At the beginning of last month, High Representative, Federica Mogherini unveiled a new street-art mural in Brussels painted by a Bosnian artist and dedicated to the people of the Western Balkans. In an interview with European Western Balkans, the artist, Rikardo Druškić commented on the negative impressions that the Balkans and Europe have of one another. [1] He believes that Western Europeans are scared of the Balkan people, and that the Balkan people embrace this identity that sometimes creates animosity between the regions. Like Turkey, Western Balkan countries – which include Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia, Kosovo and Albania – have experienced troubles with ethnic conflict and identity-building alongside their recent move towards “Europeanisation”.

Currently, the European Union is implementing strategies and packages to encourage social, political and economic transformations in the region, with the aim of being able to accept the Western Balkan states as candidate countries and, in the future, have them join the Union. Indeed, the recent history of instability in the Western Balkans, typified by conflict, nationalism and the re-drawing of borders, makes it fairly open to external influence. However, the EU is not the only power present as Turkey, Russia and even China vie to implement foreign policy in the region.

Former Ottoman Empire | Source: The Map Archive

Once part of the Ottoman hinterland, the Western Balkans have a shared cultural and ethnological history with Turkey and the Western Balkan people, particularly the large Muslim population, can arguably sympathise with the Turks and many have even shown support for the conservative AKP government. A plethora of stories over the past few years demonstrate how Turkey is expanding its influence throughout the Western Balkans, but the question of whether it is at the expense of the EU is up for debate.

Before the general election in 2018, Erdoğan led a political rally in the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo with a high attendance level. Bosnia and Herzegovina has a fractured ethno-political system with three presidents at any one time, each representing one of the major ethnic groups. One of the groups is the Bosniak people, sometimes known to English speakers as Bosnian Muslims. With the memory of the ethnic cleansing experienced in the 20th century fresh in their minds, Erdoğan’s anti-Western and pro-Islamic rhetoric can easily curry favour with the Bosniak people as well as with the large Turkish diaspora present in Bosnia. Bakir Izetbegovic, the Bosniak president at the time, told media that “Erdoğan was sent by Allah”. This monarchical view of a leader sent by God validates Erdoğan’s aspirations to be a strong leader of not only Turkey, but of the wider Muslim world.

Erdoğan addressing supporters in Sarajevo | Source: Haretz

Turkey has given development aid to Western Balkan countries, undertaken infrastructure projects, opened universities and restored mosques. Erdoğan’s government has also encouraged Turkish businesses to invest in the area; for example, Turkish construction companies built and operate 20 power plants in Serbia. Moreover, Balkan experts claim that the weakened Turkish Lira increases private-sector investment abroad since investors’ money is more secure in the Western Balkan countries than it is in Turkey. [2]

Kosovan students protesting the arrests | Source: Washington Post

Beyond the economic outpouring, however, is the widely-cited incident of the kidnappings of alleged Gülenists from Kosovo. The Turkish government worked with Kosovan police to capture and deport six Turkish nationals, supposedly unbeknownst to the Kosovan government. Xhelal Svecla, head of the investigative committee in the Kosovan parliament, told The Times that the kidnappings constitute 31 violations of the Kosovan constitution and of the European Convention on Human Rights. [3] Despite all of this, one journalist claims that the Kosovan president has forgiven Turkey all too easily for the incident, which has been condemned by human rights groups. [4] Similarly, in recent weeks, Turkey has threatened to halt the ratification of Macedonia into NATO if it does not extradite Turkish nationals accused of being involved in the 2016 coup, highlighting the leverage that Turkey has over the smaller, newer Western Balkan states.

It is this expansion of rule-of-law violations that many commentators have claimed is a cause for fear in Brussels. [5] The upholding of fundamental rights and the rule of law is a core principle of EU membership and has been at the centre of discussion in recent years regarding existing members, Poland and Hungary, as well as candidate countries such as Turkey. Indeed, the EU strategy to support transformation in the Western Balkans in preparation for enlargement includes a flagship initiative on the strengthening of the rule of law. It also includes initiatives on engagement in the areas of security, migration, transportation and energy, all of which Turkey plays an important hand in as a major trade partner and investor in the Western Balkans and a key player in the refugee crisis.

Asli Aydintasbas talking about Turkey-Western Balkan relations | Source: YouTube

However, a report published in March of this year by the European Council on Foreign Relations claims that any fears of Turkish influence in the Western Balkans have been overexaggerated and have no basis in reality. [6] While there is evidence of Turkey trying to expand its soft power in the region, Asli Aydintasbas, the author of the report, asserts, there is no evidence that Turkey is trying to turn Western Balkan states against the EU or interfere with its EU membership ambitions.

For example, while a lot of Turkish aid is channelled into the Western Balkans, it is mainly spent on restoring Ottoman-era buildings rather than influencing policy decisions. Indeed, in response to media that claimed that Turkey was making some sort of neo-Ottoman comeback in the region, one Turkish foreign-ministry official emphasised that “Turkey is not Russia” in that it is not trying to dissuade the Western Balkans from EU membership. [7]

A mosque in Bosnia undergoing restoration aided by Turkey | Source: Daily Sabah

While the ECFR’s report is correct to point out the many overstatements about Turkey’s influence in the region, it is important to remember that soft power can have a profound effect on a society’s norms and values. While it may be argued that Turkey does not seem to want to do much more than build and restore historical and religious buildings, we should not ignore exactly who is funding this and what they represent.

The Diyanet, the Turkish government’s Directorate of Religious Affairs, is responsible for building and managing many major mosques in the Western Balkans. This means that the Turkish state is operating from within the region, educating imams and providing services to the Muslim community. The Diyanet has made controversial statements in the past, such as the claim that girls can get married from the age of 9, and NYU professor, Alon Ben-Meir worries about the cultural and societal impact that the directorate could have in the Western Balkans. [8] Indeed, if Turkey manages to get into the minds of the Balkan people through the Diyanet’s doctrine spreading, it could be critical to EU enlargement in the area.

Druškić, the artist of the new Balkan mural in Brussels and who seems to take a pro-EU stance, claims that the best way to improve ties between peoples is through culture; yet it is Turkey restoring historical buildings and opening educational institutions in the Western Balkans. Speaking of the Balkan people’s general impressions of Europe he says that many have the mentality of, “if they don’t like us, then it is better If they are afraid of us”. Indeed, this sounds like a song from the hymnbook of Erdoğan himself.  

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