Turkey’s regional options in the 21st century: between the political West and the wider Asia

Turkey is located at the crossroads of a variety of geographical, economic, political, and cultural boundaries – across continents, regions, and subregions. This article documents Turkey’s dilemmas about participating in European and Asian cooperation formats and the structural limits they pose for further integration in one or the other direction.

EU Can’t Afford to Lose the Battle for the Balkans

China, Russia and the USA are using the corona pandemic to strengthen their positions in the Balkans, although their divergent interests threaten both the region’s EU perspectives and its long-term stability.

Over the last two months, the corona pandemic has thoroughly changed the world in many different ways, on the global, regional, local and individual levels. 

One of those changes has been the accelerated return of geopolitics, as manifested in the Balkans by China, the Gulf states, Russia, Turkey, and the US, who have been using medical assistance, political and PR moves to pursue their interests and strengthen their positions, with the mediation of some of their new (or old) allies in this volatile region.

These geopolitical moves are undermining the Balkans’ EU perspectives, and with it the region’s long-term stability, since for the past two decades hopes of EU membership have been the main, if not the only protection against the potential chaos underlying the region’s unresolved ethno-political issues. 

The EU response to this challenge was initially marred by a major blunder, as EU countries blocked exports of their medical equipment to other member and non-member countries, triggering furious criticism, from Italy and Spain, to Albania and Serbia.

Feeling shunned by the EU, in one of the most precarious moments of recent history, may prove to have been the last drop in the Balkans’ overflowing bucket of frustrations and dismay, and the final proof to local leaders that their interests will be better served in alliance with some other foreign actors.

At the end of April, the EU eventually corrected its course and provided a whopping €3.3 billion package for health, economic and social challenges in the Balkans. Yet this intervention may be coming too late for at least a part, if not all of the Balkans, where the EU has lost much – if not all – of its influence. 

In recent years, months and weeks, the region has been slipping away from the path towards the EU and its democratic practices, and turned towards autocracy, nationalism, corruption and other foreign influences. 

While EU leaders and officials are still pondering what further steps they should take in the region, most of them still do not seem to grasp the urgency or the seriousness of the situation. Even those who are aware of the risks seem to be at a loss as to what to do in the difficult and troubled region where – as some of them believe – they have already tried everything. 

Whether because of the EU’s ignorance, its own mounting internal problems, or because of the Balkans’ traditional complexity, the region is still far from the top of the EU agenda. The EU seems to have forgotten how dangerous the Balkans can be – for itself, the continent and the entire world – when divergent foreign influences rekindle the region’s unresolved national, religious and ideological differences.

The most flagrant such example happened more than a century ago, when the Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, which triggered the start of World War I. 

The Balkan powder kegs smoulder again

As this anniversary draws near, the geopolitical situation in the Balkans seems to be ever more complicated and dangerous. 

In addition to the new health, security, economic and social challenges caused by the pandemic, the region is witnessing a rekindling of many of its old problems, such as rampant corruption and internal ethnic & political divisions. Furthermore, most of the Balkan countries are already gearing up for elections this year, adding yet another flammable ingredient to the volatile concoction. 

Many experts and reports have been pointing to the serious democratic downturn in the region.

“The breakdown of the democratic consensus has been most visible in Central Europe and the Balkans, which experienced the greatest gains after the end of the Cold War,” warned the Freedom House’s global ‘Nations in Transit’ report, published on May 6.

The report noted a considerable decline in democratic practices in Montenegro and Serbia, as well as in the EU member Hungary. These three countries were “no longer democracies,” the watchdog organisation concluded, and added them to the group of ‘hybrid regimes’ with the rest of the Balkan countries.

The latest developments across the region have added more reasons for concern.

In recent days alone, Albania has seen clashes between the police and opposition supporters and activists over the disputed demolition of the National Theatre in Tirana. The demolition was carried out overnight, against the advice of EU officials and their efforts to find a compromise solution. The subsequent violent protests reflected growing tensions between the ruling and opposition parties.

Similar tensions are simmering in Montenegro, where the ruling regime of Milo Djukanović has been facing off against the opposition parties and the Serbian Orthodox Church, ahead of the parliamentary elections scheduled for the end of the year. The situation is no better in Serbia, where supporters of the ruling and opposition parties have been holding reality show-style protests against each other, while gearing up for parliamentary elections in June.

