Turkey’s Balkan Policy under the AKP

 by Liountri Christianna

After AKP and Erdogan rose to power back in 2002, Turkey was on the verge of a severe financial crisis that led to a deal with the IMF and a haircut of 62% on its deposits. However, Turkey – facilitated by its political system which allows for more authoritarian policies to be implemented- is now ranked among the countries with the highest rates of development (8.5%) and claims for a more influential role in the regional arena. Its comeback provided it with the opportunity to pursue a more extrovert foreign policy, seeking to exploit current tensions and long standing divisions. Such a case are the Balkans where Turkey tries to gain access and promote its geopolitical interests by means of economy, diplomacy and religion, all under the concept of neo-Ottomanism.

            This proactive policy is not an innovation of Erdogan’s government nor of its Minister of Foreign Affairs Davutoglou. The founder is considered to be Turgut Ozal who introduced the concept of Turkoislamic synthesis as a means to extend Turkey’s sphere of influence. Later on, when Ismail Cem was minister of Foreign Affairs (1999-2002), he too opted for a multidimensional pro-active foreign policy yet with a firm Western orientation. In both these cases but also under Erdogan, Turkey seeked to take advantage of current instabilities in order to redefine its position in the new world order following the end of the Cold War. When referring to Turkish Foreign Policy under the AKP, one can not but refer to Ahmet Davutoglu -chief advisor at the Prime Minister’s Office during the period 2002-2009 and from 2009 on, Minister of Foreign Affairs-who seems to be the most decisive figure. The so -called “Davutoglu’s Doctrine” which is described in his famous book “The strategic depth” seems to find a literal application in AKP’s policies. With regard to the Balkans, the two most important short-term and medium-term goals of Turkish foreign policy in the region are the strengthening of Bosnia and Albania and the creation of an international legal framework that could set the minorities of Turkish origin under the protection of the Turkish state. Under this legal framework, Turkey should seek to ensure such provisions that would provide it with the pretext to intervene in issues related with the Muslim minorities in the Balkans.[1] In order to promote Turkish foreign policy’s interests, he proposes as a guideline the use of intra-and extra-regional balances in order to prevent the formation of a Balkan coalition.[2] Recognizing the existence of three historical fields of influence – the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, the Orthodox-Slavic heritage and the Ottoman Empire, he suggests that the U.S. will choose to support the Islamic factor in the area to prevent the increase of influence of Germany or Russia.[3]

            Turkey gains foothold in the Balkans on the grounds of common history, the presence of approximately 1,000,000 people of Turkish origin in these countries, the geographical proximity, its growing economic presence and a foreign policy that aims to secure allies in Turkey’s integration to the EU through the establishment of friendly relations with Balkan countries. Given the volatile situation in the Balkans where national fermentations have not been completed, combined with the american slow withdrawal which is accompanied with reluctance or failure to foster institutions that will ensure the sustainability of the state to whose creation they contributed, a stabilizing actor is considered essential for the region. Such a role was agreeably taken over by Turkey. The main target of Turkey’s Balkan policy, as shaped by the AKP, is to prove to the Europeans that it has western features. To alleviate fears of  establishing a zone of influence in the area, it assures that it wishes the integration of these countries to NATO and the EU. In addition, Turkey does not have a strong political influence in any Balkan country and the fact that it can not project military power beyond the limits of NATO, it adds a negative impact on ensuring strong underpinnings.

            As Özden Zeynep Oktav aptly notes: “Seen in retrospect, it can be said that Turkish activism in the Balkans has always been nourished by the crisis situation in the region. Turkey started to become active in the region due to the crises in Bosnia – Herzegovina & Kosovo. However, the important issue is that during both crises Turkey has acted within the framework of NATO, the EU and the West in general. It should also be noted that the current activism has not been due to a new crisis yet is related to the ones that became protracted since the beginning of 1990’s”[4]

