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Balkans between two worlds: Turkey and Europe

By Mesut İdriz | Today'sZaman | Istanbul / 09 Oct 2011

Geo-ontologically the Balkans falls at the crossroads between the heartlands of Turkey’s Anatolia and Europe.
Normally Greece, Slovenia and to some extent Romania try to avoid being placed within the socio-conceptual and contextual expression referred to as the Balkans. Nevertheless, all the countries within the historic peninsula are undoubtedly considered the Balkans.

In terms of geo-cultural and religious divide, on the one hand, Muslims adopt and follow the Near Eastern influence while on the other non-Muslims, and Christians in particular, expect the assistance of Europeans, Slavic and post-Soviet in particular. In recent years, there has been a clash of interests in the Balkans from both powerful worlds, Turkey and Europe (particularly with reference to the countries of the European Union and Russia). This can be felt in almost all the Balkan countries, but particularly in the former Yugoslav states.

In the last couple of years, the region has experienced many interstate visits and heavy diplomacy traffic from both European countries and Turkey. This was not in low-level visits but visits from top state and government officials. During the past few months, these visits, among many others, were seen from German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, in addition to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Deputy Prime Ministers Bülent Arınç and Bekir Bozdağ, Foreign Affairs Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, EU Minister and Chief Negotiator Egemen Bağış and Education Minister Ömer Dinçer.

These visits are not considered ordinary. On the contrary, for some analysts they seem more “alarming” as they signal that there are great political and socioeconomic “battles,” if we may say, between the quickly re-emerging eastern superpower that is Turkey and the established Western superpowers of Europe.

According to the moves of their political leaders and business corporations, Europeans and Russians play roles mainly on the socioeconomic level, aiming to achieve regional control of Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece, Montenegro, Republika Srpska in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Mitrovica in Kosovo, eastern Macedonia and southern Albania.

Yet Turks, with their powerful investments in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Albania, Kosovo, the region of Sandzak in Serbia, and Macedonia, are reviving “pan-Ottomanism” with geo-cultural strategies, particularly in regions where the populations are themselves Muslim. During his recent official visit to Turkey, Serbian Minister of Agriculture, Trade, Forestry and Water Management Dusan Pertovic explicitly stated that Turkey is a valuable partner and major power in the region, noting that the Serbs’ views towards Turkey have become more positive than in the preceding century.

Enter Russian oil industry control

Since 2007, when the South Stream Project pipeline -- a proposed gas pipeline to transport Russian natural gas to the Black Sea, Bulgaria and further to Greece, Italy and Austria -- was announced, Russians came to own the Serbian oil industry and are major share holders of the famous Bulgarian gas and oil giant Gazprom, which controls the Bulgarian, Romanian, Greek and Macedonian markets, as well as having a partnership in building a Bulgarian nuclear power plant in Belene. In addition, all the oil pumps in Republika Srpska and the majority of Lukoil’s oil pumps in Macedonia are controlled by Russians. They also have concessions in much of the Serbian mining industry.

Among various other European banking industries, financial institutions and insurance companies, the famous Pro-Credit Bank is fully functional and successfully operational in most Balkan cities and towns.

Turks have also attempted to access the Balkans. Let’s take a quick survey of some of the major Turkish investments in various countries of the region. Through the Turkcell telecommunications company, Turkey has managed to buy and become a major shareholder of Telekom Srbija; well-known Turkish construction companies have managed to win a tender to build a 445-kilometer-long highway in Serbia linking Belgrade with Bar in Montenegro; a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) was signed between two countries; and there was even some discussion about Turks buying Serbia’s national carrier, JAT Airways.

In Bosnia, Turkish companies are the fourth biggest investors after Austria, Slovenia and Germany, while 49 percent of Bosnian national carrier BH Airlines was bought by Turks in the last quarter of 2008. Kosovo’s Pristina International Airport was a similar case, in which the Turkish company LİMAK received concessions to run the airport for the next 20 years. Additionally, Turkey is the third-largest investor in Albania after Italy and Greece.

Turkey has long been in the banking industry of Bulgaria, Serbia, Bosnia, Albania and Macedonia. For instance, Ziraat Bankası and IK Bank (a sister company of Halk Bank) are well-established banking systems in Macedonia, while TEB (Türk Ekonomi Bankası) is already among the key players of Kosovo’s banking industry. BKT is the second leading bank in Albania in terms of banking facilities, investments, loans and financial capacity, and, according to its CEO, Albaraka Türk will open its first bank in Albania later this year.

The biggest struggle between Turkey and European powers is expected to take place in the rich mining resources of Kosovo and Macedonia, as Kosovo has one of the largest mineral and coal deposits in the Balkans.

Turkey plays a great regional role in areas as varied as infrastructure and industry. Examples of this are Skopje Alexander the Great International Airport and Ohrid St. Paul the Apostle, both in Macedonia. The former, newly constructed and operated by the well-known Turkish conglomerate TAV, was officially inaugurated by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan during his official visit to Macedonia on Sept. 29-30, 2011.

