– The author is a lecturer in the Department of International Relations of Kocaeli University.
The Balkans have functioned as a buffer zone between East and West throughout history.
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, Albania, Bulgaria, Greece and the Thrace region of Türkiye. The broad definition also includes Romania and Moldova, located north of the Danube.
However, today the word “Balkans” is mainly understood as the Western Balkans. This concept includes the state of Albania, as well as the successor states of the former Yugoslavia, excluding Slovenia. The Balkans are among the most complex regions in the world in terms of ethnicity, language, religion and sect. For this reason, and also to underline the European identity, the concept of “South-Eastern Europe” has been preferred in recent years by the EU to that of the Balkans.
Deep ties with the peoples of the Balkans
The Balkans are a region with which Turkey maintains very close historical, cultural and humanitarian 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 peoples of the Balkans, who were liberated in their internal affairs thanks to 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 identity.
After the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Empire, national states and a union of states (Yugoslavia), which did not deny the sub-identities of the peoples, were 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, was became an independent actor. Today, 117 states recognize the Republic of Kosovo.
Ankara supports EU and NATO membership of Balkan states
Turkey has become a remarkable player in the Balkans thanks to 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 criticisms that Turkey is preventing the integration of the Balkans into the West, this does not reflect reality.
In fact, Türkiye supported Balkan states to join NATO for regional security and stability.
Likewise, countries in the region establishing close relations with the EU one after another and entering the process of candidacy and negotiation are welcomed by Turkey. Because Turkey 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 request to the EU was made on July 31, 1959, under the government of Adnan Menderes. Since then, it has worked to become part of the economic integration movement.
On the other hand, in recent years, Turkey has not experienced any tension with any Balkan country except 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 was in the 1990s. However, today Serbia is one of the countries with which 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 Türkiye from March 11-13. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan may meet directly with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and Bosnian Serb leader Dodik as the Balkan conflict escalates.
Turkey does not discriminate between Balkan peoples
Turkey attaches great importance to maintaining peace and stability in the Balkans. The Dayton accords and the Ahtisaari plan, which gave independence to the Republic of Kosovo, are supported by Ankara.
On the other hand, Türkiye opposed the isolation of Macedonia by Greece after its independence and contributed to the integration of the country into the international community and the processes of accession and candidacy for NATO and to 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 start of full membership negotiations of North Macedonia and Albania for EU membership was also seen as a positive step by Turkey.
All these examples reveal that Türkiye’s activities in the Balkan region are not a challenge for the West. In other words, Ankara’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, as fighting against expansionist (irredentist) nationalist tendencies and overcoming the problems created by the micro-nationalism is only possible with the sovereign equality of states. . In this context, Türkiye pays attention to the minorities living within the borders of the Balkan States so as not to be discriminated against and to protect the identity of these peoples.
Apart from its diplomatic missions, Turkey also provides economic, technical and humanitarian aid to the Balkan countries through semi-official institutions such as Turkish Educational Centers, Yunus Emre Institutes, Turkish Red Crescent (Kizilay ), the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA) and the Disaster and Emergency Management Authority (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 other countries.
Türkiye’s priority is the preservation of peace and the status quo
To briefly address the Balkan policy of the other actors, first of all, it can be said that the EU first considers the Balkan geography in its perspective of a possible enlargement. Most of the Balkan countries, with the exception of Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina, are either EU members or EU candidates.
It can be said that American influence in the Balkans is strong in Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia and Kosovo. There is a correlation between the influence of the United States on other countries and NATO membership. The accessions to NATO of Turkey and Greece in 1952 were followed by the accession of Slovenia, Bulgaria and Romania in 2004. Then 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 policy towards the Balkans aims to increase its influence throughout the region. Moscow sometimes uses Slavic ethnicity and sometimes Orthodoxy for this purpose.
Recently, Russia has tried to strengthen its hegemony in the Balkans through the region’s dependence on its natural gas. By these means, Russia is directing the Slavic peoples of the Balkans towards separatism and conflict. In this context, he pushes the Bosnian Serbs and Serbia to change the status quo.
Another player making 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 make it a political field in the future.
Accordingly, the spectrum of Turkey’s relations with the Balkan states, which is a buffer zone between it and the major powers, is wide and multidimensional. Turkey supports EU and NATO membership 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.
*The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency.
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