ISSN 2330-717X

Turkey’s Pragmatic Policy In The Balkans Has Its Limits – OpEd

By

The recent crisis in Bosnia has highlighted the adaptability – and limitations – of Turkish policy in the Balkans.

By Vuk Vuksanovic*

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently hosted in Ankara Milorad Dodik, the Serbian member of Bosnia’s tripartite presidency, to discuss the political crisis in Bosnia triggered by Dodik’s threat to abandon state institutions. At the beginning of November, Bosnia’s Bosniak leader, Bakir Izetbegovic, visited Erdogan in Istanbul to address the same issue.

Few months ago, Turkey was also busy in the Balkans.

In late August, Erdogan embarked on a small three-day Balkan tour, visiting Bosnia and Montenegro. In Bosnia, Erdogan was a witness at the wedding of Izetbegovic’s daughter, Jasmina.

Then September brought a flurry of meetings: Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu travelled to Serbia to open a Turkish consulate in the city of Novi Pazar, part of the southwestern region of Sandzak, straddling both Serbia and Montenegro and mainly populated by Bosniak Muslims; Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic visited Erdogan in Istanbul; and Erdogan met Croatian President Zoran Milanović on the margins of the 76th session of the United Nations General Assembly.

Ankara’s latest engagement with the region shows that Turkey’s Balkan policy can adapt to change and is guided by pragmatism rather than by ideological concepts of Neo-Ottomanism, a school of thought that presumes that modern Turkey needs to restore its geopolitical influence across former Ottoman territories.

However, Turkey’s initial silence during the current Bosnian crisis, despite Erdogan’s ambition to be a mediator, shows that Ankara has its limits in the Balkans.

Power-broker ambitions

What does this latest wave of Turkish diplomatic engagement with the region tell us about the current state of Turkish foreign policy in the Balkans? The first is that Ankara does not sever ties even when it is displeased with nations in the region.

While Erdogan visited Bosnia and Montenegro, he bypassed Serbia, even though Serbo-Turkish cooperation embarked on an historical upswing in recent years and despite Ankara’s traditional perception of Serbia as key to the region’s strategic stability.

The apparent snub may have been a sign of cold winds in relations between Turkey and Serbia, in part as a result of Serbia’s cooperation with some of Turkey’s rivals, such as Armenia, Cyprus and the United Arab Emirates, and Ankara’s announcement that it will lobby for recognition of Kosovo ’s independence among states that have so far refused to do so.

However, Cavusoglu invited Vucic to visit Serbia. So why did Erdogan not simply come to Belgrade himself? Because Erdogan understands the power of symbolism in politics. Through diplomatic protocol, Erdogan disciplined his Serbian colleague, effectively telling Vucic: “You will come to me. I will not come to you.”

Vucic went to Istanbul on September 18, sat down with Erdogan and expressed his desire for the Turkish President to visit Serbia. The meeting showed that dialogue had not been not severed, but the fact it was closed to media was a reflection of the recent uneasiness in the relationship.

The ultimate lesson is that even when Ankara is displeased with certain nations, it does not burn all bridges, particularly when it involves the most important states. For Turkey, these are Serbia and Bosnia, as proven by Turkey’s flagship project in the region, the Belgrade-Sarajevo highway.

The second lesson is that Ankara is trying to move away from being just a champion for the Balkan Muslims, and instead act as a power broker between various ethnic groups in the region. This became evident during Erdogan’s visit to Bosnia, and Dodik’s visit to Turkey, when Dodik and Erdogan became acceptable political partners.

For years, Dodik was critical of Turkey’s policies in Bosnia, while Erdogan emphasised Turkey’s special relationship with the Bosniaks. Erdogan once stated that Alija Izetbegovic, the Muslim wartime president of Bosnia, had “bequeathed” Bosnia to him on his deathbed.

Following the ban on genocide-denial imposed by the former international envoy in Bosnia, Valentin Inzko, Dodik and the Serb-majority entity in Bosnia, Republika Srpska, launched a boycott of state institutions. However, Dodik was still willing to meet Erdogan in Sarajevo despite the boycott.

As Dodik’s political adviser, Milan Tegeltija, tweeted: “If Bakir says that Alija Izetbegovic bequeathed Erdogan responsibility for Bosniaks in Bosnia and Herzegovina, involving Erdogan in talks on Bosnia is logical. At the end of the day, regardless of wars, Serbs have a long history of reasonable agreements with Turks. That reasonableness is what is missing to the Bosniak political elite.”

Shared isolation from the West

Even with the escalated political crisis in Bosnia, there are no signs that Dodik and Erdogan have severed ties. Indeed, since neither Dodik nor Erdogan is warmly accepted in Western circles, the dialogue between the two is a symbolic display to the West that the two leaders are not isolated.

Overtures towards Bosnia are frequently a way for Erdogan to challenge the EU in its backyard, and Erdogan is showing Brussels that he can do business with both Bosniaks and Bosnian Serbs.

On that same front, Erdogan’s meeting with Croatian President Milanovic during the UN General Assembly also shows Erdogan’s predilection for dealmaking with all ethnic groups in the Balkans, particularly as the issue of Bosnia and the status of Bosnian Croats was high on the meeting’s agenda.

