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Turkey’s Growing Influence in the Balkans

Turkey’s Growing Influence in the Balkans

Over the past two years, Turkey has launched a massive political, social, and economic offensive across the Balkans, focusing primarily on Bosnia-Herzegovina.

More than two decades after Turkey first formally applied to join the European Union, it now appears to be developing a two-pronged strategy: turning its attentions to its eastern neighbors (notably Syria, Iran and Russia), while at the same time seeking to enhance its prospects for EU membership by intensifying its influence in the Balkan countries, which are growing closer to Europe.

Turkey’s ambitions in the Balkans have forced the EU to pay more attention to political processes in the region, where Russia and the United States are also vying for influence.

After Romania and Bulgaria joined the EU in 2007, Brussels slowed down the membership process for the countries of the western Balkans on the assumption that doing so would have no real effects as those countries, surrounded by other NATO and EU member states, had no alternative but to move toward Europe.

But now, with Turkey wooing Muslim-majority states Albania, Kosovo, and Bosnia, and with Russia financially and politically supporting Serbia and the Serbs in Bosnia, the EU (with the support of the United States) is finding it necessary to speed up the accession process in an attempt to counter the growing Turkish and Russian influence in the region.

Turkey first formally applied for EU membership in 1987. That membership bid has been repeatedly rejected by other EU member states for varying reasons, and is currently stalled. The earliest realistic date for EU entry is 2021. By then, though, Turkey may no longer be interested, or indeed find it beneficial to join the EU.

Certainly, Ankara has kept a close eye on the financial crisis and unrest in Greece and the EU’s response, probably calculating that perhaps there are not too many benefits to joining the bloc at this point.

Through Europe’s Back Door

Thanks in large part to its historical role in the region, Turkey has succeeded in building up its diplomatic and economic influence in those Balkan countries still in the EU membership waiting room — places where the EU has failed to extend its authority, or has simply lost interest.

Primarily in Bosnia and Albania, cultural and religious traces of the Ottoman Empire still exist, and Turkey is keen to take advantage of them.

For Turkey, recreating itself as the benefactor of the Balkans, on the periphery of the EU, is a useful way to secure closer cooperation with Europe and cement Ankara’s image as an indispensable geopolitical partner in the region. It is a strategy that essentially means that the EU must either embrace Turkey as a member, or face off against Turkey in the Balkans, and perhaps beyond.

Since the middle of last year, Turkish companies have built the largest university campus in the Balkans in the Sarajevo suburb of Ilidza. In addition, dozens of private and state-owned Turkish companies have flocked to Bosnia, where Turkey is the fourth-largest investor behind Austria, Slovenia, and Germany. Turkey and Bosnia have also signed several bilateral agreements, including an arms-production deal.

Turkish officials repeatedly stress the importance of ties with Bosnia, affirming Ankara’s commitment to protecting Bosnia’s sovereignty, political unity, and territorial integrity. Over the past six months, Turkey has successfully organized several meetings between the foreign ministers of Serbia, Croatia, and Bosnia, culminating in the Istanbul Declaration in late April. The Istanbul Declaration aims to improve regional relations, boost stability, and attract foreign investment, as well as to work toward EU membership.

Turkey has also proven an adept mediator in the region. Since October last year, Turkey has successfully mediated five rounds of talks aimed at restoring diplomatic ties between Serbia and Bosnia. Following intensive meetings between Serbian and Turkish diplomats in late 2009 and early 2010, the Serbian parliament passed a resolution in late March apologizing for failing to prevent the Srebrenica massacre and expressing sympathy for the victims.

Money talks, and it is generally listened to. Each of these political breakthroughs followed Turkish pledges of increased investment. In early May, Turkey expressed readiness to privatize the financially fragile Serbian state airline, JAT. In late 2008, it bought 49 percent of Bosnia’s national carrier, B&H Airlines. And since January this year, Serbian exporters have been selling their products in Turkey free of customs duties.

