The row between Moscow and Ankara may not lead to proxy contests in countries like Bosnia and Herzegovina, but Balkan states should be wary of potential consequences.
By Dimitar Bechev*
Are the current tensions between Turkey and Russia likely to spill over to the Balkans? The international media coverage of the crisis following the downing of the Russian Su-24 is peppered with references to the old rivalry between the Tsarist and Ottoman Empire.
There is the notion that countries and regions squeezed in between their latterday successors, from Nagorno-Karabakh in the South Caucasus to Bosnia and Herzegovina, risk turning into areas of proxy conflict.
Not only would the Tsar and the Sultan be facing off against one another in northern Syria but also in pretty much any place where the two have friends or allies.
This scenario might look convincing at first sight but is not likely to come true in the Balkans.
Russia and Turkey may have seen their diplomatic and economic clout growing over the past decade or so, but to cast them as rivals is stretching it too far.
For starters, Turkey and Russia have both profited from the gaps and tensions in the EU and US policy in the region.
In the mid-2000s, Moscow teamed up with Serbia to fight back against Kosovo’s independence and thwart Western moves on an issue which had repercussions in the post-Soviet space too.
Frustrated by the deadlock in its EU accession talks, Turkey developed an independent neighbourhood strategy and inserted itself as mediator in Bosnia, following the failure of the now forgotten Butmir talks in 2010.
The point is that Moscow and Ankara have never clashed, even when their views differed or were diametrically opposed (e.g. on Kosovo).
Economic relations between Russians and Turks have been thriving, with significant fallout for the Balkans.
Turkey allowed the South Stream gas pipeline to pass through its exclusive economic zone, and Vladimir Putin used his trip to Ankara back in December 2014 to unveil, to everyone’s surprise, a new project – swiftly named Turkish Stream by President Tayyip Erdogan.
Both South Stream and Turkish Stream have commanded a lot of attention across the Balkans. From Skopje to Banja Luka politicians have been eagerly expecting a windfall from investment, transit fees, jobs and lower gas prices and taking up every opportunity to jump on the energy bandwagon set in motion by Moscow and Ankara.
The last few weeks are a belated yet sobering reminder that such expectations were inflated and misplaced from the very start.
After the shelving of South Stream it should serve as a lesson. The Russian decision to call off Turkish Stream only proves that the pipeline’s prospects were unclear, to put it very mildly.
Few in the region bothered to read the small print, that is the fact that the two governments never signed a legal agreement, let alone a commercial deal between Gazprom and the Turkish state-owned company BOTAS.
The notion that the so-called Tesla Pipeline, a five-billion-euro extension of Turkish Stream going through Greece, Macedonia, Serbia and Hungary, will come onstream in the next five years is at best questionable.
The squabble with Russia has implications for Turkey’s foreign and security policy that are sure to have repercussions across South East Europe.
Faced with instability and conflict on its southern border and with a Russian challenge in the north, Turkey has a strong incentive to deepen links its allies in NATO.
That happens at a time when the Balkans are steadily moving to the Alliance. Montenegro obtained an invitation to start membership talks during a NATO ministerial meeting earlier this month, while Serbia signed an Individual Partnership Action Plan back in January.
It is worth remembering that historically Turkey has been one of the greatest champions of NATO enlargements to the region. From the Balkans’ perspective, a shift in the Turkish approach from vigorous unilateralism to multilateralism and partnership with the West is doubtless good news.
The Balkans have much to gain from a convergence between Turkey and the EU too.
The restart of membership talks with Ankara, the opening of a new negotiations chapter, and the prospect of visa-free travel for Turkish citizens (on the model already tried in the Western Balkans in the previous decade) open wide-ranging political and economic opportunities for everyone: the Union, Turkey, other membership candidates.
Cooperation between Turkey and the EU is an essential condition to deal with the refugee crisis that has swept the Western Balkans and the surrounding region over the past year.
Of course, much depends on whether the Turkish government is motivated to comply with the Brussels’ conditions and whether the EU is playing a fair game.
The drift towards illiberal rule in Ankara poses severe constraints and limits as to how far the process could go.
That brings us back to Russia and its increasingly adversarial relationship with Turkey.
The recent tensions have much to do with the sort of leadership exercised by Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The negative consequences should serve as a cautionary tale to those in Balkan societies who buy into populist politics, venerate power-hungry strongmen, at the expense of things like the rule of law, free media and civil society.
Both Putin and Erdogan surely have their fans in the fragile democracies populating the Balkans, but the governance model that they personify charts no way forward.
*Dimitar Bechev is a visiting scholar at the Centre for European Studies at Harvard University and director of the European Policy Institute in Sofia.