Now Turkey — the modern state that replaced the Ottoman empire — is staging a comeback. Turkey’s fast-growing economic clout is allowing it into Europe through the back door, even as its dream of joining the continent through the path of EU membership founders.
Turkey’s trade with the Balkan countries increased to $17.7 billion in 2008 from about $3 billion in 2000. Turkey’s companies have built the largest university campus in the Balkans, in a suburb of Sarajevo, Bosnia. And its banks provided 85 percent of loans for building a highway through Serbia for Turkish transit of goods to the EU.
On a 2009 trip to Bosnia, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu explicitly linked his nation’s Balkan strategy to the Ottoman Empire, which ruled the region between the 14th and early 20th centuries.
„The Ottoman centuries of the Balkans were success stories. Now we have to reinvent this.“
„Turkey,“ he declared triumphantly, „is back.“
Many Muslims in the Balkans welcome Turkey’s growing influence. Avdija Salkovic, a 25-year-old student, has spent his whole life in Novi Pazar but considers Turkey his motherland.
„Our feelings toward Turkey have always been the same,“ said Salkovic, sipping strong black tea in a smoky cafe in the shadows of a mosque in this predominantly Muslim town. „The difference is that Turkey is back to its historic lands, and is finally looking at us.“
Those feelings of kinship are strong in Turkey as well. Many Turks trace their roots to the Balkans and still have relatives living in the region, a legacy of Ottoman days. A fascination for one another’s popular culture — from music to soap operas — strengthens the affinity.
But non-Muslims, especially in Orthodox Christian Serbia and Bulgaria, view the Turkish inroads with growing alarm and suspicion. Turkey’s on a mission to establish „hegemonic control“ over the Balkans, warns Bulgarian political scientist Ognyan Minchev.
The EU and U.S., too, are increasingly wary of Turkey’s growing clout, particularly in places like Bosnia, Serbia and Albania, which like Turkey itself are stuck in the limbo of a snail-paced EU membership process. Washington, while recognizing Turkey’s value as a go-between with Muslim communities, is loath to share influence in a region where it has strong strategic interests.
In place of distant European dreams, Turkey is offering an immediate embrace. And as Ankara also courts hardline regimes like Syria and Iran, some in the West fear its growing leadership in the Balkans could complicate EU attempts to instill Western democratic and financial standards here.
„For many years, the perception has been that Turkey needs Europe more than Europe needs Turkey,“ said Misha Glenny, a prominent Balkans political analyst. „If Europe does not look hard at the dynamism of Turkish economic and foreign policy, it may miss the boat.“
The Balkans still aspire to EU membership, but Turkey allows them privileged access to a huge and rapidly growing domestic market of 74 million people, compared to about 55 million in the entire Balkan region.
„If the Balkans find that too many obstacles are strewn about the road to Brussels, they may well be tempted to set out on the shorter road to Istanbul,“ Glenny said.
A confidential diplomatic cable sent last year by the U.S. Embassy in Ankara describes Turkey’s „back to the past“ policy toward the Balkans as „problematic.“ In fact, it said Washington’s biggest strategic headache in the region is Turkey, which is trying through political „pawns“ to impose its domination.
However, the cable, released by WikiLeaks, also underplays Turkey’s chances, saying it has „Rolls Royce ambitions, but Rover resources.“
Dusan Reljic, an analyst at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, agreed that Turkey will struggle to become the dominant power, because — despite grumblings — the region is still politically focused on joining Europe.
„It is a kind of an imperial over-stretch,“ said Reljic. „But they can’t deliver.“
However, economic signs of Turkish influence in the region abound.
In 2008, Turkish Airlines bought a 49 percent stake of Bosnia’s national carrier, BH Airlines, and is negotiating the takeover of Serbia’s troubled national carrier, JAT airways. Dozens of Turkish firms have flocked to Bosnia, and the two nations have signed an arms-production deal. Since January last year, Serbian exporters have been selling their products in Turkey free of customs duties.
Perhaps most significantly, Turkey has been using its recent diplomatic rapprochement with Moscow to lobby for making the Balkans a major strategic hub for a Russian gas pipeline planned to stretch from Central Asia to Western Europe, via Turkey.
Turkey has been less successful presenting itself as a diplomatic broker in the Balkans, wading into several political disputes in a region torn apart by a series of bloody ethnic wars in the 1990s.
However, there is one role Turkey, a largely secular Muslim nation, may be ideally positioned to shoulder: stemming the rise of Islamic radicalism in some Muslim-dominated areas of the Balkans.
„Turkey does point the way in how to integrate Islamist-based politics into the political life of a country, and thereby reduce the possibility for violent groups to emerge in the country,“ said Fadi Hakoura, a Turkey analyst at U.K.-based Chatham House.
Many in the Balkans whose ancestors converted to Islam during the Ottoman occupation see Turkey as a possible land of refuge in times of trouble. There are an estimated nine million Turks with Balkan ethnic roots living in Turkey. Many of the Ottoman sultans and viziers — the empire’s medieval prime ministers — were ethnic Bulgarians or Serbs, and the harems were populated with women from the Balkans.
The deputy mayor of Novi Pazar, administrative capital of the economically troubled Sandzak region, said several Turkish political and economic delegations have recently visited his city with proposals for building roads and investing in a large meat factory that would export products to Turkey.
„The Turks know this region historically,“ Mirsad Jusufovic said. „Their logic is, why don’t we invest in the region that will be a part of the European Union before Turkey is.“
The Turkish influence in Sandzak is so deep that when Turkey beat Serbia in a world basketball championship semifinal last summer, thousands of local fans hit the streets of Novi Pazar waving Turkey’s red flags and chanting anti-Serb slogans.
Turkey’s intentions remain a source of suspicion among Serbs, who recount tales of Ottoman horrors across the generations. Only some 15 percent of Serbs consider Turkey a friendly power, according to a Gallup poll.
But at the state level, the historic vision in Serbia of Turkey as an abusive occupier has little influence. And the historical reality is that the Ottomans were relatively benign rulers in the Balkans, allowing occupied lands to keep their way of life and religion.
And Ottoman stereotypes don’t prevent tens of thousands of Serbs from visiting Turkey each year or becoming addicted to Turkish soaps.
„Only after watching on TV how they live, speak, have the same habits and eat the same food as us, I understood how similar the Turks are to us Serbs,“ said Dragana Milosavljevic, a Belgrade housewife. „It looks like their empire never left us.“
Associated Press writers Slobodan Lekic in Brussels, Aida Cerkez-Robinson in Sarajevo, Selcan Hacaoglu in Ankara, Veselin Toshkov in Sofia and Cassandra Vinograd in London contributed to this report.