Summary

This report examines Turkey’s interests in the Balkans and the resources the country has at its disposal to pursue those interests. The report focuses on three main areas: economic relationships, investment and religious influence. We conclude that while Turkey has an interest in projecting power into the Balkans, its tools for doing so are not particularly effective. Turkey is not currently a major player in the region, either as a trading partner or an investor, and there are limits to how it can use Islam to develop common interests with Balkan countries such as Albania or Bosnia and Herzegovina, which have large Muslim populations. 

  • Turkey is a European power as well as a Middle Eastern power, and it has been a major player in the Balkans for centuries.
  • Economic struggles have prevented Turkey from developing deep trade relationships with countries in the Balkans.
  • Turkey has significant trade relationships with only two Balkan countries: Albania and Kosovo.
  • Many Balkan countries are hostile to Islam, and Turkey’s own internal politics also reduce the effectiveness of its ability to reach out to Muslim communities in the Balkans.

Introduction

One of Geopolitical Futures’ long-term forecasts is that Turkey will rise as the Middle East’s pre-eminent regional power by 2040. It is a mistake, however, to think of Turkey as an exclusively Middle Eastern power. The modern Turkish Republic is the heir to the Ottoman Empire, which at its height ruled a vast expanse of territory stretching west across North Africa, as far north into Europe as Vienna, east into the Caucasus, and south throughout much of the Arab world. Turkey’s geopolitical imperatives are not unidirectional. The heart of Turkey’s power is its core strategic territory: the city of Istanbul and the resulting control over the Bosporus. Turkey’s imperatives radiate from this strategic location.

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The most immediate imperatives compelling Turkey’s actions revolve around consolidating its domestic political situation and bringing a semblance of order and security to its southern border, which is beset by the unresolved Kurdish issue and the disintegration of Syria and Iraq as states. GPF frequently writes about these issues. However, imperatives are not always pursued or achieved sequentially, and modern Turkey has imperatives beyond keeping its house in order and managing the chaos that rages in the heart of the Arab world. One of these is the extension of Turkish power into other lands previously held by its predecessor incarnation, the Ottoman Empire; the Balkan Peninsula is one of the areas in which Ottoman power was strongest.

It is important to note that assessing Turkish power on the Balkan Peninsula should not be confused with a study of Turkish policy toward the Balkans. Turkey’s former prime minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, was the architect and articulator of Turkey’s interest in expanding its influence northward into Europe. However, both Turkish policy and Davutoğlu himself, after his fall from power, are symptoms of Turkey’s geopolitical nature and not creators of new realities. Geography dictates that any power ruling over Istanbul will necessarily be concerned with not just the hinterlands of Anatolia but also with the mountainous and diverse region that is the southern limit of the European continent.

The Ottoman Empire ruled the Balkans for over half a millennium. This was not an accident of history. When Europe was weak and the Ottomans were strong, it was natural for Ottoman power to extend into this borderland. The Ottomans first took control of the Balkans from 1359-1451 and only began to acquire Middle Eastern Arab holdings during the period from 1512-1520. At the same time that the Ottoman Empire was pushing into southeastern Europe, it was also pushing eastward into the Anatolian heartland. Put differently, the Ottomans were a European power well before they became the hegemon in the Middle East.

At the turn of the 20th century, Ottoman power was on the verge of collapse, Germany had unified and was rising, and nationalism was spreading like wildfire across the European continent. The match that started World War I was struck in the Balkan borderlands, and the region has been in a state of general upheaval for the last century, trading hands back and forth between external powers and local ambitions. The Balkans are dismissed as provincial by some and ignored by others, but these are mistakes. Change often comes to the periphery long before it reaches the center.