            The cornerstone of Turkey’s Balkan policy is to secure influence in Bosnia – Herzegovina, which seems to include three levels: at a local level by encouraging dialogue among peoples constitutionally recognized in the country, at a regional level, with pressure on Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia and Croatia to develop stronger links between them and thus overcome the conflict, at an international level by undertaking diplomatic initiatives promoting the territorial integrity of the country and its integration to the Euro-Atlantic institutions.[5]  President Abdulah Gul’ visit back  in October 2009 in Belgrade – the first Turkish officer’s visit after 29 years- marked the resumption of relations between Serbia and Turkey. On the 24th of April 2010, the presidents of Turkey, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia and Serbia signed the Istanbul Declaration on Peace and Stability in the Balkans which guarantees the territorial integrity of Bosnia and commits the signatories to improve cooperation and to ensure mutual commitment to the  path towards European integration. (This initiative is part of the rationale for multilateral agreements in the Balkans in which Turkey will participate in order to ensure diplomatic footholds). Furthermore, in February 2008 Turkey recognized Kosovo’s independence and has committed itself to promote its interests internationally. Finally, Turkey strongly supports the efforts of “Macedonia” -which has been recognized under its constitutional name since 1991- for achieving full membership in NATO and the EU, before finding a solution to the name dispute with Athens. In December 2010, the Ministers of Defence of Turkey and “Macedonia” signed an agreement on economic and military cooperation. At the recent NATO summit in Chicago (20 – 21 May 2012), although the issue of enlargement of the Alliance was not officially in the agenda, Turkey did not miss the opportunity to move diplomatically to promote the nominations of FYROM, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Georgia.

             Another important issue that has risen after the collapse of the communist regimes and the consequent lifting of prohibitions related to religious practices, is the redefinition of the role of religion. Islam was used as a differentiating factor to ethnic groups, especially in Kosovo and Macedonia. The traditional elite and the rural populations were reluctant to be identified as Muslims, preferring to highlight their national origin. For instance, the Albanian Muslim community perceives itself as a cultural minority in Europe and gradually adopted its own national myth, based on the rejection of the religious divisions among ethnic Albanians.[6] The vacuum created by this regime change provided an opportunity for Islamic Non-Governmental Organizations, closely associated with the Arab Gulf states and Saudi Arabia, to promote the extreme version of Islam as proposed by Wahhabism – the religious fundamentalist movement within Islam that advocates the return to the teachings of the basic texts of Islam (Koran, Hadith, Igkma). Given Islam’s radicalization, the prevalence of extreme religious tendencies in the Islamic world, and the proven connection of Islamic NGO’s with Al-Qaeda, U.S.’s  leadership saw Turkey as a country that could act as a counterbalance.[7] It is important to remark that Turkey was presented as a moderate Islamic actor rather than a secular Islamic state. This verbal change bears more than a simple symbolism. Instead, it  emphasizes moderation as a means to secure network communication with the countries where Muslim populations inhabit and alleviate the pressure toward secularism and the imposition of a Western-style democracy. However, despite the initial fear of the radicalization of the Balkans, the upgrade of the role of religion did not put into question the relationship between religion and the state and the social structures of those countries. In terms of Turkish penetration in the Balkans with Islam as a starting point, AKP’s government uses the Turkish International Cooperation and Development Agency (TIKA) and the Secretariat for Religious Affairs ,   while government involvement is recorded in religious and parastatal organizations in the region. Tika was an organization founded during Turgut Ozal’s presidency as a means of an active foreign policy within the concept of Turkoislamic synthesis.TIKA as an international relief agency can act only in States which are officially classified as “developing”. Therefore, the actions have been limited to the Western Balkans and could not penetrate in Greece and Bulgaria. TIKA takes up symbolic actions such as rebuilding mosques or  programs lacking religious reference such as assisting in rural development  and providing health care. Rebuilding mosques is considered important in order to raise the morale of the Muslim communities, ince mosques had been targeted by Serbs during the wars of the 1990′s. Also, it takes a symbolic character of the restoration and rehabilitation of the Ottoman heritage and a reaffirmation of the role of Turkey as a protector of Muslims in the region.[8] The Secretariat for Religious Affairs is under the Prime Minister’s Office and is therefore independent of the Foreign Ministry and its action goes beyond the limits imposed by traditional diplomacy, thus allowing it to work with Islamic organizations. Since 1995, it organizes the “European Islamic Council”, in which participants are the heads of the Islamic directorates from 38 countries (Central Asia and the Balkans). Since 2007, the Presidency of the Council decided to hold an annual meeting of the Heads of the Balkan Muslim communities. The Secretariat was also established after an Ozal’s initiative to restore the faith to traditional Islam. Its responsibilities include the appointment of imams, the payment of their salaries, the organization of religious activities; it acts as the highest religious authority in matters of doctrine and faith. After the 1980 coup, it began to assume responsibilities that went beyond the traditional administrative borders within the national territory and began to operate in countries where there were Turkish immigrants.[9] Parastatal organizations acting in accordance with the Turkish government  also play an important role, acting through networks that are difficult to detect and control.The most outstanding example of all is Gulen’s Movement, which has founded a significant number of colleges and universities in the Balkans (indicatively, the university of Burc in Sarajevo and the Epoca University in Tirana). Also, the reconstitution re-recorded and re-Islamic brotherhoods adjacent to the tradition of Naksibendi.

