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Erdogan’s Weak Hand in the Western Balkans

Despite its apparent “Neo-Ottoman” foreign policy, Turkey has largely neglected its Balkan periphery.

In comparison to Turkey’s ambitions as a power player in the Middle East, its policy in the Balkans has been timid and lackluster. The Balkan region theoretically should be one of the main focuses of Erdogan’s “neo-Ottoman” foreign policy. However, Turkey has a weak presence and incoherent political allegiances. Ties between Turkey and the Balkan states today are mostly economic and cultural, with only a symbolic political presence. In contrast, Turkish activity in Muslim-majority countries of the Middle East and the Caucasus is marked by a willingness to engage politically and militarily in major regional political events such as the Arab Spring and support Azerbaijan in its military conflict with Armenia.

Ankara’s lack of political engagement can at least be partially explained by the fact that most Balkan states do not have majority Muslim populations. Christian-majority Balkan states often view Turkey with suspicion due to historical grievances that limit cooperation to economic ties instead of deeper political engagement.

However, this does not explain why Turkey is so visibly absent from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, and Albania, which do have Muslim-majority populations and have historically been considered as equally “Ottoman” as the Turks themselves. The Turkish economic and political presence has increased in these states since Erdoğan came to power. These ties have mostly been symbolic, with Erdoğan backing political parties that share ideological links with his AK Party in Turkey. Turkish state investments have mostly focused on reconstructing the Ottoman cultural heritage, which was especially welcomed by the region’s Muslim communities

However, meaningful infrastructural or government investments were mostly declaratory and rarely realized. Private investment from Turkey did not appear to have state backing or direction to invest in Muslim-majority Balkan states; quite the opposite occurred, as Turkish private investment mostly flowed to Christian-majority states like North Macedonia and Serbia. These were perhaps Turkey’s first steps to engage in a region it had dominated for centuries in preparation for more meaningful engagement in the near future. Nevertheless, significant strategic and security involvement was visibly absent. 

Erdoğan’s neo-Ottoman approach is seemingly centered on focusing, finding, and building alliances with conservative or Muslim elements in former Ottoman provinces that are now independent states in their own right. His strategy is to offer these states a level of protection and economic cooperation that would, in turn, give Turkey decisive influence. Only three such states qualify in the Balkans today: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, and Albania. Turkey has contacted conservative and leftist parties in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Albania. The largest Bosnian party—the Party of Democratic Action (SDA), whose founder is known for having Muslim Brotherhood ideological sympathies—has nurtured close political ties with the AK Party. They consider each other to be sister parties with common ideological roots. Erdoğan has often visited or been hosted by the SDA’s head in the Bosnian capital.

Despite these close ties and other contacts, one cannot escape the conclusion that Turkey currently lacks the strength for a major political engagement in the Western Balkans. This lack of a meaningful presence was best exemplified by the tumultuous period after Russia invaded Ukraine, which prompted the U.S.-EU alliance’s heavy involvement in the internal politics of the Western Balkan states, especially Bosnia and Kosovo. Insofar as Muslim-majority states in the Western Balkans are concerned, a clear policy of containment was established toward preempting Turkish influence in the region.

Given that U.S. policy in the Middle East during the Obama era was mostly reactive to Turkish advances, Western containment policy toward Turkey was not extended to the Balkans region until recently. The United States has proactively and visibly preempted Erdoğan’s Turkey in the Balkan and Aegean regions since the Biden administration took office, expanding on containment policies toward Turkey enacted by the Obama administration.

Recently, American officials announced the construction of a military base in the Greek Aegean coastal town of Alexandroupolis, forty kilometers from the Turkish border and the Bosphorus Strait. France, too, announced a security cooperation agreement with Greece against Turkish ambitions in the Eastern Mediterranean region, in a disagreement over the extent of the Turkish and Libyan Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) at the expense of Greece’s and the EU’s EEZ.

Washington also has aggressively entered political theaters in all the Western Balkan countries, with activities mostly at odds with Erdoğan allies. It is impossible, therefore, not to look at any meaningful entry of Turkish foreign policy into the Balkan area without the contextual backdrop of Turkish containment policy by the U.S.-EU alliance. This policy may continue until a more favorable regime comes to power after the 2028 elections in Turkey.