Reform Stalemate

Turkey’s desire to position itself as the regional leader and a conciliatory force is not likely to prove popular with EU member states. The European Union has regarded the Balkans as its territory for the past 15 years, even though its engagement was pursued without either great enthusiasm or a clear strategy.

Since the EU decided five years ago to hand over major decision-making powers to Bosnian politicians (a strategy that failed miserably), the reform process has remained stalled. Finally, in October last year, the EU and United States stepped up the pressure, holding several rounds of talks with Bosnian leaders in an attempt to expedite the reforms necessary for the country’s EU membership bid.

However, after the first such meeting in October last year it was clear that no progress would be achieved. Even some international officials, including French and British diplomats, are not expecting any major breakthrough, and have again given up trying to persuade Bosnian leaders to engage in further talks. Bosnian officials for their part have indicated that reform is not on the agenda in 2010, as elections are looming in October.

The EU has nonetheless scheduled another Balkans summit to take place in Sarajevo in June, hoping to “reinforce the European perspective of the region.” Spain, currently occupying the bloc’s rotating presidency, is planning to invite “relevant partners,” such as the United States, Russia, and Turkey, to attend the meeting.

Earlier this year, Serbia, backed by Russia, boycotted a similar meeting in Slovenia because Kosovar leaders had been invited. Following that fiasco, the EU took steps to induce Serbia to cooperate, announcing it would lift restrictions on Serbia’s Stabilization and Association Agreement, a key step before its final EU membership application.

It is expected that in June the EU will issue a recommendation on the implementation of a visa-free travel regime for Albania and Bosnia, though technically the two countries met the necessary requirements last October. Meanwhile, EU foreign ministers expressed support late last year for Albania’s request for official EU candidate status.

Pull From The East

Some international community officials with experience in the western Balkans are proposing a new EU approach to the region. The most promising one, advocated by officials like British diplomat and former high representative to Bosnia Paddy Ashdown, is the creation of an EU special representative office for the entire region, rather than separate offices in each country. This represents a rethink that considers the region as a whole rather than individual countries.

Another concern of Western countries is that Turkey’s increasing influence could pull Muslim-majority countries Bosnia and Albania eastward. Still, this concern is overblown, as both are very keen to join the EU.

That said, those fears are paralleled by Russia’s growing political and financial influence in the region, primarily in Serbia and Bosnia’s Serb-dominated entity of Republika Srpska.

Russia backs Serbia’s position regarding Kosovo. Russian officials say that any support for Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence is immoral and illegal. Russian and Serbian leaders agreed last October to form a joint emergency response center in the Serbian city of Nis.

In addition, there have been unconfirmed media reports in recent months that Russia is planning to set up a military base in southern Serbia, bordering Kosovo.

Russia has also made inroads into Bosnia, setting itself up as the guarantor and protector of the Republika Srpska in international institutions.

In 2008, the Russian state-owned gas company Gazprom took over the Serbian oil industry, while in Bosnia, its presence if felt through the ownership of the Bosnian Serb petroleum and oil industry.

On his first official visit to Serbia in October last year, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev announced Moscow’s approval of Serbia’s request for a $6 billion loan. Medvedev was accompanied by a 100-strong delegation, the majority of them businesspeople. 

Since Montenegro’s independence from Serbia in 2006, Russian investors have privatized and taken over most state-owned and private companies, and now control most of the tourism sector, the country’s main revenue base.

Under Russia’s influence, even though the authorities in Belgrade have declared themselves pro-EU, Montenegro is still debating whether it should join NATO, with only 20 percent of its Serbian population supporting the idea.

Turkey’s diplomatic and financial deployment in the Balkans has provoked a prompt response from the EU, which hopes to remain the main authority in the region. And Brussels indeed has a lot of catching up to do, largely because over the past four years it has lost much of its credibility.

The United States will also be forced to boost its presence to counter Russia’s Balkan surge. Both the United States and the EU will find that there is a price to pay for having lost interest in the region after 2001.

Anes Alic is the Sarajevo-based executive director of ISA Intel, a senior analyst for ISN Security Watch, and a contributor to Oxford Analytica.

By. Anes Alic.

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