            With regard to the economic promotion of Turkey in the region, we see investment in strategic sectors such as tele-communications, infrastructure and banking sectors. Regarding trade relations between Turkey and the Balkan countries, a 6.7% of the total export product of the country is directed to them. The further expansion of Turkish exports is stalled by the law quality of its products, the transparency of the trade process and the working conditions. Analysts foresee the possibility of a further penetration of  Turkish products if the economic crises continues  causing German and French companies, Austrian and Italian banks to withdraw from the area and Greek investments to decline.[10]

                Since Turkey’s integration process to the EU delays, it seems no longer willing to abandon a multifaceted field of action in order to join the lengthy and collaborative processes of EU. Nonetheless, the integration of friendly-allied  countries in EU can provide support to the Turkish integration’s efforts. For Turkey, to exert political influence in the grade that it will secure regional domination, a mix of continuous economic crisis and a long-term blockade of the Balkan countries from the EU are considered to be the only two factors that will allow such a development. Τhe relative decline in Brussels’ leverage has in turn opened opportunity for other players such as Turkey, Russia and China to fill in the gaps.[11]



[1]    Ahmet Davutoglu, “The strategic depth, the international position of Turkey”, ed.Piotita, Athens, 2010, p. 200

[2]    Ibid, p.201

[3]    Ibid, p. 474-475

[4]    Özden Zeynep Oktav, “Turkey in the 21st century : Quest for a new foreign policy”, Ashgate, 2011, p.142

[5]    Zarko Petrovic & Ducan Reljic, “Turkish interests and Involvement in the Western Balkans: A Score- Card”, Insight Turkey Vol. 13 / No. 3 / 2011, pp. 159-172

[6]    Xavier Bougarel, “The role of Balkan Muslims in building a European Islam”, European Polcy Center, Issue Paper n° 43, 22 November 2005, p. 6

[7]    Ibid, p. 12-13

[8]    Kerem Öktem,“Turkey’s new presence in the Balkans,New Islamic actors after the Wahhabi intermezzo: Turkey’s return to the Muslim Balkans” ,Paper first presented at the international workshop ‘After the Wahabi Mirage: Islam, politics and international networks in the Balkans’ at the European Studies Centre, University of Oxford in June 2010, http://balkanmuslims.com/word/turkeyinthebalkans.htm#_ftn1

[9]    Ibid

[10]  Janusz Bugajski, “Turkey’s impact in the Western Balkans”, Atlantic Council, February 2012

[11]  Dimitar Bechev, “Turkey in the Balkans: Taking a broader view”, Insight Turkey Vol. 14 / No. 1 / 2012

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  • oxi

    Turkey has gained a foothold in the Balkans through terrorist support of the KLA and Bosnian Islamists!
    Greece allowed this by not stopping NATO’s illegal bombing of Serbia in 1999! Greece is nothing short of a patsy to the desires of the U.S., UK and French! Attention Greeks, get a backbone and stand up to these fools that are stealing your $$$ through austerity and the technocrats they place in power!
    My gosh its Independence Day in Greece yet you have no independence! You are slaves to the masters of the U.S., UK and France!