Change is once again coming to the periphery in the Balkans. Membership in the European Union (along with the attendant economic prosperity) has long been held out as a promise to the individual Balkan nations that emerged after the breakup of Yugoslavia and the fall of the Soviet Union, but the EU is now coming apart at the seams. The international institutions that have defined post-war Europe, such as the United Nations and NATO, have lost credibility, and this has immense practical import for the Balkans since the arrangements of these institutions define certain political boundaries in the Balkans today. As Russia weakens, it is looking for low-cost places to gain power, which makes the Balkans of interest. Amid all of this, Turkey is displaying signs indicating the type of internal and external instability that marks a society on the cusp of major developmental changes. It is worthwhile, then, to take a magnifying glass to Turkey’s relationship with the Balkans and measure the levels of Turkish power currently present as well as prospects for the future in the context of GPF’s forecast of Turkey’s rise.

Perception Versus Reality

One of the first things to note in this analysis is that the perception of Turkey’s power in the Balkans is greater than its actual power there. Turkey has clashed diplomatically with countries like Germany and the Netherlands in recent weeks over issues related to last week’s referendum on the Turkish constitution; furthermore, concern is growing in Eastern Europe about perceived Turkish encroachment into European affairs. Turkey is in domestic political crisis and faces numerous security threats on its southern borders, but many European states are concerned with the projection of Turkish power northward. These fears and diplomatic clashes are not indicative of Turkey’s current power in Europe, but they are a telling indicator that many European states are preparing for scenarios in which GPF’s forecast for Turkey comes to fruition; those who would dismiss Turkey because of its current challenges should note this.


Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, left, welcomes Albania’s President Bujar Nishani during a welcoming ceremony at the Presidential Complex in Ankara, on Dec. 21, 2016. ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images

Currently, however, Turkey’s power in the Balkans and the rest of southern Europe is limited at best. Turkey has no real hard power in the region to speak of. The Turkish military is badly in need of reform and modernization, and that is to say nothing of either the requirements that security threats impose on Turkish manpower or the instability within the military institution after the failed coup in 2016 to unseat President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The military faces a shortage of experienced commanders given the purge and has not had to fight much in recent years besides the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. Turkish power in Europe is discussed using terms like “soft power” or “influence.” Without hard power to back such influence, these factors become less important. To illustrate this, consider that Turkey’s three primary means of asserting influence in the Balkans are economic relationships, investment and religious ties.

These are weak sources of power to begin with, and even in these three realms Turkish power is relatively limited. Turkey’s limited ambitions in the Balkans have also been greatly diminished due to the combination of damage from the 2008 financial crisis and domestic political instability. Turkey will find it extremely difficult to assert its interests in the Balkans over the coming decades for the same reasons the Balkans have always posed such a challenge to would-be external rulers: ethnic and religious diversity along with an unforgiving geography. Turkey will emerge as a major power in the Middle East and its influence will be felt in the Balkans, but this will not translate into Turkey resuscitating Ottoman glory. Turkish power has limits, and these limits are visible in the Balkans.

Turkey’s Economy: From Strength to Weakness

Economic relationships should be the major avenue for Turkey to develop inroads into the Balkans. And yet Turkey’s relative economic success for much of the 2000s has not translated into a large increase in Turkey’s economic presence in the Balkans. This is mainly because the Turkish economy has stalled in the last decade or so. Turkey was a success story before the 2008 financial crisis, with GDP growth reaching a peak of 9.4 percent in 2004. The effects of the financial crisis hit Turkey hard, but Turkey rebounded quickly, posting a 9.2 percent growth rate in 2010 and 8.8 percent growth in 2011. Since then, however, Turkey’s economy has slowed: GDP growth has oscillated between 2 and 4 percent since 2012, and that slowdown has been accompanied by diminished potential for Turkey to improve its trade position with Balkan countries.

Before analyzing the trade links between Turkey and Balkan countries, it is worth briefly stating how and why the Turkish economy is struggling. The economic stall does not have just one cause. Some blame the recent disappointing economic performance on policies Erdoğan put in place to solidify the power that he and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) have over the economy. These moves, along with instability caused by the 2016 coup attempt and the subsequent political crackdown, have had a significant impact on the Turkish economy, but they are not the sole reason for Turkey’s economic struggles.

