They will join the 100 police officers sent by Poland, 12 by Austria and 25 by Cyprus to support the Greek security forces. 

As we have seen, the complex network of alliances woven around the religious element, cultural ties and political leadership of Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the Balkans has placed Turkey in a position of strength, firmly established in the region. In the current situation of political and social instability, there are innumerable factors that could turn the situation in the region upside down. However, at a political and strategic level, in the short term, two would be the most decisive factors if they were to occur: a change in the EU's policies with regard to the Western Balkans, which would deprive Turkey of all support in the region, and a deterioration in bilateral relations with Russia, as we saw at the end of February, which would complicate cooperation between the two countries in the region and bring them face to face once and for all.