In Bosnia & Herzegovina, a complete political deadlock has been blocking the formation of a new government in the BiH Federation entity for some 18 months now, since the 2018 general elections, and is also preventing the adoption of the 2020 state budget. The latter will delay Bosnia’s upcoming local elections, which have currently been postponed until November, but will be delayed even further until the state budget is adopted.

In both Kosovo and North Macedonia, the governments’ efforts to control the coronavirus pandemic have from the very beginning been overshadowed by political and personal battles. North Macedonia is also distracted by the preparations for its general elections, while in Kosovo the Constitutional Court is set to rule on the recent controversial toppling of the government and indicate how a new government should be elected.

The EU is squandering its influence in the region

The local and regional power struggles in the Balkans have been augmented in recent years by various global actors, which have exploited the steady decline of EU interest and influence in the region to strengthen their positions and pursue their individual interests.

Since the early 2000s the Balkans have been yearning to join the EU, which was supposed to provide the region with more job opportunities and better living standards. Yet equally important was the fact that only EU membership could fulfil another Balkan dream; to enable all the region’s ethnic groups to live with their ethnic kin within the same borders.

It has been this second motive that made the EU the only option able to guarantee the region’s long-term stability and enable the gradual transformation of its nationalist ideals. All other options, meaning the absence of the EU and the presence of divergent foreign influences, would inevitably add fuel to the local ethno-political quarrels, thus destabilising the region in the long run.

Nevertheless, in recent years the enlargement process has gradually screeched to a halt. 

The region never fully recuperated from the impact of the 2008-9 global recession, and its readiness and capacity for economic and social reforms weakened as politicians and politics became more and more conservative.

 The global recession has strengthened conservatism and undermined internal cohesion within the EU too, which has weakened the Union’s readiness to accept new members. 

As a result, the accession process – which was both the EU’s technical toolbox and its only strategy in the Balkans – has become an exercise in bureaucratic procrastination, a game in which the Balkan countries pretended to still be willing to reform while the EU pretended to be ready to accept the new member states.

The Balkan summits in Sofia and London in May and July 2018 were the turning point, as they revealed that enlargement into the Balkans had effectively, albeit not officially, been taken off the table. At those meetings, the EU leaders – increasingly troubled by their problems back home – would not even allow use of the word ‘enlargement’, using terms like ‘connectivity agenda’ instead.

The Balkan leaders got the message loud and clear, and started turning more and more towards their historic allies: the Serbs towards Russia, and the Bosniaks towards Turkey and the Gulf countries – as well as towards the new, wealthy kid on the block – China. The Albanians, on the other hand, had always been linked much more closely to the US over the past two decades, but America’s new, chaotic foreign policy under Donald Trump threatens to change that too.

Global actors use the pandemic to strengthen their Balkan grip 

The new European Commission appointed at the end of 2019 seemed to be aware of the growing trouble in the Balkans, and appeared determined to restore at least some of the influence the EU has lost during the time of the previous Commission. Yet its efforts have been interrupted by the coronavirus pandemic, and the EU’s initial abysmal reaction to this difficult challenge made things only worse.

On the other hand, China and Russia proved once again to be better at the game of winning over Balkan hearts, and used the situation to gain additional leverage in the region by sending masks and other medical equipment early on.

Their assistance – in line with their strategic orientation in the Balkans – focused on Serbia, the biggest country and biggest market in the region. Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vučić did not spare the theatrics in thanking China and Russia for their aid, as it helped the country to fight the coronavirus while at the same time boosting his own popularity ahead of the elections.

China and Russia proved once again to be better at the game of winning over Balkan hearts.

With every new planeload, Vučić and other Serbian government officials made major public displays of gratitude, while Russian and Chinese flags, as well as billboards boasting ‘a friendship of steel’ with China and ‘historic relations’ with Russia lined the streets of Belgrade.

On the other hand, this assistance raised many eyebrows. Some experts warned that a significant portion of the Chinese aid deliveries seemed to be of poor quality, or that it was superfluous. Others questioned why the Russian health assistance was being coordinated by the Russian Ministry of Defence, why it includes military personnel, and why these military teams were allowed to move across the country, and even into Bosnia’s Serb-dominated entity of Republika Srpska, without any oversight or control.

In neighbouring Kosovo, meanwhile, America was also using the pandemic to pursue different but equally self-serving and potentially even more detrimental tactics. Thanks to the direct intervention of Richard Grenell, the acting Director of the US National Intelligence, the US Ambassador to Germany, and the Special Presidential Envoy for Serbia and Kosovo Peace Negotiations, the government of Albin Kurti was toppled in Kosovo on March 25.