U.S.-EU policy in the Balkans became glaringly apparent in May 2023, when the SDA was pushed out of government via decrees imposed by the Office of the High Representative. The intention was clear: a push to secure EU member Croatia’s political role to implement, at least temporarily, minority rule through its proxy co-national Croat minority in Bosnia. The decree imposed has been labeled by the majority-Muslim community as “apartheid minority rule” over a Muslim-majority country. Despite this de facto coup, Turkish officials have only quietly protested and have visibly left Bosnian politics outside demands set by Turkey to allow for further NATO enlargement.

What happened next in the nearby Republic of Kosovo confirmed the policy of preemptive containment of Turkey. Kosovo—to gain leverage over Serbia’s encroachment of Kosovo’s sovereignty in its northern, Serb-majority areas—recently purchased Bayraktar drones from Turkey. This move has given Prime Minister Albin Kurti more room to maneuver in his push to extend government control over the separatist Serb-majority areas in the north of the country, which is supported if not led by neighboring Serbia. However, the newfound confidence and independent action of Kosovo’s government has not sat well with U.S.-EU officials, culminating in the American ambassador to Kosovo publicly threatening Pristina’s status to be relegated to that of Palestine at worst and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus at best, a glaring reference to Kosovo’s Muslim-majority country status and ties to Turkey.

The third Muslim-majority country in the Western Balkans is Albania, whose political leadership has proven its loyalty to the Transatlantic alliance in the Western Balkans so thoroughly that Albania’s (non-Muslim) prime minister, Edi Rama, broke ranks for the first time with Kurti, joining U.S. and EU diplomats in denouncing Kurti’s attempts to take control of the secessionist northern Kosovo region.

The United States and EU are working to prevent Turkish foreign policy influence in Muslim-majority states surrounded by the EU’s member state borders. Brazen minority rule and apartheid principles established in Bosnia and threats of “Palestinization” to Kosovo show, if not a determination to act decisively to prevent an adversarial Turkey from involving itself with states that are positioned deep within the European continent and the Western world in general. Simply put, Turkey has been beaten to the punch.

One possible limitation is geography. Turkey does not have the option of direct contact with either Bosnia or Kosovo, as both states lack coastal access. It should be noted that in Bosnia’s case, a small strip of sovereign coastline does indeed exist; however, the state does not fully control the tiny strip, as evidenced in 2014 when a Turkish naval vessel was denied access by the Croat minority, which de facto controls the country’s only strip of coastline. The Turkish navy made no further attempts to dock. On the other hand, Kosovo could compensate for its lack of coastline via Albania, which, at least for now, is firmly in the U.S.-EU camp.

Turkey’s reaction, if any, remains to be seen. One possible option is for Ankara to financially and politically support parties in Bosnia that compete for the support of the Muslim majority, including any other allies that the latest U.S.-EU policies in Bosnia have disenfranchised. In Kosovo, Turkey can stand behind Kurti by securing more advanced weaponry to leverage his position by giving Kosovo self-reliance for its territorial defense, a burden carried by Western governments via the Kosovo Force mission. Kurti, in turn, would have a lot more room to maneuver if the country’s defense did not depend on an American or European commitment. In Albania, Turkey could also throw resources behind the opposition Rama to bring Albania’s and Kosovo’s security policies closer together in the spirit of Albanian cooperation. In all cases, Turkey can use national and religious grievances to gain more influence.

Perhaps more strategically, Turkey can also foster alliances with non-Muslim-majority states such as North Macedonia and Montenegro, which fell victim to the latest round of U.S.-EU policies that seek a regional détente with adversarial Russia and find themselves without a backer. Turkey, in this regard, has options. However, Turkey must decide if it wants to enter the Balkan fray at all. The U.S.-EU alliance has made it an uphill battle from the start. Now, the ball is clearly in Turkey’s court, and Erdoğan must decide on the play.

Source : The International Interest