Erdoğan’s policies and the instability did, however, serve to exacerbate fundamental issues that were already present in the Turkish economy. Most foreign investment in Turkey came from Europe in the 2000s. The 2008 financial crisis made companies more conservative in their investments, so Erdoğan’s policies and post-coup crackdowns have magnified an issue that was already present. The Turkish economy has also suffered because of a decline in exports, a problem facing many of the world’s largest exporters. Turkey has never depended on exports to the extent of a country like Germany, nor has it depended on specific commodities like Saudi Arabia and Russia. But Turkey did focus on export-oriented growth in the 1990s and 2000s. Exports as a percentage of GDP reached as high as 24 percent before the 2008 financial crisis and peaked in 2015 at almost 28 percent.

At present, the Turkish government’s biggest challenge is not constitutional referendums or Syria but increasing economic prosperity and repairing the damage to investor confidence caused by domestic political instability. Erdoğan and the AKP can centralize as much power as they want via referendums or by shutting down media organizations – tactics they have already employed – but without economic prosperity, and as long as elections remain a feature of Turkish politics, this power will be far from secure. Turkey has some distinct economic advantages relative to neighboring powers, but the next few years will be tough for Turkey’s economy. That will limit its ability to project power in the short term.

Economic Relationships in the Balkans

The underlying weakness in the Turkish economy has manifested in the Balkans by the limited extent to which Turkey has managed to increase the value of its regional trading relationships. Despite Turkish officials’ flurries of high-level visits to the Balkans, in part because of the government’s concentrated push to solidify economic relationships in the region, Turkey has failed to take a significant position in trade with most Balkan countries, let alone a dominant one. This is illustrated by the charts below.

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This chart shows the value of imports and exports for all countries on the Balkan Peninsula in 2016. It identifies each country’s top two trading partners in terms of imports and exports, and this information is shown for Turkey as well. One of the first things to note is that Turkey is not one of the top two trading partners for any country in the Balkans. Furthermore, Albania is the only Balkan country for which Turkey is a top-three trading partner. For the most part, the Balkan countries’ trading relationships are dominated by Germany and Italy. Russia, China, Hungary and Serbia are also among the countries that have substantial positions in Balkan countries when it comes to trade. Germany, China and Russia are all under economic stress, but Turkey cannot compete with them when it comes to exports, and Turkey’s own economic challenges limit its power as a potential consumer.

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The chart above and the one that follows take a similar look at Turkey’s trading relationships, but instead of focusing on a snapshot of a particular year, they show the growth (or lack thereof) in Turkish trade with Balkan countries. Some notable gains should be highlighted – in terms of percentage of total trade, Turkey has become a much more important partner for Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia. But Turkey started from such a small base in these countries that even doubling the percentage of total trade means relatively little in absolute terms and still leaves Turkey as a minor trading partner at best for many of these countries. Kosovo – which Turkey has made a point of supporting since Kosovo declared independence in 2008 – has the most significant trading relationship with Turkey. But even with Kosovo, Turkey is surpassed not just by Germany but also by Albania and Macedonia.

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Investment in the Balkans

The media has made much of expanding Turkish influence in the Balkan region. The statistics regarding the level of investment, however, do not bear this out. The latest data on outgoing Turkish foreign direct investment (FDI) is from 2012, but it paints an underwhelming picture of Turkish investments.

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Both in absolute terms and a percentage of Turkey’s overall FDI, Turkish investment in the Balkans is limited. According to the data above, countries like Macedonia, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Albania each accounted for less than 1 percent of Turkey’s outgoing FDI. It is also unlikely that Turkey’s FDI behavior has changed markedly since 2012. It is possible to make this assumption for two reasons. First, the Turkish economy was already beginning to falter by 2012, and by the end of the following year, Erdoğan had embraced policies that had begun to exacerbate the underlying structural flaws. Second, while the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) does not have data for bilateral Turkish FDI with Balkan countries past 2012, some of the countries in question have reported this data themselves, corroborating the idea that Turkey’s FDI has not surged in recent years.