Grenell pushed for Kurti’s removal as he was standing in the way of a US-sponsored agreement intended to at least nominally resolve the dispute between Serbia and Kosovo. The no-confidence vote in Kurti’s government opened up a new and complicated legal and political crisis in Kosovo, which is threatening to undermine Kosovo’s ability to deal with the health, economic, social and all the other consequences of the pandemic.

Over the last two months Serbia, Kosovo, Bosnia and all the other Balkan countries eagerly awaited and carefully counted the planeloads coming from China, Russia, Turkey and the Gulf states, as they meant not only a difference in fighting the pandemic, but also indicated the status of each country in relation to a different global actor.

The EU comes back strong, but is it too late?

The EU eventually realised that China’s ‘mask diplomacy’ and Russia’s military-driven health assistance was threatening to undo years of the EU’s strong presence in the Balkans. 

On March 26 EU leaders finally agreed to set dates for the start of negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia, yet this move was too little and too late to make a major difference. 

This step, which for the EU was just a small technical move, but which it nevertheless delayed, had been eagerly awaited by these two countries and the rest of the region for years – but it was almost completely buried under the avalanche of reports related to the fast-spreading pandemic. 

At the same time, EU leaders are still withholding the visa-free regime for Kosovo, despite the fact that the European Commission has proposed this already back in 2016, having concluded that Kosovo’s authorities had met all the agreed criteria. People in the Balkans see these and many similar cases as examples of the EU’s own inconsistency, duplicity and constantly changing criteria.

On April 29, the EU came back strong, announcing a massive package of financial assistance for the region. This included €38 million of immediate support to the health sector, as well as exclusive access to EU instruments and medical equipment; almost €1.2 billion euro in aid funding for the region’s social and economic recovery; and almost €2.2 billion to support businesses and public sector investments.

EU officials in Brussels, as well as around the EU and in the Balkan capitals, also stepped up their communication efforts to make sure that the Balkan peoples and their leaders understood that the Union still cared for the region.

The news was welcomed across the Balkans, although in Serbia it was still overshadowed by the Serbian government’s ever more emotional reactions to the much smaller gifts coming from China and Russia. 

The fact was not lost on Western officials and local experts. Many of them have expressed concerns that Vučić may have ‘passed the point of no return’ – that he may have concluded that, at least during his reign, Serbia’s future looks brighter in alliance with China and Russia, rather than with the EU.

The EU tried to further restore its position in the Balkans by holding a virtual Balkan summit on May 9, an event that was originally supposed to take place in Zagreb as a part of Croatia’s presidency of the EU.

The joint declaration which the EU and Balkan leaders adopted during the conference reiterated “unequivocal support for the European perspective of the Western Balkans”, and stressed that the EU’s support to the region went “far beyond what any other partner has provided.”

Yet by the end the Balkan leaders and their citizens remained clearly unimpressed by the event, whose biggest achievement seemed to be the fact that it was held in such a difficult situation, and which, once again, deliberately avoided even mentioning the word ‘enlargement’. 

As EU leaders and officials now ponder how to move on with the pledged assistance, including the conditionality that will be applied, experts say that the Union is still far from securing its position in the Balkans, warning that they cannot afford to lose it.“The European Commission promises €3.3 billion to help the Western Balkan countries mitigate the impact of the pandemic and bring them closer to the EU. Without a fundamental change of direction, however, this initiative comes too late,” a leading Balkan expert Dušan Reljić said in his analysis published on May 5.

Turkey and the quest for limited autonomy from the West

By over-projecting its power potential, Ankara finds itself on a conflictual trajectory, on a case-by-case basis, with the interests of other major or regional powers such as the US, Russia, France, Italy, Israel, Egypt, and Germany.

The summer of 2020 has been unlike any summer in recent history. Usually, during the long summer months, a sort of informal moratorium appears between Greece and Turkey so that there would be no particular spike in tensions between them, as the inflow of ever-growing number of tourists with their greenbacks on both sides of the Aegean was deemed too important for the economies of both countries. This summer, when the coronavirus has been wreaking havoc and tourist revenues have been negligible, the action has shifted to gunboat diplomacy and the search for leverage in an increasingly complex and unsteady European security architecture. Yet there is no novelty here, as this has been the state of relations between the two countries – both NATO members since 1952 while Turkey is still formally negotiating its accession to the European Union since 2003 – for a long time. It reflects the surreal pragmatism in both Turkey’s relationship with the West, to which it still belongs but doubts whether it does, as well as the transactional reflexes of both Greece and Turkey regarding their relations with each other, given the ambiguous positions of their partners and allies. Should there have been no NATO or EU, a good argument could be made that relations between the two countries would mirror Turkey’s relations with some of its other neighbours, such as Iraq or Syria, or even Iran and Armenia. 

