Turkey’s Balkan policy is based on political stability and the preservation of peace.

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The Balkans have functioned as a buffer zone between East and West in history and today. For centuries, the border between Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia has been a fault line where East and West, Catholicism and Orthodoxy, Islam and Christianity meet and separate. The narrow definition of the Balkans includes the successor states of the former Yugoslavia and the Thrace region of Albania, Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey. The broad definition also includes Romania and Moldova, located north of the Danube.

Turkey has emerged as a remarkable player in the Balkans as a natural extension of economic growth and foreign policy versatility over the past 20 years.

However, today when the word “Balkans” is spoken, it is understood more as the Western Balkans. This concept includes the state of Albania, as well as the successor states of the former Yugoslavia, excluding Slovenia. Balkans; It is one of the most complex regions in the world in terms of ethnicity, language, religion and sect. Because of this situation, and also in order to highlight European belonging, European Union (EU) circles have preferred to use the concept of “South-Eastern Europe” rather than that of the Balkans in recent years. .

Deep historical ties with the peoples of the Balkans

The Balkans are a region with which Turkey maintains very close historical, cultural and human relations. The western part of the Balkans was under the rule of the Turks for 200 years, the eastern part for 400-450 years, and the peoples of the Balkans spent their most peaceful period under the Ottoman rule. The Balkan peoples, who were liberated in their internal affairs through the Ottoman millet system, were not assimilated. Indeed, nationalism, which imposed itself with the French Revolution in the 19th and 20th centuries, affected the Balkan peoples who preserved their identities. After the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Empire, a union of states (Yugoslavia), which does not deny the sub-identities of national states and peoples, was established in the Balkans . With the disintegration of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, the federated states within the federation gained independence one after another, and finally, on February 17, 2008, Kosovo, which had the status of an autonomous region, became a freelance actor. Today, 117 states recognize the Republic of Kosovo.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan may meet directly with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and Bosnian Serb leader Milarod Dodik during the escalating conflict in the Balkans.

Ankara supports EU and NATO membership of Balkan states

Turkey has emerged as a remarkable player in the Balkans as a natural extension of economic growth and foreign policy versatility over the past 20 years. This situation has elicited different reactions inside and outside the region. Western media, in particular, are uncomfortable with Turkey’s growing influence in the Balkans. Although there are assessments that Turkey is preventing Balkan integration with the West, these criticisms do not correspond to the facts.

Turkey emphasizes peace and stability, good neighborliness and solidarity in the Balkans and offers solutions to the region’s chronic problems.

In fact, Turkey has supported Balkan states to join NATO for regional security and stability. Likewise, countries in the region establishing close relations with the European Union (EU) one after another and entering the application and negotiation process are positively assessed by Turkey. Because Turkey itself has been a member of NATO, a Western-based defense organization, since 1952. It joined the Strasbourg-based Council of Europe, a political cooperation organization, right after its founding. The first application to the EU was filed on July 31, 1959 under the government of Adnan Menderes. Since then, he has worked to become part of the economic integration movement.

On the other hand, in recent years, Turkey has not experienced tensions with any Balkan country, with the exception of Greece. High-level and mutually beneficial relations with the Balkan countries continue. The last time there was a conflict between Turkey and Serbia due to the civil war in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the conflicts in Kosovo in the 1990s. However, today Serbia is one of the countries with whom Turkey has close relations in the Balkans. Turkey also attaches importance to dialogue and cooperation with the Bosnian Serb Republic, one of the two political units of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik also attended the Antalya Diplomatic Forum, held in Turkey from March 11 to 13, 2022. The President of the Republic of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan can meet directly with the Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik during the escalation of the conflict in the Balkans.

Turkey does not discriminate between Balkan peoples

Turkey attaches great importance to maintaining peace and stability in the Balkans. The Dayton agreement and the Martti Ahtisaari plan, which gave independence to the Republic of Kosovo, are supported by Turkey. On the other hand, Turkey opposed the isolation of Macedonia by Greece after independence and contributed to the integration of this country into the international community, the accession and candidacy processes for the NATO and the EU. The NATO membership of Albania and Croatia in 2009, Montenegro in 2017 and North Macedonia in 2020 was strongly encouraged by Turkey. Recently, the launch by North Macedonia and Albania of full accession negotiations for EU membership was also seen as a positive step by Turkey.

All these examples show that Turkey’s activities in the Balkan region are not a challenge for the West. In other words, Turkey’s Balkan policy is not a “zero-sum approach”. Turkey emphasizes peace and stability, good neighborliness and solidarity in the Balkans and offers solutions to the region’s chronic problems. Because fighting nationalist (irredentist) expansionist tendencies and overcoming the problems created by micro-nationalism is only possible with the sovereign equality of states. In this context, Turkey takes care not to discriminate against minorities living within the borders of the Balkan States and to protect the identity of peoples.

Apart from official diplomatic missions in the category of embassies and consulates, Turkey also provides economic, technical and humanitarian aid to Balkan countries through semi-official institutions such as Turkish educational centers, Yunus Institutes Emre, Kızılay, TIKA and AFAD. While carrying out all these activities, Turkey makes no distinction between Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Albania and North Macedonia, with which it has traditionally maintained close cooperation, and others.

Turkey’s priority is the preservation of peace and the status quo.

To briefly mention the Balkan policy of the other players, it can be said that the EU first sees the Balkan geography as a future region for enlargement. Most of the Balkan countries, with the exception of Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina, are either EU members or EU candidates. Montenegro has been negotiating since 2012 and Serbia since 2014.

We can say that the American influence in the Balkans is strong on Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia and Kosovo. There is a correlation between the weight of the United States over other countries and NATO membership. The accession of Turkey and Greece to NATO in 1952 was followed by the accession of Slovenia, Bulgaria and Romania in 2004. Croatia and Albania joined NATO, followed Montenegro and North Macedonia. Serbia, Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina remained the three non-NATO countries in the Balkans. The United States also supports the accession of the Balkan countries to the EU.

Russia’s Balkan policy aims to increase its influence throughout the region. Moscow sometimes uses Slavic ethnicity and sometimes Orthodoxy for this purpose. Recently, it has tried to strengthen its sovereignty in the region through its dependence on natural gas. Using the aforementioned tools, Russia is directing the peoples of Slavic origin in the Balkans towards separatism and conflict. In this context, it prompts both the Bosnian Serbs and Serbia to change the status quo.

Another actor making efforts and efforts to increase its influence in the Balkans is China. Especially after the announcement of the Belt and Road Initiative, the Beijing administration has supported infrastructure investment in regional countries. The Chinese administration, which bought the Greek port of Piraeus and supported infrastructure projects in Serbia, wants to strengthen its economic power in the region and convert it in the future on the political field.

Accordingly, the spectrum of Turkey’s relations with the Balkan states, which constitute a buffer zone between it and the major powers, is wide and multidimensional. Turkey supports the EU and NATO memberships of Balkan states. On the other hand, he sees Russian activities aimed at disrupting political stability in the Balkans as a threat to peace. Turkey’s Balkan policy, which strives to advance and strengthen cultural, political, humanitarian and economic relations with the Balkan countries, attaches importance to the preservation of regional peace and political stability.

[Prof. Dr. İrfan Kaya Ülger, Kocaeli Üniversitesi İİBF Uluslararası İlişkiler Bölümü Öğretim Üyesidir]

*The ideas of the articles belong to the author and may not reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency.

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