While the world has been rocked by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine for two months, Putin’s two autocrats who play a neutrality role in Central and Southeast Europe have strengthened their autocracy as a result of simultaneous elections on April 3rd. On the other hand, Erdogan, another regional autocrat, is trying to become a peace and diplomacy hero by taking advantage of the double playing opportunity to act as a peace mediator. But can these autocrats, who play the role of impartiality, really be truthful peace mediators when poisoning the region with their expansionist agenda? Or will Europe turn the men who do the dirty work of European elites into heroes of peace? This is the story of the expansionism of two regional autocrats.
Hungarian Prime Minister Orbán’s inclusion at the Erdoğan-led league of Turkic-speaking autocrats, officially known as Cooperation Council of Turkic Speaking States, has precipitated an alarming burst of joint Turkish and Hungarian irredentism. Erdoğan and Orbán’s personalized and interventionist foreign policy approaches are embodied in this way.
Cold-shouldered in Europe Orbán’s Hungary started a policy of “Eastern opening” by using Turanism to find new allies from Asia in its war on European values and to be a bridge between Europe and the autocrats in Turkey, Central Asia and the Far East. However, Turanism in Hungary is an ideology popularized by fascist circles in the interwar period to try to untangle their complex over the Treaty of Trianon.
Self-isolated as the result of its aggressive foreign policy and operating in what Erdoğan’s Chief Policy Adviser Ibrahim Kalin described as “precious loneliness”, Erdoğan’s Turkey, too, grasped at straws to find an ally in Turkey’s near abroad with a dream of being a regional hegemon. But the fact is that Turkey under Erdoğan is not seen as a true partner for “most of Balkan countries” that want to consolidate their democratic values, strengthen European integration, bolster respect for human rights, and enhance their access to international trade. Using the remains of secular Turkey, Erdoğan turned his face to Turkic countries ruled by ex-Soviet elites, where the Islamist autocrat finds their people too secular.
In an environment where Erdoğan teaches Orbán how a promising conservative turns into an autocrat without losing EU tax money, “Turkic World” appears as a useful apparatus that unites these countries in a minimum historical common ground.
Abusing common linguistic and historical heritage to consolidate their voters with the discourse of transnational leadership, these two leaders keep their domestic political agenda alive with irredentist maps, which were the cause of the conflicts in the Balkans; two maps came to the fore on two separate occasions.
Earlier on, in May 2020, Orbán posted a provocative Facebook post, wishing good luck to students taking their final exams, with a globe showing the borders of Greater Hungary that includes portions of modern Croatia.
Orbán’s map of Great Hungary, bordering the Ottoman Empire, included large parts of modern Ukraine, Serbia, Romania and Slovakia, as well as the northern half of Croatia – all lost under the Treaty of Trianon of 1920 following the collapse of the joint Austro-Hungarian state.
On the other hand, in November 2021, Erdoğan and his extreme-right coalition partner Devlet Bahçeli, posed before a map of the “Turkic world”, or “Turkish Turan” showing Turkic nations. This map is actually a map that has been on the last pages of primary school books in Turkey for many years, and that students dream about while looking at it. However, it is not a coincidence that the pose comes right after the Turkic Council meeting and comes at a time when Erdoğan was most politically stuck in domestic politics and his expansionist discourse was the most aggressive.
While it’s symbolic that crisis-thorn Bosnia and Herzegovina with a very small Turkish and Hungarian minority population is at the intersection of the two maps, the two leaders’ rehearsal for transnational authoritarian leadership today hand in hand in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
As Erdoğan and Orbán have been trying to turn the political crisis in Bosnia and Herzegovina into an advantage for their personal agendas, their simultaneous irredentist moves continue to threaten the EU’s southeastern border.
Seeing pan-Turkist irredentism as a tool for their partnership in authoritarian expansionism, Erdoğan and Orbán never give up their aspiration to be populist actors in the Balkans with their different approaches towards their coreligionists.
The Erdoğan regime is reshaping Turkish politics in the Ottoman image, it has been building its his communitarian foreign policy agenda of hegemonic Islamism around jihad and conquest, which is the basic teaching of Ottoman image, for years. However, this discourse of conquest means occupation in Turkey’s near abroad.
A mixture of pan-Islamist and pan-Turkist export product emerged as Erdoğan tried to balance his responsibilities to his ultra-nationalist far-right coalition partner in domestic politics with his responsibilities as an actor in the transnational “Muslim Brotherhood” network in foreign policy. Although the regime did not speak out against China’s crimes against humanity targeting Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslim minorities to not risk credits from the CCP regime. This blending of Pan-Turkism with an Islamist authoritarianism highlights the agency of ideological seduction that accompanies Ottoman legacy in Turkey’s near abroad.
