Spas (htpcl) wrote in talk_politics,

Neo-Ottomanism, and something more

Merhaba, my fellow bored armchair-warriors you troubled disaster-stricken folks who might be in need of some distraction! Here's a story as detached from your flooded reality as it could possibly be. Just a few days ago, a 100 year commemoration was made around here since the start of the Balkan Wars. A series of regional conflicts that ignited this powder keg that the Balkans have always been. Some have expressed concerns that today, the great-grand-sons of the then Ottoman oppressors are taking over the Balkans again, but in quite a different fashion. And I'm not merely talking about the Turkish TV soapies that've plagued all our stations. I'm more likely speaking of the big Turkish investments in the region. But wait, you'd say, when has the infusion of fresh cash into the economy been a bad thing? And that'd've been a totally American question of course. But as usual, nothing is just black and white when it comes to the Balkans. So let's see what the big deal is...

As per our tradition, first play this in a separate tag, just for atmosphere. Now that we've settled this...

First of all, a definition for starters.
"Baksheesh" (from Persian) = tipping, charitable giving, and certain forms of political corruption and bribery in the Middle East and South Asia.

The word "baksheesh" has entered colloquial language in most Balkan societies through Turkish, and that's no coincidence. For any Balkanite, it doesn't really need a translation - it's equally well understood both in Turkey and Bulgaria, in Serbia and Macedonia, in Greece and Romania. Because the "baksheesh" culture has entered these latitudes through the Ottoman influence, and has persisted ever since. But that's not all: Bulgarians enjoy boasting about their cuisine which includes such nice things as burek, the Serbs like to eat ratluk, which the Romanians call rahat. As for the Greeks, they've domesticated moussaka. The Turkish legacy and influence stretches many generations back, and reaches all facets of social life around these latitudes.

More than half a millenium - that's how long the Ottoman rule on the Balkans lasted. After the Balkan Wars of 1912/13 when mass transfers of population were made (including exchange of Turkish population with the respective ethnic populations of the bordering countries), a considerably large ethnic Turkish (or Turkicized) population remained here in BG, and still remains in certain corners of the country.

And that's not a unique case. A short stroll across Sarajevo in Bosnia is enough to sense the strong Ottoman influence which has persisted throughout the last century and a half. It's no surprise that Sarajevo is commonly known as "the gate to the Orient", even though it's hundreds of miles away from the Bosphorus. At the local university, the Turks are the biggest group of expat students. You could often hear Turkish speech on the streets and markets of Bosnia, Kosovo and Macedonia, and Bulgaria too like I mentioned.

But how does that reflect on the inter-ethnic relations in the region today, in the 21st century? We've often heard how the Balkans are constantly living in the past, people here have a vast memory span in terms of history, and old grudges never really die out, only they linger for some time before some sparkle re-ignites them again. Well, it's true that the Balkans have always been one of the strangest and most incomprehensive regions. Which is why you'd find it difficult to understand how come the Bulgarian ethnic model of tolerant cohabitation has survived for so long without much bloodshed (save for a short controversial period at the end of Communism, when we tried to Bulgarize the ethnic Turks here, or expell those who resisted).

Indeed, it's hard to explain how nations that had first been allies against a common foe in the First Balkan War, suddenly turned against each other in the Second one - Bulgarians, Greeks, Serbs, Montenegrins and Romanians have virtually fought each against the rest at some point or another. Including brotherly back-stabbing when thy brother least expected it. Well, it's exactly the Balkan Wars that hold the key to a possible explanation of these phenomena, because it's there where the seed of the Serbo-Albanian conflict over Kosovo could be traced, along with many grudges that still exist today. The roots of many other controversial issues are there, ones that still poison the relations between Greeks, Albanians, Macedonians, Serbs and Bulgarians. And the ice between Bulgarians and Romanians has only started to melt somewhat after both countries were granted EU entry 5 years ago. Hell, there used to be just one single bridge over the Danube river for many decades, until later this year! Can you imagine? Just one crossing for hundreds and hundreds of miles. And we were supposed to be "brotherly" peoples? Hmmm.

