Turkey Strives toward Regional Leadership (I)
Pyotr ISKENDEROV | 27.10.2013 | WORLD

Turkey Strives toward Regional Leadership (I)

Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich's recent visit to Ankara was yet another important testimony to Turkey's continuing active penetration into the vast region of Southeastern Europe, the former Soviet Union, and the Middle East, in which Recep Tayip Erdogan's government is skillfully combining political and economic leverage. «We are preparing for a momentous decision on the issue of trade and economic relations: the signing of a treaty between our states on the creation of a free trade zone. We are already nearing completion,» the Ukrainian president's press office quotes him as saying. On his part, Prime Minister Erdogan has promised that as a result of the creation of a free trade zone, trade volume between Turkey and Ukraine could reach 20 billion dollars by 2015, as compared to 6.2 billion at the end of 2012. To compare, the trade volume between Ukraine and Russia at the end of 2012 was 45 billion dollars. However, an association and free trade zone agreement with the European Union, which Kiev is planning to sign at the Eastern Partnership summit in Vilnius in November, could deprive Ukrainian goods of Russian markets. In this case Turkey will become Ukraine's main foreign trade partner, with all the ensuing equivocal geopolitical consequences for the country.

In order to attempt to gain insight into these consequences and to evaluate as a whole the causes, nature and prospects of Turkey's penetration into strategically important regions of Eurasia, it is necessary to analyze Ankara's current system of priorities in the three main areas which, besides relations with Brussels, are already among its priorities. These are the Balkans, the Caucasus and the Middle East. In the words of the dean of the Faculty of Economics of Istanbul University, Midhat Dincer, «Turkey is conducting a policy of implementing relevant activities in two geographical areas in order to become a member of the European Union and expand its activities in Eurasia». Influential Turkish diplomat and president of the International Cooperation Agency in Ankara Umut Arik once put it more definitely and ambitiously, emphasizing the importance of Turkey's policy which «creates balance and stability in the Balkans, the Black Sea region, the Caucasus, the Eastern Mediterranean, the Middle East and Central Asia».

Let us begin with the Balkans. The strengthening of Ankara's position in this region which has been noted over the past two decades has not met with serious doubts or suspicions from the West. The latter traditionally sees in its NATO ally a government which, while Muslim, is at the same time secular and has a large amount of historical experience of activity in the region and which is capable of complementing the activities of the U.S. and the EU themselves. It is difficult not to agree that «such suppositions regarding the ‘beneficial’ activities of Turkey in the Balkans have a long tradition in the West». For example, U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull wrote the following in his memoirs, published in 1948: «We have come to the conclusion that Turkey has been exerting a stabilizing influence on the Balkans for a long time». 

Furthermore, Ankara's activity in the region significantly limits its penetration into the milieu of the local Muslims of Saudi Arabia and Iran, which for a variety of reasons is even less desirable for the U.S. and the EU. Finally, Washington's and Brussels' tolerant attitude toward Turkey's growing activity in the Balkans has a sort of «compensatory» nature. It is a kind of bonus for Ankara in exchange for blocking its entry into the European Union for decades.

Of course, Turkey is making active use of the «window of opportunity» the West has created for it in the Balkans, backing up its Balkan policy with a firm historical and ideological foundation and meeting with revealing understanding in local capitals. This, in particular, is typical for a significant part of Bulgarian society. It is no accident that several Bulgarian scholars interpret the processes which were taking place in Bulgarian society in the 19th century as part of the «modernizing processes which pervaded the Ottoman Empire in connection with the Tanzimat». Similar tendencies can be seen in Serbia and Montenegro, to say nothing of Albania and Bosnia and Herzegovina. It is no accident that leading Albanian historian Becir Meta considers his country's main historic opponent to be not the Ottoman Empire, but Greece with its «chauvinist policy»; furthermore, he ascribes a special role in the implementation of Greece's aspirations to the «Greek-American lobby»... 