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Bosnia and Herzegovina is a telling example. It is a logical candidate for Turkish investment considering its large Muslim population. Bosnia and Herzegovina, however, reported via its Central Bank that Turkey had invested only 187 million euros ($201 million) in the country as of December 2015. According to UNCTAD, that figure was 135.3 million euros through 2012. This illustrates that Turkey’s investment position in Balkan countries is limited and has not markedly increased. This is despite many public statements Turkey issued and cordial diplomatic meetings between Turkey and some Balkan countries with which it has close political relations.

FDI is not the only way that investment or economic power can be used in a particular region. But additional avenues also show that Turkey’s rhetorical commitment to the Balkans does not match its actual commitment. The Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TİKA) is the government entity responsible for providing aid and assistance to countries where Turkey has strategic or cultural interests. (TİKA often focuses on Turkic communities in other countries.) Here, too, Turkey’s commitment to the Balkans is relatively underwhelming in terms of the type and quality of projects it has undertaken and the financial value of TİKA’s activities in Balkan countries.

In its 2014 annual report, the most recent available, TİKA reported a budget of $168 million. The largest Balkan recipient of this aid by far was Bosnia and Herzegovina, with 7.35 percent of the TİKA budget that year. In absolute terms, that is just under $12 million – barely enough to buy a nice yacht, let alone influence or power in a foreign country. Furthermore, most of the other Balkan countries only received 2 percent or less of TİKA’s budget in 2014, according to the annual report. Perhaps more interesting is that Turkey lumps certain Eastern European countries, such as Hungary, Ukraine and Moldova, into the Balkans section of its report, thus demonstrating Turkey’s intent to project wider influence. But the small scale of those assistance projects make this an interesting oddity and not of geopolitical import.

It is also worth pointing out that the nature of these projects does not in any way increase Turkish power at the geopolitical level. Soft power is real, and forging cultural connections between countries is a way of influencing relations, but neither of these are substitutes for shared interests or other more tangible expressions of power. The fact that Turkey is investing in computer labs and education complexes or planting raspberry saplings in rural Bosnia and Herzegovina may curry favor with individual Bosnians or even local government officials, but the projects can hardly be said to demonstrate increasing Turkish power in the region.

Religion 

Religion is also a potential lever that could allow Turkey to exercise power in the Balkans. Centuries of Ottoman rule created large Muslim populations that remain in the Balkans even after large numbers of Turkish Muslims left the region following the Ottoman Empire’s fall. As the map below shows, Kosovo and Albania both have Muslim-majority populations. Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro and Bulgaria have sizable Muslim populations as well. This map, however, obscures the significance of the Muslim population in Bosnia and Herzegovina. This country is a combination of two distinct entities: Republika Srpska and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The population of the former is roughly 80 percent Orthodox Christian, and the latter is about 70 percent Muslim, which means in practical terms that at least part of Bosnia and Herzegovina should be considered a Muslim-majority country like Kosovo or Albania.

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The fact that Turkey is a Muslim country creates a natural shared interest between Turkey and the Balkans’ Muslim states. Turkey even committed a brigade of troops to the region in the 1990s, within the context of U.N. and NATO intervention in the Balkans. This was in large measure to support the Muslim populations in places like Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and Albania. As the EU fragments and as the power of international agreements wanes in the face of rising nationalism, the situation in the Balkans will continue to destabilize. When this happens, Turkey’s relationship with the Balkans’ Muslim countries will become more important.

However, these relationships will also be a hindrance to any strong assertion of Turkish power in the region. While there is a sizable Muslim population in the Balkans, there are also many Orthodox Christians and ethnic groups of various stripes that will be hostile to any Turkish moves. Although Turkey and Serbia have managed to work together in terms of their economic relationship, they are on opposite ends of the Kosovo issue. More broadly, a large swath of the Balkans would not welcome a return of Turkish influence in the region. For instance, Russia, which is already clashing with Turkey in the Middle East, is also active in the Balkans. This is the usual state of affairs; Russia encouraged various Balkan nationalist movements at the end of the 19th century to weaken Ottoman power in the region. The contours of this kind of back-and-forth are already apparent, though the difference now is that Turkey is rising while Russia is weakening.

