Turkey’s return to the Balkans, again by Hajrudin Somun*

 “Did you know that Turkey is returning to the Balkans?”“As »»

 “Did you know that Turkey is returning to the Balkans?”
“As far as I am aware, Turkey never left the Balkans. It has been there for centuries. Besides, it has more of a population in the Balkans than that of half of the Balkan countries.”

I have gotten used to such a question and reply over the past couple of years, especially following the new assertive Turkish regional policy that was introduced to the Balkans under the conductor baton of Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu. That dialogue was rather courteous, soft and an even ironic expression of the Balkan peoples’ two approaches or narratives towards Turkey -- until that new policy took the shape of concrete moves, initiatives, mediations and presence on various political, economic, cultural and religious grounds. At a time when everyone thought the Balkans’ Ottoman times had been buried in history, suddenly almost all of Turkey’s regional initiatives over the last few years have on the one hand been called hegemonic neo-Ottomanism, while on the other highly praised and admired. To be more concrete, the claims of neo-Ottomanism belong mostly to the Balkans’ Christians who, although not openly expressing it, look to contemporary Turks as successors of the Ottoman invaders and occupiers. Others, mostly Muslims, look to them as a means of support and as protectors. Some Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) even call Turkey their motherland.

A less conciliatory perception of Turkey, however, is becoming more and more evident. It is being expressed openly by nationalist Serb politicians and intellectuals from Serbia and Bosnia. The centenary commemoration of the Balkan wars of 1912-13 is an additional motive for reviewing and debating Turkey’s role in the region. One such occasion was an academic conference, titled “Turkey in the Balkans,” held at the start of December in Banja Luka, the capital city of the Bosnian entity Republika Srpska. Academics, experts and journalists from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Turkey, Russia, Israel and the US expressed views that were on occasion diametrically opposed. Here are the titles of some of their papers: “Bosnia and Herzegovina in the neo-Ottoman Strategy” (Dr. Darko Tanasković), “A Century after Kumanovo – Turkey’s Return” (Dr. Srdja Trifković), “The Ottoman Conquest of the Balkans and Elements in Establishing Government” (Dr. Hatice Oruç), “Anatomy of the Turkish Foreign Policy towards the Balkans” (Dr. Birgül Demirtaş) and “The Fallacy of the Turkish Model” (Dr. Rafael Israeli).

Turkey’s ‘serious political ambitions’

Despite my engagement in the debate over the last few years in formats ranging from the SETA foundation symposium in Washington to Bosnian and Turkish media, I politely declined an invitation to participate in the conference. I can understand how Ambassador Ahmet Yıldız and other Turkish participants felt listening to Milorad Dodik, president of Republika Srpska, who said: “The behavior of Turkey and statements of its officials as a member of the Peace Implementation Council (PIC) [charged with implementing the Dayton Peace Agreement] show that Turkey here has serious political ambitions that are selective and aimed at weakening the entities’ authority and strengthening the centralization of Bosnia and Herzegovina. We oppose this and express warnings over it.” Those more aware of the political stalemate in Bosnia would understand why Dodik targeted Turkey in particular. Other than the US, Turkey is the staunchest fighter for building up the functioning and integration of Bosnia and Herzegovina in the international council. Russia, on the other hand, lends support to the Bosnian Serb leadership in their efforts to establish their entity as “a state within a state” and further weaken, and, if possible, disintegrate and divide, the state of Bosnia. “As long as there are tendencies to see this country separated, the goal to make Bosnia and Herzegovina a functional state will be difficult to achieve,” was Ambassador Yıldız’s indirect reply to Dodik.

There were participants at the Banja Luka conference who tried to make their reasoning of Turkish policy in the Balkans more scientific. However, almost all Serb scholars look to Turkey’s regional ambitions with suspicion. Some of them maintain an academic approach, such as Darko Tanasković, the most knowledgeable Belgrade Orientalist, who argues that Turkey’s Balkan policy is a neo-Ottoman one. At the conference Dr. Tanasković stressed that the activity of Turkey in the Balkans “is directed at the support of Bosniaks and Albanians, as Muslims” and that the “main hindrance to the realization of their plans are Serbs, Serbia and Republika Srpska.” Professor Predrag Simić belongs to scholars who have already expressed that Turkey’s aim “is not a reconstruction of the Ottoman Empire,” that their main interest is in Central Asia and that “Turks are of interest to us because they represent a large market.”