Ankara’s displeasure with Belgrade was also probably a contributing factor. Erdogan is telling Vucic that if he wants to engage the Serbs, other Serbian leaders in the region are willing to talk to him.

The relationship between Vucic and Dodik is also a factor. While conventional wisdom implies that Belgrade controls the Bosnian Serbs, the reality is more complicated.

Despite the warm facade between Vucic and Dodik, the two do not trust each other. Namely, no politician in Serbia can afford domestically to appear unprotective of the Bosnian Serbs, a fact the Bosnian Serb leadership always counts on. However, the leaders in Belgrade are fearful that their brethren in Bosnia might suck them into unnecessary conflict.

In turn, the Bosnian Serb leadership fears that Belgrade may sell them out in some grand bargain with the West or try to replace them with a less recalcitrant political option.

It would not be the first time. In the last year of the 1992-95 Bosnian War, Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic took over negotiations with the West, sidelining the Bosnian Serb leadership. Therefore, through Erdogan, Dodik is seeking to win some autonomy from the big brother in Belgrade.

Shifting sands

The third lesson is that Turkey faces challenges on the ground that it needs to adapt to, even in Turkey-friendly territories like Sandzak.

Among the Bosniak citizens of Sandzak, Erdogan and Turkey enjoy rockstar status.

During Cavusoglu’s visit, Turkey’s ambassador to Serbia, Hami Aksoy, promised new Turkish investments in Sandzak. It remains to be seen whether Ankara will follow through on this promise, but if it does, now would be the right time.

Despite the enormous popularity that Erdogan and his country enjoy in Sandzak, economic investments in the region are scant and do not correspond with the positive perceptions of the local population.

On top of that, the local political landscape in Sandzak is shifting. The two traditional Bosniak political parties in Sandzak, the Sandzak Democratic Action Party, SDA Sandzak, and the Sandzak Democratic Party, SDP, have been  politically overtaken by the younger Justice and Conciliation Party, SPP), of former Grand Mufti Muamer Zukorlic. However, Zukorlic has now passed away unexpectedly.

Zukorlic operated with direct support from the Serbian government. More importantly, unlike traditional Bosniak parties, he was more critical of Turkey and closer to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. A major Turkish investment in the region would help Turkey re-assert itself, given the changes in local politics in Sandzak. The sudden death of Zukorlic creates a vacuum that will be challenging for both Belgrade and Ankara.

However, the ultimate lesson is that Turkish foreign policy, despite lofty rhetoric, has its limitations. Despite the pleas of Bosniak groups and NGOs in Turkey, Turkey was slow to act on the Bosnian crisis at first.

Ankara appears willing to pass this hot potato to the West. Turkey’s capacities in the Balkans are limited compared to the West. The Turkish government is preoccupied with its domestic dynamics, including rumours of Erdogan’s deteriorating health and preparations for the 2023 general elections.

On top of that, Turkey is preoccupied with its more troublesome neighbourhoods in the Middle East, Eastern Mediterranean and Caucasus. Equally important in terms of international constraints is that Ankara always has to calibrate its Balkan policy based on how it will reflect on its bilateral ties with Belgrade, but more importantly, its relations with the West and Russia.

Russia and the West are engaged in a tit-for-tat battle at the UN Security Council over Bosnia. Simultaneously, Turkey has to coordinate with Russia not just on the Balkans but on hot issues like the Caucasus, as evident from a recent meeting between Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Cavusoglu. While the feuding groups in Bosnia show sympathy towards the idea of Erdogan as a mediator, Ankara must always take care when choosing the timing and the tone of its Balkan moves.

The latest Turkish engagement with the Balkans shows that its foreign policy in the region is guided by pragmatism, and that Ankara knows how to adapt to changing regional dynamics. The case of Sandzak has also shown us that Turkish regional policy is not carefree.

Erdogan may celebrate the Ottoman Empire in his speeches, but at the end of the day, he is all business. Based on the current Bosnian crisis, it is clear that Turkey, despite its ambitions and lofty words, faces limits to how far it can go in the Balkans. One thing is also certain, in the Balkans, no one trusts anybody these days.

*Vuk Vuksanovic is a researcher at the Belgrade Centre for Security Policy (BCSP) and an associate of LSE IDEAS, a foreign policy think tank of the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). He got his PhD in international relations at the LSE. He has published widely on modern foreign and security policy issues.

Click here to have Eurasia Review's newsletter delivered via RSS, as an email newsletter, via mobile or on your personal news page.

Balkan Insight

The Balkan Insight (fornerkt the Balkin Investigative Reporting Network, BIRN) is a close group of editors and trainers that enables journalists in the region to produce in-depth analytical and investigative journalism on complex political, economic and social themes. BIRN emerged from the Balkan programme of the Institute for War & Peace Reporting, IWPR, in 2005. The original IWPR Balkans team was mandated to localise that programme and make it sustainable, in light of changing realities in the region and the maturity of the IWPR intervention. Since then, its work in publishing, media training and public debate activities has become synonymous with quality, reliability and impartiality. A fully-independent and local network, it is now developing as an efficient and self-sustainable regional institution to enhance the capacity for journalism that pushes for public debate on European-oriented political and economic reform.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *