BEYOND THE BOSPORUS: Soft power in the Balkans, hard power in the Caucasus

BEYOND THE BOSPORUS: Soft power in the Balkans, hard power in the Caucasus
Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama (left) with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (right).
By Clare Nuttall in Glasgow February 7, 2021

Relations with Turkey have remained in the headlines in Albania since the prime minister of the small Balkan state visited Ankara in January. Edi Rama’s meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan yielded an agreement to upgrade ties between the two nations to a “strategic partnership” and a pledge to support greater cooperation between Turkey and Albania in every area; the Turkish president specifically mentioned investment into infrastructure and tourism. 

Shortly afterwards, Rama visited the construction site for the new Turkish hospital in the Albanian town of Fier. Construction is due to be completed within three months, another of Erdogan’s promises made during the January visit, drawing inevitable comparisons between the speedy progress on the Turkish healthcare project and Rama’s outspoken complaints about the lack of help from the EU in securing coronavirus vaccines for the Western Balkans. Then in early February, Turkey was in the headlines again, as Turksh parliament speaker Mustafa Sento visited the Albanian capital on February 4. 

Turkey is already one of Albania’s top trading partners — a position it has in most countries in Southeast Europe as the region’s largest economy by far, with a GDP of around $750bn — and has made investments of around $2.5bn in the country, where Turkish firms employ 10,000 people. Among them is Calik Holding which operates in the energy, mining, construction, finance and communication sectors. Turkish firms have also invested into Albania’s second-largest bank, BKT, hydropower plants, an iron smelting plant and newly formed flag carrier Air Albania. 

It’s a similar situation in countries across the region. Turkish companies have been particularly active in the infrastructure sector; two Macedonian airports in Skopje and Ohrid are run by Turkish TAV Airports Holding, and Pristina airport is managed by Turkish-French consortium Limak&Lyon under a concession agreement. In the road sector, the US-Turkish joint venture Bechtel-Enka built the motorway connecting Kosovo and Albania and Tasyapi is building two sections of the Belgrade-Sarajevo motorway.

In North Macedonia, Turkish companies are heavily involved in real estate. Cevahir Holding developed the Cevahir Sky City whose four skyscrapers are the tallest buildings in the country. Limak is building the Limak Skopje Luxury Hotel and multipurpose Diamond Skopje complex in downtown Skopje. Migros Ticaret opened the first mall in Skopje as well as Ramstore supermarkets across the country. 

The close relationships between Turkey and most of the Balkan countries, especially those with large Muslim populations, stem not only from Turkish economic clout but also from their long shared history; much of the Balkan peninsular was part of the Ottoman empire for several hundred years. This left the legacy of Turkish minorities in several countries and majority Muslim populations in Albania, Bosnia & Herzegovina and Kosovo, as well as Turkish influences on culture, architecture and cuisine. 

Looking east 

While the priority of the six Western Balkan countries is integration wth the EU, the international economic crisis of the late 2000s saw governments and businesses in the region casting a wider net in search of investment, looking east to Turkey, Azerbaijan and the Middle East as well as west. This isn’t limited to the majority Muslim countries; the region’s larger economies such as Bulgaria, Romania and Serbia are all destinations for Turkish investment. 

Indeed one of the most significant investments in the region is the TurkStream pipeline that carries Russian gas across the Black Sea to Turkey; gas is also to flow through extensions to Bulgaria, Serbia and other Central and Southeast European countries. Arising at the same time as the new Southern Gas Corridor (SGC) infrastructure running via Georgia and Turkey to Southeast Europe, the pipeline has helped turn Turkey into a new gas transit hub for the region. 

Beyond this is the soft power exercised by Turkey in the region, not least through projects like the new hospital in Fier, Albania. Indeed, Turkey extended aid to countries across the region during the pandemic. Turkey has also funded the construction of mosques, while also financing schools and cultural programmes. 

Such is the strength of the various links that the high-profile visit of Erdogan to Serbia — where he was welcomed warmly by top officials and with rapture by the mainly Muslim population of Novi Pazar, western Serbia — raised concerns in the EU about growing Turkish influence in the Western Balkans. 

However, as Yigal Chazan of consultancy Alaco argued in a column for bne IntelliNews, the Turkish president’s intention seems to be more “pragmatic and tactical” than expansionist. 

Moreover, a 2019 paper from the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) argues that Turkey’s “capacity to implement any sort of expansionist strategy in the region is simply non-existent". 

“Yes, Turkey has emerged as a player in the Balkans in the past decade, and its economic and political influence has grown since the end of the 1990s Balkans wars. True, Ankara does view the Balkans as part of its geographical and emotional hinterland: many citizens of Turkey have ancestors that came to Anatolia during the Balkans wars of the early twentieth century. But Turkish and European leaders alike have greatly exaggerated the country’s power and intentions,” the paper says, arguing that while Turkey is strengthening its relations with the Western Balkans countries, it isn’t trying to peel them away from the EU or act as a counterbalance to Russia. 

It does, however, add that, “This could change if, as this paper warns, Turkey exits the Western camp and seeks a closer alliance with Russia in the Middle East and the Balkans. For the moment, this remains unlikely. But Europeans should take care not to push Turkey into seeking out new alliances in the Western Balkans and elsewhere.”