Since the early 2010s, Turkey’s so-called soft power in the Balkans has markedly shifted from the charitable undertakings of the early 1990s and 2000s. The Erdoğan regime has sought to fulfill its regional but personal ambitions by various means, whether through the exportation of intense political polarization to Turkic and Muslim communities near abroad or through the employment of Turkish state institutions to intervene in the ethno-politics of ethnically divided nations.
Erdogan’s Turkey uses radical Islamist organizations to find a grassroot among relatively secular Muslim communities in the Balkans, on the other hand, shady organizations like TİKA continue to build mosques for Turkey’s demands from those countries. Actors who benefit Erdoğan in his leadership game in the Balkans, such as Bakir Izetbegovic, a Bosniak member of the Bosnian Presidency at the time, are gaining strength with the financial and political support of Turkey’s so-called soft power institutions such as Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TİKA), state broadcaster TRT and Anadolu Agency (AA). On the other hand, Milorad Dodik, the Serb member of the Bosnian Presidency, is able to attract Erdoğan, whom they meet on the common ground of authoritarian populism, to the region as an outsider actor. Thus, Erdoğan somehow unites the ethnic political elites who hate each other.
Orbán and Erdoğan are increasingly alike, especially the border guard duties assigned by the democratic West have given these two leaders an interesting comfort zone. Although the EU elites describe Orbán as “Europe’s bad boy” and popularize his policies by calling it pragmatism, he is following Erdoğan’s hypocritical policies, who threatens to send millions of vulnerable migrants to Europe when his regime’s lawlessness is criticized by the EU.
Saving Erdoğan every time he gets in trouble with the EU, Orbán joins Erdoğan in his regional ambitions to deepen his political base in the country’s near abroad and advocates strongmen alike. They support the same regional autocrats as in the cases of Gruevski and Vucic in the Balkans or Tokayev and Aliyev of the Turkic World. Developing their spheres of influence hand in hand, these two even came to the same point about the identities of their nations, to such an extent that Orbán declared that Hungarians are Kipchak Turks and that Hungary “is Christian Turkish lands”. Both of them talk separately in domestic politics and foreign policy, while they are interested in the same regions with their illiberal expansionism, they are not interested in the same regions such as Uyghur genocide in East Turkistan with their opportunism.
Orbán’s Hungary recently saved another Balkan populist again by providing Bosnia’s semi-autonomous Republika Srpska (RS) entity with 100 million euros in financial assistance and opposing Western sanctions against secessionist Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik.
As both leaders steal roles from the national will of the actors belonging to the constituent ethnic groups in Bosnia and Herzegovina, they do not speak out against each other’s extremist actions of the opposite direction toward their coreligionists.
Orban, who portrays himself as the defender of Christianity in Europe, continues to present his administration as ‘the last bastion against Islam in Europe’. Ankara, which sees itself as the leader of the Islamic world and is expected to respond most severely to these discourses under normal conditions, does not mind, while Orban trying to fill the gap in the far-right discourse as a leader that hinders the so-called Islamization of Europe as a result of migration and demographic transformation. In fact, Orban recently said that the challenge with Bosnia is the Muslim presence in the country. While the Muslim Bosniaks, who are native to the country, immediately denounced to Orban’s Islamophobic remarks, Turkish Foreign Minister was playing football in Budapest with his counterparts from the Visegrád Group.
Shifting the power over institutions to the top and into the hands of party leaders, ethnic elites of the Balkans follow footsteps of their bigmans from Turkic but democratic league such as Orbán and from Turkic and autocratic world like Erdoğan, it is clear that the maps that these two expansionists proudly display are maps of authoritarian expansionism. The authoritarian expansionism of Orbán and Erdoğan endanger the country’s security as well as the aspirations of the three constituent ethnic groups in Bosnia and Herzegovina to live together, while Bosnians and Serbs each have populist big brothers, and Croats are in search of a populist bigman.
While Erdoğan and Orbán are forcibly making themselves actors in front of their states with their personalized foreign policy, the political elites in the region are about to turn the silence of the EU and the democratic West into an opportunity to make these two quasi bigmen heroes of diplomacy. It is not a realistic approach to see polarizing and aggressive autocrats in domestic politics as reasonable actors in resolving an international crisis. It should also be well thought that it is not realistic to expect men who do the dirty work of European elites to be gentlemen.
*Abdullah Sencer Gözübenli is a Zagreb-based Turkish researcher who focuses on issues concerning national minorities and specializes in transnational identity politics and kin-state activism in the Balkans. Currently he is pursuing his doctoral studies in Sociology at Åbo Akademi University in Finland with special focus on minority issues in inter-state relations in the Balkans.
This article was produced for Novi Plamen. It has been re-published here with a CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 International License.