Ankara's logic with regard to the Balkans and the regional conflicts which have been flaring in the region over the past twenty years was perhaps most precisely and frankly laid out by the eminent Turkish political scientist and economic history specialist Mehmet Ali Kilicbay in an article with the revealing title «We Are Actually Europeans». «Turkey is more a product of the Balkans than of Central Asia,» he states in his initial thesis, continuing, «There are people living in our country today, of course, whose ancestors came from Central Asia, but there are also those whose ancestors came from the Balkans. Which are there more of? Undoubtedly the latter. This is the undoubted and unshakable foundation of Turkey's 'Europeanness'. The Balkans have left a deep mark on Turkey's ethnic, cultural and social reality». It is by this reasoning that Kilicbay explains his country's active interference in the ethnic civil war in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1992-1995, and later in the Kosovo conflict: «That is why Bosnia is important. Let no one deceive himself! The drama taking place there is not the product of a Christian-Muslim conflict. And Bosnia is not the only place where Muslim blood is being shed. Those who do not raise their voices against the Iran-Iraq War, the civil wars in Afghanistan and Algeria, the Yemen War, and the massacres in Indonesia and the Philippines have no right to object to the shedding of Muslim blood in Bosnia. The conflicts in Bosnia are neither a clash of civilizations nor a fight between East and West. There are no civilizational or cultural differences between these three peoples who eat the same food, sing and listen to the same songs, speak the same language, and marry one another. Different religions do not mean different civilizations... The war in Bosnia is an attempt to throw Turkey out of Europe, send it to the East, banish it to the East to which it never belonged and for which it has always been and still remains marginal. It is a fateful war which is being waged against us by fascists who want to take revenge for Kosovo. We are from the Balkans; we are Europeans. A denial of our own origin cannot bring any good to anyone». 

The current state of relations between the EU and Turkey, characterized by permanent «freezes», makes it possible to predict the further and ever more active penetration of Ankara into the «soft underbelly» of Europe: the Balkans. And there is no doubt that Turkish politicians will meet with the most positive of reactions in the capitals of this region, considering the Balkan states' own equivocal collisions with Brussels and the general crisis situation in the EU. In this situation, the expectations of the Balkan ruling elite and Turkey to a great degree coincide. Frederic Labarre, an expert at the Canadian Royal Military College in Kingston, Ontario, expressed the essence of the policy of Southeastern European countries and that of Turkey with regard to the European Union in the following formula: «Anything else that leaders of SEE states may wish for outside EU structures, and indeed, outside EU norms, remains the privilege of sovereign states». 

The abovementioned favorable geopolitical ground for Ankara is a good foundation for Turkey's own efforts to reinforce its economic positions in the region. Meeting this goal is made easier by the existence of historically similar socioeconomic models, a large number of emigrants from the Balkans living in Turkey (according to some estimates there are over 1.3 billion Albanians alone living in the country), and the Balkan countries' severe need for investments, which American and Western European investors and creditors cannot or will not meet. The geography of Turkish investments in the Balkans coincides revealingly with strategic communications corridors which pass through regions with a predominantly Muslim population, including, in particular, the Rodopi region of Bulgaria, southern Serbia, the Sanjak of Novi Pazar, Kosovo, Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Albania… According to the Ministry of Finance of Turkey, the most important direct Turkish investments are being directed toward Bosnia and Herzegovina. In last place on the opposite end of this scale is Serbia. Turkey's trade and economic relations with the self-proclaimed «Republic of Kosovo» stand apart. The trade volume between Ankara and Pristina for the first year of so-called «Kosovar independence» almost doubled, increasing from 90.8 million euros to 158.9 million euros. In Albania, Turkey holds third place among foreign investors, after Italy and Greece. Among investors in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Turkey occupies fourth place after European Union countries Austria, Slovenia and Germany. There is no doubt that, besides the European Union, from the standpoint of economic potential, Turkey «will be more actively present in the Balkans,» states the American intelligence company Stratfor. «Turkey is definitely interested in investing in strategic industries in the Balkans, such as telecommunications and airports. This is part of their economic strategy, which is pursuing the goal of dominating in key economic sectors in the Balkan Peninsula,» states Fadi Hakura, an expert at the London Royal Institute of International Affairs. 

However, the Balkans are not the only strategically important region in Eurasia which are experiencing a skillful combination of political and diplomatic and trade and economic leverage as part of the current Turkish government's policy of «soft force». A similar picture can be seen in other regions as well - with variations, of course.

(To be continued)