I have to admit that in terms of our neighborhood space I know least about the Balkans. Given the urgency of events on our southern borders, we have been consumed by Iraq, Syria and the events of the Arab Awakening.
Since I was attending the 2nd Sofia Forum for the Balkans last week, I thoroughly regretted that. In Sofia I had the good fortune to engage with participants from a variety of Balkan states and was reminded of the strong links we have with that precious region. In almost every panel of the conference there was a Turkish dimension. I am amazed these days how different and often positive the outside perceptions are vis-à-vis Turkey. On the contrary, the outlook inside Turkey increasingly looks bleak. Yet, abroad we see a much more positive perception being shaped. This is primarily conditioned by the economic success Turkey has achieved. Given the dire economic malaise Europe found itself in, Turkey looks like a shining beacon on economic matters. That said, there is also quiet criticism toward Turkey -- mostly centered on the freedom of expression issue.
The last time I was in Bulgaria was 20 years ago. That Bulgaria looked very different from what I saw last weekend. Twenty years later Bulgaria has started to renew itself and thanks to EU funds seems to be re-investing in its infrastructure. Construction is everywhere… However, the Bulgarian Foreign Ministry building seems to have escaped that. I believe there is Bulgarian public interest in getting rid of that so very Soviet-type architecture. Foreign Minister Nikolay Mladenov, conference organizers Center for Liberal Strategies as well as the German Marshall Fund were gracious hosts.
My sense is that Turkey has made inroads into the hearts and minds of the Balkans again. Balkan visitors to İstanbul see a thriving city and the macroeconomic figures impress elites who see that it is possible to grow and prosper without the EU. This is not to say that countries like Bulgaria and Romania would contemplate leaving the EU. On the contrary, they are more than happy to be part of the European family. However, they also want to see a prosperous Turkey being part of the European club. These might be core Atlanticists, but I had the sense that there is rather growing sympathy for Turkey. Despite all of its economic and institutional problems, Europe still wants to attract a young and dynamic Turkey. Perhaps age-old prejudices are somewhat subsiding with the growth and change that Turkey has been experiencing for a decade? Perhaps I am reading too much into what I saw in Sofia.
Not all is positive about perceptions in the Balkans. There is also concern about neo-Ottoman motives in our foreign policy. We know here that this is not the case, but sometimes one speech or one misunderstood statement can have tremendous negative repercussions. We must be very careful in dealing with this very diverse and sensitive neighborhood. Turkey cares about preserving the multi-ethnic and multi-religious social fabric of the Balkans and articulates it as official policy. We have taken clear stands on issues such as Kosovo and the ridiculous name issue of Macedonia. We also strongly support the full integration of the Western Balkans into European and Euro-Atlantic structures. Although it hurts to see Croatia accede soon despite the fact that we started negotiating with the EU on the same day, we are happy to see that the EU is strengthened by the imminent addition of Croatia.
We shall use the current impasse in the negotiations as an opportunity to grow more, consolidate our democracy and hope that the economic and institutional crisis of Europe will be overcome soon. When that is achieved, Turkey and the EU will rethink what sort of relationship they wish to have. However, in the interim, the visa liberalization issue needs to be resolved. The Balkans need to be integrated into Europe and so will Turkey, whether or not it becomes a full member, as we will continue to cohabit the same geopolitical, geoeconomic and geocultural space.