Relations between Ankara and the Western Balkans countries are not without conflict, with one of the most contentious issues being Ankara’s demands for the extradition of teachers working at schools funded by the Gulenist movement, led by US-based, self-exiled Turkish cleric Fetullah Gulen, which Turkey considers to be a terrorist organisation (Gulen utterly refutes the claim). The deportations of Turkish teachers from both Kosovo and Moldova sparked political scandals in the two countries. Meanwhile, Albania closed three Gulenist schools after pressure from Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, and Sento announced during his visit to Tirana that Albanian prosecutors were investigating the Fetullah Terrorist Organization (FETO), as Ankara refers to the Gulenist movement, for money laundering. 

Central Asian investment 

If the ties between Turkey and the Western Balkans were forged in the Ottoman era, those between Turkey and the Turkic-speaking nations of the former Soviet Union date back to the migration of Turkic tribes from the Altai mountains of Mongolia westwards across Central Asia to Anatolia. 

The collapse of the Soviet Union 30 years ago and the ensuing power vacuum as Russia withdrew from its old empire led to a brief revival of the pan-Turkic concept popular around the turn of the 20th century and even the vision of a kind of Turkic version of the European Union stretching eastwards from Turkey through Azerbaijan to Central Asia. Yet this was never seriously pursued. 

Today, Turkish investment is highly visible across Central Asia from the huge real estate and infrastructure projects thrown up by Turkish construction companies to the thousands of small-scale Turkish-owned businesses. However, it is Russia that has managed to re-absorb countries from the region, taking the largest Central Asian economy Kazakhstan, as well as Kyrgyzstan, into its Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), and recently approving EEU observer status for Uzbekistan, while it competes with Central Asia’s other great power neighbour, China, for influence. 

Turkey has not wholly lost interest in the region, though, and some Turkey watchers, especially those based in Russia, claim there has been a tacit shift in approach from pan-Turkish to “neo-Ottomanism”. “Many observers, especially in the West, continue to treat pan-Turkism and neo-Ottomanism as essentially the same thing. But in fact, they are fundamentally different concepts, offering an opposing vision of the basis for unity of states under Turkey’s presumed leadership. The first is secular, democratic and Western looking; and the second is more Islamic, authoritarian-leaning and oriented away from the West,” wrote Jamestown Foundation analyst Paul Goble in 2020. 

First in Azerbaijan 

While Ankara’s influence in Central Asia is limited — it has in particular failed to make much political headway in Turkmenistan or Uzbekistan — Turkey is the first foreign partner and closest ally of Azerbaijan; the two countries are so close that they describe themselves as one nation in two states. 

This has made Turkey Azerbaijan’s staunchest backer in its long-standing conflict with Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave, a conflict that erupted into all-out war in autumn 2020. With its far superior firepower, in particular built up with lethal Turkish armed drones, Azerbaijan managed to capture much of the disputed territory, altering the balance of power in the South Caucasus. 

Post-war, Azerbaijan has said the ceasefire agreement provides for a Russian-guarded land corridor across Armenian territory that would connect it to the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhchivan, which borders Turkey and Iran. This has important implications for Turkey given the region’s complex politics and Turkey’s hostile relationship with Armenia. Turkey’s overland trade with Azerbaijan goes mainly through Georgia and sometimes via Iran; the corridor would form a direct connection between Turkey and its closest partner. 

Armenia argues that while the deal refers generally to the need to unblock economic and transportation infrastructure, it does not mention anything so specific as a transport corridor through its territory. Still, Baku is already looking at the costs of the project; one official has estimated it will take $434mn to build a railway from Azerbaijan to Turkey across Armenian territory and Nakhchivan. 

How these corridor plans turn out will, naturally, also depend on the position of the other major power with a keen interest in the South Caucasus, Russia.

Moscow has a complex relationship — sometimes collaborative, sometimes competitive — with Turkey. The two have been engaged in proxy wars in Syria and Libya, backing opposite sides, yet they managed to work around each other in Nagorno-Karabakh, ensuring the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan did not escalate into a wider conflict, just as in the past they delicately moved past potential flashpoints such as Turkey’s shooting down of a Russian jet in 2015. 

Russia responded to the downing of the jet with sanctions — notably on Turkish tomatoes, a popular import, and a ban on charter flights to tourism spots in Turkey — but two years later was on such good terms with Ankara that it sold its S-400 missile systems to Turkey, a deal that caused consternation among Turkey’s fellow Nato members and led to some US sanctions, though not particularly meaningful ones. This came on top of a relationship with the EU that has gradually soured amid criticisms of Turkey’s human rights record following amid the heavy crackdown that has ensued since the 2016 coup attempt in Ankara. 

Since the election of Joe Biden to the White House, however, Erdogan has been taking a more conciliatory tone towards both Washington and Brussels. While Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump clearly had a soft spot for authoritarian leaders like Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin, there are already signs that things are going to be very different under the new US president. 

At his confirmation hearing, Biden’s nominee for secretary of state Antony Blinken slammed the purchase of the Russian S-400s as “unacceptable” and also commented that “we [the Biden administration] are very clear-eyed. Turkey is an ally, that in many ways … is not acting as an ally should. This is a very significant challenge for us and we are very clear-eyed about it.”

Erdogan has already said he wants to “turn a new page” in Turkey’s relations with the European Union and has talked of taking steps on the country’s long-stalled accession negotiations. Meanwhile, Turkey relaunched talks with Greece on their maritime boundaries in January after coming close to a military showdown over Turkish efforts to explore for oil and gas in contested areas of the Eastern Mediterranean last year.

Additional reporting from Valentina Dimitrievska in Skopje. 

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