How the Balkans Were Won: A Turkish Foreign Policy Success Story

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan looks on as he stands next to Serbia's President Aleksandar Vucic (not pictured) during their visit to Novi Pazar, Serbia, October 11, 2017. REUTERS/Marko Djurica

Erdogan’s Turkey is positioning itself as a political model for Balkan countries that find themselves outside of multilateral institutions and lacking champions in the West.

On October 10 2017, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan went on a state visit to Serbia. While there, he met with his Serbian counterpart, Aleksandar Vučić, and stated: “Together with Serbia and with the entire Balkans, we want to make steps to resolve all the problems.” Vučić reciprocated by saying that “today, Serbia considers Turkey as its friend.” Although Erdoğan’s visit to Serbia was primarily bilateral, it also showed that Turkey had once again become a major player in the Balkans. Indeed, given the stuttering state of Turkey’s international relations, the Balkans appear to be the one place where Turkish foreign policy is a success.

With the long shadow cast by the history of the Ottoman Empire, emphasizing the strong ties between Turkey and the Balkans may not be revolutionary. It does, however, mark a significant departure from nearly a century of Turkish foreign policy. After the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in the Balkan Wars and the Empire’s ensuing collapse after World War I, the Balkans ceased to exist for Atatürk’s Turkey. For the foreign policy of the new Turkish republic, the Balkans simply did not exist as a strategically important region. Instead, Turkey’s diplomacy was guided by the Atatürk’s famous principle “Peace at Home, Peace in the World.” Operating under this maxim, Turkey stopped trying to be a major power in its former Ottoman provinces. This remained the case for much of the Cold War, with Turkey’s policy towards the Balkans mostly reduced to bilateral diplomacy. The region was important for Ankara only in context of countering potential Soviet threat—most notably the failed 1950’s Balkan Pact between Turkey, Greece and Yugoslavia.

The collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of Turkic speaking countries in Central Asia, coupled with the disintegration of Yugoslavia and the wars that followed, reawakened the notion of Turkey as a regional power in Eurasia. Turkey’s support for the Bosnian Muslims and Albanians in the Bosnian and Kosovo wars awakened fears in the capitals of the Balkans—particularly Belgrade and Athens—that a long-forgotten threat was reawakening. During the 1990s, this fear was symbolized by the concept of the “Islamic Arc,” sometimes called “the green transversal,” which is a term of art used to describe a string of territories inhabited by Balkan Muslims. Those territories connect Turkey, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Albania, the Muslim-populated Serbian province of Sandžak, Kosovo, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Some people interpreted that support as an attempt to isolate Greece from its Balkan hinterland and to sever the Belgrade-Athens land route and the alliance. It is now easy to forget that in the 1990s there was broad fear among key U.S. policy figures, including arch-realists like Henry Kissinger and prominent neoconservative thinkers including Joshua Muravchik, that the Bosnian wars could spread to Kosovo and Macedonia, sucking Greece and Turkey into the wider Balkan conflict along the way.

Turkey’s Balkan policy took on a more tangible and coherent form under the stewardship of Ahmet Davutoğlu, a political scientist who later became the Turkish foreign minister (2009–14) and prime minister (2014–16). As an academic Davutoğlu wrote Strategic Depth: Turkey’s International Position—a book that was never translated into English. Davutoğlu argued in this book that Turkey should once again become a major power in Eurasia. It would do so by restoring its influence in the country’s former Ottoman provinces, including the Balkans, through an activist foreign policy. Turkey’s Balkan policy has never received the type of international attention that its newly active policy in the Middle East has received. Missed by many in the West was the special attention Davutoğlu gave to the Balkans in his book. Indeed, Davutoğlu specifically referred to the Balkan Wars, citing the Balkans as the region where the Ottoman Empire’s collapse began. Davutoğlu stressed that it was through Turkish presence in the Balkans that Turkey could assert itself as a European power. Davutoğlu also claimed that without a zone of influence and a defensive parameter in the Balkans, Turkey would not be able to exercise its influence effectively in either the Middle East or the wider Eurasia. To achieve these complex ends, Davutoğlu wrote, Turkey needed to form alliances and strengthen Muslim communities throughout the Balkans.

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