Now things are gradually changing, though. Especially as far as cohabitation with the Turks is concerned. The Ottoman threat has supposedly ceased to exist for a century and a half already. Today's Balkanites don't seem to mind living in peace next door to the heirs of the Ottoman empire. Only Greece alone remains with a different opinion on the subject. In all other Balkan countries, the Turkish influence in politics and the economy is very visible, and increasing. Ever since Turkey stopped being "Europe's diseased man" and became a true "economic tiger", it has become a coveted investor all across the region. Countries with a large Muslim populations like Albania and Bosnia have kept close contact with the grandsons of the Ottomans for decades. Macedonia, too, is drawing dividends from its good ties to Turkey. The big semi-Asian neighbor ("komshi", as is the endearing word in Turkish) is not only Macedonia's prime military partner, but a major ally to the Macedonian interests in their semantic/identity feud with the Greeks. Turkish firms are expanding the Skopje and Ohrid airports as we speak, and transforming the Macedonian towns: in July, a 42-floor building was started in Skopje (a skyscraper by the local standards), the tallest building in Macedonia so far. And the Macedonians are very fond of megalomanic projects, I can tell you!

Despite having lived for 500 years under the Ottoman boot, and having Turkey as its primary threat for 50 years after WW2, Bulgaria is also having cordial relations with Turkey today, both politically and economically. We're upgrading all infrastructure links with our south-eastern neighbor, and there are plans for expanding those connections in the years to follow.

The Turks are successfully flirting with the Serbs as well: a free trade agreement was signed in 2009, which opened the gates for Turkish investment in post-NATO-bombs Serbia, which was a major boost for its recovery. Serbia was never hit by the 2008 global crisis the way the rest of Europe was, partially due to the fact that its bank system was never actually so glued to the European one. The Turkish investments helped a lot, too. And last year Turkish envoys managed to facilitate the calming of the tensions among the Muslims in the Serbian district of Sandzak.

In recent times, the Turks have been stepping further into the Balkans in many other ways, like getting directly into the hearts and minds of the locals. The cultural impact is immense, too. The time of the Latino and American TV soapies is gone, now it's time for the Turkish telenovelas. People consider them much closer to their mentality and lifestyle, and because these series usually present an idealistic image of the Balkan society as people would've wanted it to look like (you know: perfect family relations, traditional mores, etc), people are falling for it big time. No surprise that The Time magazine associates Erdogan's success with these telenovelas. From Sofia to Sarajevo, from Bucharest to Athens - everywhere across the Balkans, the sentimental family sagas from the Bosphorus are conquering new territories, without a single horse neighing, and without a single bayonet going off.

So what's really hiding behind the Turkish ambitions on the Balkans? Is it the dream for a neo-Ottoman empire? Is it purely economic interests? Or geostrategic interests, much in line with Erdogan's new doctrine of turning Turkey from a pawn of the Great Powers into a real balancing player in the region, an insurmountable factor strategically located both in Europe and the Middle East? Turkey's increased activeness has raised some concerns across the region, and simultaneously increased hopes for a mutually beneficial cooperation that could allow the Balkans to help lift themselves from their usual role of Europe's backwater - and this time to do it without interference from various Great Powers, who've time and time again proven to be mostly driven by scrupulous interests.

Turkey's growing confidence is now without a doubt, as was seen in their positions regarding Iraq and Iran, and their adventurous approach to Israel, and their appetites for the newly found energy resources in the East Mediterranean (just off the Cypriot coast). Turkey's succes is all-encompassing: it's visible on the political, economic and cultural front, and that inevitably raises questions about the true intentions and the true interests of this emerging power. Under the rule of the conservative Party of Justice, Turkey's development has been rapid, and has turned the country into an ambitious player on the regional and international scene: the foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu has done tremendous efforts to find solutions to the political stalemate in Bosnia; he has offered his mediator services in the Kosovo-Serbia dispute; he has started a series of initiatives for bolstering the difficult neighborly relations throughout the Balkans.

But it's not just political activity that has helped Turkey's regional influence to grow. The economic boom has turned the country into a magnet for people from various parts of the Balkans; trade and tourism are flourishing at a time when the rest of the world is struggling to come out of a recession (with all the risks that come with a potential property baloon); the Turkish universities are now attracting people from the region, instead of us seeing the usual Turkish students studying in neighboring countries. And I already mentioned the Turkish TV soapies, which are a big deal around here.

Although Turkey's image has been enjoying steady transformation in recent times, many are still having reservations about its true intentions in the region. Turkey is being suspected of pursuing imperial purposes, which suspicion has often been additionally fueled by remarks by Turkish politicians and Erdogan himself, who are referring to the Balkans as their backyard, coming short of outright declaring that they consider the Balkans their vassal region by right.

