Turkey presence gets mixed welcome in Balkans

Belgrade (AFP) –


In the cafes of Novi Pazar, a predominantly Muslim town in southern Serbia, Turkish football clubs Fenerbahce or Galatasaray stir more emotion than Belgrade's Red Star or Partizan.

It is just one sign of Turkey's growing presence in the Balkans, where many have doubts over what their Ottoman-era master has in mind for the region.

"Since the end of the (Cold War) world, Turkey has had a very active policy in the Balkans," says Jean Marcou, an associate researcher at the French Institute of Anatolian Studies in Istanbul.

"Turkey contributed to the stabilisation of conflicts" that tore apart the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s and to "efforts to reconstruct different countries," Marcou told AFP.

On that count, there is a sense of gratitude, but an assertive President Recep Tayyip Erdogan wants Turkey to play a major role in the world and especially in its former sphere of influence.

The Ottomans controlled the Balkans from the 14th to the 19th century. They drew top public servants and leaders from the volatile region to help run an empire which stretched up to modern-day Austria and Hungary, and across North Africa and the Middle East.

On Sunday, Erdogan holds a rally in the Bosnian capital Sarajevo to drum up support among the Turkish diaspora for the snap elections he called for June 24.

Last month, Muslim-populated Novi Pazar even made the Turkish president an honorary citizen.

Analysts said Erdogan's "neo-Ottomanism" did not sit well with everyone in a region where membership of the European Union is seen as the way forward.

For the Balkan nations "who intend to enter the EU, Turkey currently cannot serve as a model," said Enver Robelli, a Switzerland-based analyst.

- 'Erdogan rules Kosovo' -

Turkey has been trying to join the EU for years but its own membership bid has got bogged down in recriminations over Erdogan's record on human rights and democratic norms, especially after a failed coup in 2016.

In March, Turkey mounted an operation with Kosovo intelligence services -- apparently without clearance from the courts -- to repatriate six people it said belonged to the US-based movement of Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Ankara blames for the coup.

"Erdogan rules Kosovo," the GazetaExpress local news website wrote at the time. Kosovo Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj said the operation was "unacceptable and contrary to our values."

He dismissed Kosovo's interior minister and spy chief over their involvement, sparking a tart response from Erdogan.

"Hey Kosovo's prime minister, under whose instruction did you take such a step? " Erdogan said.

- 'Vassal' policy -

Similar indignation was seen in Bosnia in February when Sarajevo dropped plans to proclaim Turkish Nobel literature laureate Orhan Pamuk an honorary citizen.

Claiming the move was prompted by "fear ... of Erdogan," the opposition denounced what they called the authorities' "vassal policy."

The weight of history breeds suspicion in Serbia, an Orthodox Christian nation.

At Bosnian Serb political rallies, chants that their entity of "Republika Srpska is not Turkey" can be heard.

Marcou said that despite the strains, the "Turkey-Serbia partnership was eventually safeguarded, reinvigorated in particular by the Russian-Turkish rapprochement, starting in 2016."

For Belgrade, it "is a boon, especially on the economic level," he said.

Serbian Trade Minister Rasim Ljajic said recently "there is not a week without a Turkish investor arriving in Serbia."

His country is already home to about 400 Turkish companies. This month Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic made a stop in Turkey on his way to Moscow.

Turkish companies control Pristina airport and plan to build one in Vlore, in southern Albania.

Turkish firms also own the Kosovo KEDS/KESCO power firm and are favourites to build the planned Belgrade-Sarajevo highway.

- Funds for mosques -

According to Marcou, the Turks are not in the Balkans "only to help economic development, but also to rehabilitate the Ottoman heritage and establish cultural cooperation".

Some 10,000 students in around 150 Bosnian schools learn Turkish, which is the third foreign language behind English and German.

Turks have funded the mosque in Mitrovica, Kosovo's biggest, with two million euros ($2.4 million).

They also spent 30 million euros for a mosque in Tirana, planned to become the most important place of worship for Balkan Muslims later this year.

For Robelli, Ankara exerts "real influence."

"Kosovo, Bosnia, Albania and Macedonia are considered former territories of the Ottoman empire and are treated as part of the neo-Ottoman world," he said.

"One should have no illusions," Robelli added. "Kosovo is not in a position, like Germany, to resist Turkish pressure."