Yet apart from this surreal state of play between Greece and Turkey, which most of their western allies do not understand or do not want to understand or pretend does not exist, this summer has been different because a number of other paradoxes are coming to the fore. Most stem from ideological imperatives and domestic cleavages within Turkey proper that have rapidly acquired an external or foreign policy dimension. Here the broader implications of the reconversion of the Hagia Sophia into a mosque come into play, although barely six weeks after the 10 July decision to do so, the issue no longer seems to dominate the headlines anymore. 

‘It’s the domestic politics, stupid’

The decision to reconvert the Hagia Sophia into a mosque was primarily motivated by domestic considerations and the deep dividing lines within Turkish society, which undoubtedly have political characteristics. The current Turkish government and its leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, seem to favour the implementation of a civilisational discourse into a civilisational state reality, primarily for reasons of political expediency. This is particularly relevant in the perennial battle between Kemalists and Islamists that has shaped Turkish politics for decades. This does not imply that the emergence of a ‘clash of civilisation’ discourse does not have deep seated roots within both the governing party and its electorate, in particular as a revindication of the Kemalist turn toward modernisation, Westernisation and secularism upon the ashes of the Ottoman Empire, away from the virtues of Islam as the dominant ideology of the Empire. Nevertheless, a level of political expediency is very much in evidence, especially since the 2010s when the synthesis between the instrumentalisation of religion, nationalism, and anti-western Kemalism or Eurasianism has been shaping the direction of Erdoğan’s Turkey today. According to political scientist Ahmet Erdi Öztürk, the decision represents an example of the assumption of moral superiority over Kemalism without necessarily impacting upon the nature of the relationship between the state and religion since Turkish secularism or “laicism, as the continuation of a Byzantine-era practice, is inherently dependent upon the state’s control and guidance of religion in line with the state’s interests and objectives.” As to the effect on Turkish multiculturalism, its practice is already problematic, as the inherent and privileged correlation between Turkishness and Sunni Islam has been a way of life throughout the 97 years of the existence of the Turkish Republic. The troubled history of the country’s Greek orthodox minority, as well as that of its Armenian, Kurdish, and Alevi populations, among others, are a testament to this sad state of affairs. Though successive polls since the reconversion of the Hagia Sophia do no show that it has had a significant impact in the government’s sagging poll numbers, the mitigated reaction by the Kemalist opposition reflects an acceptance that its ability to influence the country’s ideological direction has been further limited. What emerges is a very real existential dilemma for the country’s secular population as to what this gradual, overt promotion of political Islam means for their way of life. 

The synthesis between the instrumentalisation of religion, nationalism, and anti-western Kemalism or Eurasianism has been shaping the direction of Erdoğan’s Turkey since the 2010s.

For the Greek Orthodox minority and Bartholomew I, the embattled Ecumenical Patriarchate and spiritual leader of 300 million Orthodox Christian worldwide, the reaction of the Patriarch encapsulates the reality: “What can I say as a Christian clergyman and the Greek patriarch in Istanbul? Instead of uniting, a 1500-year-old heritage is dividing us. I am saddened and shaken.” As his close associates have told me, the Ecumenical Patriarchate has survived 567 years without the Hagia Sophia, which was converted into a mosque in 1453 and then into a museum in 1935, and can continue to do so.

Promoting an Islamic agenda

A second dimension has to do with the perception within the Muslim world as to which leader is defending or promoting an Islamic agenda. Although many predominantly Muslim states, such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, are at odds with Turkey’s perceived infringement upon the global Islamic discourse (and their geopolitical interests), the battle is actually for the hearts and minds of Sunnis around the world. Erdoğan’s reference on 10 July that the “resurrection of the Hagia Sophia heralds the liberation of the Al-Aqsa Mosque” in Jerusalem is a case in point.