Among other major state economic actors of Turkey in the Balkans are the Turkish Cooperation and Development Agency (TİKA). Some Balkan and Turkish analysts think that this state agency intends to protect the Ottoman monuments of the past in regions where the settlements were originally Turkish and the local populations have been Islamized. Based on established evidence, TİKA has access to the Balkans through a number of projects in various areas of infrastructure, from historical monuments to water pumps and sewerage. However, it is not surprising that TİKA was not allowed to have access to, or rather set up offices in, all the Balkan countries and/or was banned from any kind of activities in certain countries.

Looking at Turkish educational institutions

Turkish educational institutions in the Balkans have a longer history than Turkish state agencies, in both pre-university and university levels. These educational institutions have managed to be successful as secondary schools, so-called “kolej” (high schools), where the medium of instruction is in English, along with the local languages. These schools’ students do not belong to a specific group or ethnicity, as the schools are open to all, including the children of diplomats and expats working for international companies.

The schools have managed to gain the confidence of both locals and foreigners by promoting peace and tolerance, as well as providing a relatively balanced curriculum in comparison with other schools. In this way, these schools have become a number one choice of the people. Among them are the first college built after the collapse of communism, in 1993, Mehmet Akif, which was later renamed Turgut Özal College in Albania; many schools in various cities and towns of Bosnia and Herzegovina under the umbrella name of the Bosna Sema Educational Institutions; Mehmet Akif Colleges, Gulistan Educational Institutions and the International School of Pristina in Kosovo; the International School of Bucharest in Romania and Yahya Kemal Colleges in three of Macedonia’s cities.

The headquarters of the Yahya Kemal Colleges is in the heart of Skopje, right in the center of the city, facing the old Ottoman stone bridge and the newly erected statue of Alexander the Great. An American expat residing in Skopje said, “I choose to send my son to a Turkish school, Yahya Kemal, because they know what they are doing; the school has a well-designed curriculum. It is not ethnocentric, but rather has global elements.” He concluded by saying, “My wife [a Macedonian Christian] and I are quite happy.” In higher education, on the other hand, Turkish companies navigated by both political players and neo-Sufi movements began to establish universities, such as Epoka University in Tirana, the International University of Sarajevo and the International Burch University, both in Sarajevo, and the International Balkan University in Skopje. The International Balkan University’s first graduation ceremony was held last week in the presence of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, where his wife, Emine Erdoğan, presented diplomas to the graduates.

It requires time, perhaps a few decades, for Turkish universities to become successful and ultimately enter the world standards of higher learning, as is the case with any other university in the world. The universities established or backed by the Europeans are going through similar processes and have similar, if not worse, stories.

NGOs in the Balkans

The following issue requires a great deal of attention from academics and journalist alike. There is a relatively large number of so-called civil society groups and NGOs actively operating in almost every city, if not town, of the Balkans assisted and/or financed by international organizations and agencies from both the Eastern and Western worlds with specific intents and agendas. These groups supposedly publish annual reports of their activities, declare their cash flows and provide detailed bank accounts on how and where the money was transferred.

Of course, it is a well-known fact that by using the existing rules and laws, the best way to launder money is through establishing civil society groups and NGOs and the Balkans is a perfect place for this job. The main difference between different civil society groups and NGOs is that some make the organization’s records available to the public and researchers. In order to avoid creating controversy or problems we do not give out the names of any groups linked to Turkey or European countries that have not been publicizing their bank accounts and annual reports, but we urge academic institutions, think tanks, broadcasting bureaus and individual research fellows to investigate this highly important and, to some extent classified, matter. Such malpractice is undoubtedly widespread throughout the region in question.

The major distinction between the steadily rising superpower of Turkey and the established superpowers of Europe is that Turkey, like in southern and southeastern Mediterranean countries, has been and is still playing an unprecedented role in the sphere of public diplomacy. By the same token, European countries have so far been lackadaisical.

For the Eid al-Fitr holiday, for instance, which everyone prefers to celebrate at home with their own family, Davutoğlu and his wife spent the last three days of the holy month of Ramadan and the entire holiday in the Balkans, first visiting Kosovo and then Bosnia, Romania and Serbia. This was an amazing move by a high profile Turkish minister, who, besides holding official meetings, met ordinary people from all walks of life in Pristina, Prizren and Sarajevo, and delivered public talks as he was warmly welcomed by locals. This was similar to the visits of Arınç to Kosovo and Bağış to Macedonia.

And the most important visit was the recent visit of Prime Minister Erdoğan to Macedonia, where on his two-day official visit he was closely in touch with the public wherever he went, as he toured the western part of the country starting from Skopje, Tetovo, Gostivar and Ohrid, and delivered public talks as if he were visiting one of the regions of Turkey. His speeches were full of messages similar to those he expressed during the recent 2011 election campaign of Turkey. Let’s see what Turkey and the European countries’ next move towards the Balkans will be.

*Mesut İdriz is an associate professor, doctor and head of the department of political science and international relations and general coordinator of the center for Intercultural Dialogue & Education at Gazikent University.


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