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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 22 June 2018

Turkey's growing influence in the Balkans has profound implications for the Middle East

The influence that Turkey gains in the Balkans gives it greater leverage with the European Union – and thus weakens Europe’s leverage over Turkey’s policy in other areas, such as in Syria, writes Faisal Al Yafai

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at a pre-election rally in Sarajevo. Dado Ruvic / Reuters
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at a pre-election rally in Sarajevo. Dado Ruvic / Reuters

In the middle of May, leaders of six Balkan nations made the short trip to Sofia in Bulgaria to meet the heads of every European Union country. The six – Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia – are all hoping to join the bloc at some point but the EU has repeatedly put off accession talks. The summit in Sofia was the first time for 15 years that such a meeting had taken place and it ended in disappointment.

Three days later, another suitor went to the Balkans and he went bearing gifts. Turkey's president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, seeking re-election at the end of this month, held a campaign rally in the Bosnian capital Sarajevo, drawing thousands of Turkish citizens from neighbouring countries.

He did not go empty-handed. While there, his government agreed to fund a $3.5 billion highway connecting the capital cities of Bosnia and neighbouring Serbia.

It is not only Bosnia and Serbia that have benefited from Turkey's investment largesse. Airports in Kosovo, banks in Albania, factories in Macedonia and roads, schools and mosques across the region are owned by or have been built with Turkish money. Not a single one of the six Balkan countries that went to meet EU leaders has not been courted by Ankara.

That investment, along with Ottoman-era links and a feeling of disenchantment with a Europe that is keen to keep its doors closed, is buying Turkey a lot of influence in the Balkans and that influence, in turn, buys more leverage with the European Union – which gives Turkey even more freedom to conduct its foreign policy in the Middle East without impediment.

Turkey’s burgeoning investment and concomitant soft power has not gone unnoticed. Weeks before the EU summit, France’s Emmanuel Macron told the European Parliament he did not want “a Balkans that turns toward Turkey or Russia” but went on to suggest the EU needed serious reform before those countries could join.

Apparent proof of this influence happened at the end of March, when six Turkish nationals were arrested in Kosovo and immediately deported home, where they were wanted in connection with the 2016 coup that Turkey has blamed on the Gulen movement.

It was the sort of story that barely merits a mention in the international press but the diplomatic fallout was serious: so incensed was the Kosovan prime minister by the arrests that he fired both the interior minister and the head of the secret service before calling Brussels and Washington to apologise and explain. Within the EU, it was seen as the direct consequence of Turkey’s expanding ties with a Balkan country placing Turkish priorities ahead of the rule of law and EU interests.

The difficulty for the EU is that is does not know how to counter Turkey's influence. The EU summit was an attempt to make peace with the six and draw them back into Europe's orbit but the truth is that the EU, with one of its biggest members leaving and facing rising nationalism, cannot do much. The summit could not even agree to let two of the countries open talks, much less set a date for those talks. Fifteen years ago, the EU declared "the future of the Balkans is within the EU". Now even that aspiration is too much.

The Balkan countries are still outwardly committed to joining the EU. But in Turkey – despite serious historic disagreements – they have found an ally. Ankara, after all, is on the same path, reforming with the promise of joining the European Union, enduring high-handed lectures from Europeans, even as the possibility of membership seems to recede into the distance. When Mr Erdogan speaks, it is with the authority of a brother country that has endured the same humiliations as the Balkans but has met the EU from a position of strength.

Seen from the Middle East, Turkey's increased interests in the Balkans can appear merely part of the usual geopolitical contest for influence. But what happens in the Balkans has profound implications for the Middle East.

The influence that Turkey gains in the Balkans gives it greater leverage with the European Union – and thus weakens Europe’s leverage over Turkey’s policy in other areas, such as in Syria.

Recall that, in 2015, during the peak of the migrant flows out of Syria into Europe, it was via Turkey and then through the western Balkans that the majority travelled. Turkey's influence in that region has vast security implications for Europe, especially as long as the Syrian civil war rages.

So interconnected is the region that Europe may be more willing to give Turkey a free hand in Syria to avoid Ankara stirring up trouble in the Balkans. With so many outside powers jockeying for position inside Syrian territory, any extra leverage that a player such as Turkey can gain will help. Mr Erdogan is certainly betting that the gifts he bears to Bosnia will come back to him via Syria.