An increasingly coercive posture

The third facet linked to the conversion of Hagia Sophia is the wider geopolitical and geo-economic context which capitals around the world have been grappling with, given the consensus that the regional and global security architecture, and as a consequence the international liberal multilateral order in place since the end of the Second World War, has been faltering. With the United States – the crucial link holding the order in place – doubting both its role in the world as well as what its priorities should be, regional states have been scrambling to reconsider their priorities. While for the European Union and its member states, this implies a painful conceptual and material transition into a more geopolitical union, Turkey’s methodology has involved the promotion and implementation of a more transactional approach where assertive and coercive diplomacy predominates. Here the attempt is both to rationalise the vacuum that a less strategic United States leaves both within the wider European space and in the Mediterranean, and to ensure that consensual national strategies – such as the country’s place as a regional energy transit hub, and, by extension, as a regional power with global reach – do not get sidetracked. While for the European Union and its member states, some form of multilateralism and its normative framework are a sine qua non for addressing regional and global challenges, for Turkey the militarisation of foreign policy instruments as evidenced in the tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean, as well as the challenge to international forums and institutions and their norms and rules to which Turkey is a party to, will be an acceptable means of conduct if these limit its ability to extend its Lebensraum and its ability to manifest itself as an indispensable regional actor. For example, the Hagia Sophia reconversion is a case in point, as Turkey went through the process without prior consultation, for example with UNESCO, as it was bound to do given the monument’s World Heritage Site status. 

The instrumentalisation of religion as a foreign policy tool, in this case, promotes the simplistic perception of a ‘Neo-Ottomanist’ turn in Turkish foreign policy where Ankara leads the fight against the West. In other words, as Nicholas Danforth notes, “[w]hen it serves their purposes, Turkey’s leaders will undoubtedly continue to dress their foreign policies in neo-Ottoman garb.”

More of a disruptor rather than a pole of stability 

Despite the aforementioned instrumentalisation of religion and the militarisation of foreign policy, Ankara has not made a move to either withdraw from the Atlantic Alliance or to break totally with the European Union. Yet the tell-tale signs are many, starting in particular with the overt attempt to couple greater strategic autonomy from the West with its growing relationship with the Russian Federation since 2016. Alarm bells were raised by the 2019 purchase of the Russian-made S-400 missile system and its implications for Ankara’s relations with Washington as well as NATO as a whole. Its recent and ongoing strong-arm tactics against Greece and France, among others, have led many to suggest willy-nilly that Turkey has become the Alliance’s ‘elephant in the room’ with a proliferation of strategic divides on a variety of fronts, with implications regarding NATO’s already problematic reach in the Black Sea region and the Middle East. 

An argument could be made that Turkish actions imply the implementation of a security doctrine based on the concepts of forward defence and self help, given its assessment of the regional security concept as well as the synthesis domestically of political Islam, nationalism, and anti-Westernism. Yet the contradictions of Turkish foreign policy, and its possible self-entrapment due to an overestimation of its influence or an acceptance of the manner in which it tries to enforce it, make it more of a disruptor rather than a pole of stability in the wider European, Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and Eurasian spaces. In other words, by over-projecting its power potential, Ankara finds itself heading for a conflictual trajectory, on a case-by-case basis, with the interests of other major or regional powers such as the US, Russia, France, Italy, Israel, Egypt, and Germany.

With the United States – the crucial link holding the order in place – doubting both its role in the world as well as what its priorities should be, regional states have been scrambling to reconsider their priorities.

As long as Turkey’s break with the West does not become more permanent and the transition away from Kemalist tenets is slow and contained, the wider European regional context implies one of balancing and rebalancing, action and reaction between the region’s powers. The US’s ambivalence and ambiguities have led regional states to seek different ways to augment their security, many (especially the European countries) within the confines of international law and multilateral institutions, while others test the system’s limits. The pace of change is rapid, with the verdict still out as to whether the frayed relationship between Turkey and its partners and allies does remain a Gordian knot. The options on the table now are between limited strategic autonomy for Ankara or strategic independence. Both of these choices or developments can be managed, provided the methodology Ankara uses to promote either choice does not become excessively heavy-handed, putting at risk the interests, sovereignty and sovereign rights of EU and NATO member states, and by extension, the organisations they belong to. Although there is not much room for optimism at this point in time, a more permanent, long-lasting, value-laden binding agreement with Turkey is necessary. There is a need to move beyond the stopgap triptych of ‘solidarity, de-escalation, and dialogue’ as Josep Borrell, the EU High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, suggested after the video conference meeting of the Ministers of Foreign Affairs of the EU Member States on 14 August. Whether this is possible remains to be seen.