However, some people were invited to Banja Luka who I did not care to meet, because they are being dragged by Serbs from conference to conference just to defame their own country, Bosnia, and slander their own compatriots, Bosniaks. One of them is a certain Stefan or Stephen Karganović, dubbed an American lawyer and who is also a founder of the dubious Dutch NGO “The Historical Project Srebrenica.” Even some high-level Bosnian Serb officials allege that he has so far received around 800,000 euro from Dodik’s government for denying the Srebrenica genocide, where, as he claims, only a “couple of hundred” POWs, instead of more than 8,000 Muslim civilians, were executed. He was invited to Banja Luka, as well, just to repeat how there are “many signs” -- including “the ferocious cultural offensive using slick television productions to reinvent Ottoman Turkey” -- that “suggest Ankara’s intention to reassert its dominance over a region from which exactly 100 years ago its predecessor state, at great cost in lives and treasure, was unceremoniously and justly expelled.”

There was a concrete issue that was not widely argued at this conference but cannot be avoided at any forum or occasion in which the role of Turkey in the Balkans is being discussed. It is the approach of regional countries in dealing with NATO, particularly those which still have not, or may never be, admitted into the alliance. It is well known that Turkey, as one of its most powerful member states, supports the accession of the remaining southern European countries. Ankara worked particularly hard on the establishment of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Membership Action Plan (MAP), a necessary step toward further membership accession. There is a question among those who are suspicious toward Turkey’s policy in the Balkans as to whether Turkey makes these moves on their own or as part of American policy in the region. In her paper “The Turkish Factor in the Balkans in Contemporary Geopolitical Conditions,” Professor Jelena Guskova, as quoted by Karganović in his report on the conference, said that she was not surprised by the renewed and intense presence of Turkey in the Balkans because “at a scholarly conference in the ‘90s, Western colleagues with close ties to NATO had made it clear to Russian scholars that Turkey was being assigned a dominant Balkan role within the alliance’s new strategic concept.”

Dodik’s change of mind on NATO

The Bosnian Serb leader Dodik, who was previously in favor of NATO membership for Bosnia, has now changed his mind. He was probably persuaded by Moscow, which was encouraged by the coming to power of ardent nationalist leader Tomislav Nikolić in Serbia, which strengthened the anti-NATO expansion line. Dodik now objects to Turkey’s involvement in the issue as well. Last summer he said, “The fact that Turkey thinks that it is good for Bosnia and Herzegovina to become a member of NATO is the opinion of that country, but it must heed the positions in Bosnia and Herzegovina, including Republika Srpska,” adding that “in joining NATO, one should also bear in mind Serbia’s position.”

Subconsciously, I have focused this indirect review of the Banja Luka conference mostly on Bosnia. It was held, anyhow, in the region of Bosnia where those ruling it seek to secede it from the joint country. Besides, according to Professor Simić of the University of Belgrade, for Turkey, “The Balkans are important only because of Bosnia.” Let me in that sense end with Bosnia and Herzegovina. As the most vulnerable Balkan country, its problems are also the most difficult to deal with, not only for Turkey but for the whole international community. I say that in the entire Balkans, two narratives towards Turkey and Turks can be found; however, my young colleague Esad Hecimovic rather exposed in Banja Luka the differences between three historical narratives that are confronted by Bosnia and Herzegovina itself. He spoke about the narratives of Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats which don’t originate only from the wars of the 1990s but from the days of Ottoman presence in the region. Considering that “everybody finds in history what he searches for towards justifying his conduct,” Hecimovic concluded: “We should start with recognizing different perspectives as legitimate views based on equal rights and equal interests of different groups with different historical experiences. Such different historical narratives are the real challenge for everyone who is trying to heal the wounds of war-torn societies.”

*Hajrudin Somun is the former ambassador of Bosnia and Herzegovina to Turkey.