It also must be noted that the existence of Muslim populations in the Balkans does not mean that the Islam of the local communities aligns with the Islam being pushed by Turkey. In the Balkans, government-sponsored “official Islam” remains the dominant form. This is maintained through religious hierarchies, endowments, educational entities and civil society organizations, all of which are tied to the state. Southeastern European Islam emanates from Turkish Islam, but the two have been separate for long enough now that they have become their own strands. Turkey has its own system of institutions and organizations that advance Turkish soft power, but this system is still a foreign source of Islam attempting to assert itself in locales where it has not been dominant in over a century. Additionally, modern Turkey does not have the prestige and historical weight of the caliphate to deploy as the Ottoman Empire did.

Furthermore, Turkish Islam was pushed in the Balkans during recent decades as a tool of Turkish influence. The Gülen movement, a one-time ally of the Turkish government, established schools and social services throughout the Balkans with the government’s blessing and encouragement. Since then, there has been a break between Fethullah Gülen, a predominant Turkish preacher and politician, and the AKP government. Erdoğan has blamed Gülen for being one of the masterminds behind the attempted coup last year. As a result, Turkey has established a new organization called the Maarif Foundation to take the place of Gülen’s organization. The Turkish government is pressuring countries to relinquish control of Gülen offices and schools to the Maarif Foundation. Turkish government officials have also brought up the issue of expelling Gülen teachers and closing their schools in places like Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina. And while many countries have already acquiesced to the Turkish government’s demands, the Balkans’ Muslim countries have not. They have made public pronouncements supporting the Erdoğan government, but the Maarif Foundation’s head noted in an interview with Turkey’s Daily Sabah last month that talks with Balkan countries like Albania and Bosnia and Herzegovina were continuing.

From this perspective, ostracizing Gülen may have created political confusion in some of these Balkan countries rather than developing an affinity for the Turkish brand of Islam. The basic religious doctrine is the same between AKP’s version of Islam and Gülen’s. The difference between AKP and Gülen versions is political. Still, there is a limit to how much Turkey can play the Muslim card in these countries, both due to the Gülen-AKP fracture and because the countries have created their own versions of Islam. There will also be an inevitable backlash from the region’s non-Muslim countries if Turkey pushes the issue too hard. Still, it is likely that the Muslim-majority Balkan countries will fall in line because of Islam in general and not because they have any desire to do Turkey’s bidding. Rather, they will do so because they value the educational and social services some of these Turkish Muslim institutions provide. Muslim countries in the Balkans look up to Turkey, but they are also fiercely nationalistic and aren’t interested in simply taking orders. One of the final straws to break the Ottoman Empire was the emergence of nationalist movements in the Balkans, and these movements are still strong, even in the Muslim-majority countries. Though Islam creates a bond between Turkey and some Balkan nations, these nations’ nationalistic movements still create significant differences that cannot be overlooked.

Conclusion

GPF has defined a long-term forecast of Turkey’s rise as the Middle East’s pre-eminent power. This piece has discussed what that rise will mean in terms of Turkey’s ability to project power into the Balkans. We conclude that while Turkey will seek to increase power in the Balkans because of its imperatives, doing so will be difficult in the near-to-medium term. Concerns about Turkey’s trade and investment positions in the Balkans are overstated, and while Turkey shares natural interests with Muslim-majority countries in the Balkans, there are inherent limits to how far Turkey can use this to its advantage. Europe is becoming wary of Turkey’s power; at the same time, Turkey is increasingly unafraid of challenging Europe. The Balkans have always been a battleground for outside powers and appear to be headed for that state of affairs once more. However, the region will remain beyond any one country’s control. Turkey’s influence is rising, but there are limits to its power and it will face some of those limits in the Balkans.