This debate is woven out of mutual suspicions and distrust that dates many centuries back, and has reached a point where it's become part of the common mentality - supported by lots of myths and illusions and misconceptions, but often real facts and real events, too. Many people, especially in the Western Balkans, believe that the Turkish government is pursuing a course of getting closer to the Islamic world, and the reasons for that are not so much national, as they're ideological. In this sense, the constant conspiracy theories about a Turkish expansionist policy have become part of the local folk lore, and are far from being a mere fringe idea.

No surprise, the increased Turkish interest to the Balkans is welcomed with open arms in many Muslim regions (in Albania, Bosnia and Kosovo). Meanwhile, in Serbia it keeps meeting suspicions. The Serbs haven't forgotten Kosovo Polje, the battle that destroyed their civilization just as it was at its zenith. Although it was many centuries ago. Most polls indicate that only 1/6 of the Serbs view Turkey as a potential friend. And let's not forget to mention the Turkish citizens sprinkled all across the Balkans, more than 1 million people (and I'm not talking of the ethnic Turks who are citizens of their respective countries). These are potentially Turkey's natural bridge to the Balkans. It's also believed that between 10-15 million people with Turkish roots are playing the role of a natural national lobby on Turkey's behalf (we even practically have an ethnic Turk party over here, against all constitutional principles in the country, and on top of that, this party used to be part of several consecutive governments). Basically, we're talking of journalists, academicians, parliamentarians, ministers and diplomats, or just common folk who've been actively defending the Turkish interests at a community level, as opposed to the national interest of their respective country.

Like the latest two examples: 1) the Mayor and Municipal council of Kardzhali, a predominantly Turk town here in South Bulgaria, refusing to posthumously declare a famous local resident a national hero, because he had been a military General in that same Balkan War that I mentioned in the beginning; and 2) a dozen Muslim clerics being put to trial in Pazardzhik, another region with many Muslims (not exactly Turks), on charges of preaching an extremist fundamentalist form of Islam in the remotest mountainous areas of their district, after having been secretly funded by a Saudi Islamist foundation. Both cases have raised quite some controversy, the ethnic Turk population invariably siding with the Muslim/Turkish interests.

But back to the Turkish foreign policies. Erdogan's government has gone to tremendous lengths, trying to convince the public both at home and abroad that all that Turkey wants is to boost its prestige in the region, and create an atmosphere of mutually beneficial cooperation between itself and the Balkan states (and the Middle East too). In a longer-term perspective though, this policy could harm Turkey and undermine its good relations with its neighbors, because Ankara's foreign policy regarding the Balkans mostly relies on two things at this point: 1) a subtle form of expansionist neo-Ottomanism on all levels, and 2) promotion of moderate, secular Islam, as a trademark "Turkish model". It has become evident that Turkey considers its lebensraum to stretch way beyond its borders. And, I think anyone can see how this would cause quite a pushback. There are people within Turkey itself who are opposed to the current course that Erdogan has chosen, arguing that it's steering the country further off the course of modern Western societies. But it's another question whether Turkey actually wants to be "Western" any more. In fact, Erdogan has recently put a "deadline" for EU to accept Turkey: 2023, no later. If it fails, Turkey would stop pursuing EU entry. Which sounds pretty much like an ultimatum. Or, seen from the other side, it could be interpreted as Turkey saying that they've become sick and tired of all EU excuses for not letting them in. Depends on the POV.

So, while Turkey may be officially insisting that its only purpose is to contribute to peace and stability in the region, reality seems to suggest otherwise: the involvement in North Iraq, Palestine, in and around Cyprus and all across the Balkans seems to be showing a different picture. The four pillars of Turkish foreign policy are taking clearer shape as the time passes: 1) active political dialogue, 2) focus on security in the region, a Pax Turkana of some sorts, 3) economic cooperation of mutual benefit, dominated by Turkish economic interests, and 4) promoting multi-ethnic diversity in the region, including at a cultural and religious level - with the Turk ethnicity and the Muslim religion being granted a place in the societal landscape. Whether that agenda is only provoked by a sudden philanthropic inclination on Turkey's part, or it's a well-calculated strategy for encompassing the entire region in some modern form of neo-colonial post-Ottoman empire, is yet to be seen. The bets are on.
Tags: balkans, geopolitics, international relations, turkey
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