Rebranding the Balkansby Hamza Karcic*
Turkish foreign policy in the Balkans has attracted serious scholarly attention lately. An intangible Turkish contribution that has been underemphasized is that Turkey is aiming to rebrand the Balkans away from the negative conception of the region. That the Balkans has been used as a synonym for instability is not new. The wars of Yugoslav succession during the 1990s seemed to convey the appropiateness of the usage of the term „Balkans“ as a snynonym, metaphor and short-hand for a region doomed to complicated instability.
This attempt at reframing the Balkans follows a decade of conflicts which seemed to justify Rebecca West's and Robert Kaplan's bleak prospects for the region. In fact, the Turkish and west European discourses on the Balkans could hardly be further apart. Over the past ten years, but particularly since the appointment of Ahmet Davutoglu as Turkish foreign minister in 2009, Turkey has sought to put a positive spin on the Balkans. From Prime Minister Recep Tayyib Erdogan to lower level officials, there is an increasingly evident emphasis on the significance of the Balkans. This is made easier by the fact that the term „Balkans“ does not have the negative connotation in Turkish language and history that was ascribed to it in the western European discourse. Bulgarian historian Maria Todorova's Imagining the Balkans deconstructed the use and misuse of the „Balkans.“
Foreign minister Davutoglu asserted at a speech in Sarajevo in 2009 that the Balkans were the center of world politics in 16th century Ottoman Empire and enjoyed a period of golden age during the Ottoman times. He defined the region as a heartland of Africa-Eurasia. This is a departure from geopoliticians' conceptions of the region. For instance, Zbigniew Brzezinski in his by-now famous The Grand Chessboard referred to the central region of the world as „Global Balkans.“ His use of the „Balkans“ served to convey the central global region's penchant for instability.
Within the discourse on the Balkans, the Turkish approach is to rediscover and redefine a positive image of Bosnia. This is done by emphasizing Bosnia's significance in the past and its potential in the future. While TIKA is working on the former, high-level officials frequently and approvingly refer to Bosnia's President Alija Izetbegović and his legacy. High-level officials are frequent visitors to Bosnia and have been regularly attended the Sarajevo Business Forum, an annual event that seeks to promote Sarajevo as the financial hub of the region. Turkish Anatolia Agency opened its regional headquarters in Sarajevo. These are but some of the examples of the trend.
How is this Turkish approach to the Balkans met in the region? While Turkish foreign policy activism is generally welcomed, reactions have also included charges of „neo-Ottomanism.“ However, what has not been subject to criticism is the re-invention and re-framing of „the Balkans.“ During the past two decades, remaining „in the Balkans“ category was becoming less popular. Slovenia was followed by Croatia in attempts at distancing these countries from „the Balkans.“ New terms such as „Western Balkans“ and one with even less baggage „Southeast Europe“ were put forth as alternatives. Rather than casting „the Balkans“ aside, one of the consequences of the Turkish rebranding of the region may be a change in the discourse on the Balkans. This in turn can contribute to a more positive conception and perception of the region. In sum, the Turkish foreign policy towards the Balkans includes an effort to reshape the public discourse on the Balkans.
Apart from tangible results whether measured by volumes of trade or popularity of soap operas, the effort to rebrand the Balkans is a worthy endeavour. A success in this effort would be undoing an undeserved 19th century epithet.
*Hamza Karcic is professor at the faculty of political science, University of Sarajevo.