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The Turkish Balkan initiative

Monday 29 November 2010, by Erdoan A. Shipoli

‘Turkey is changing its foreign policy!’

This is a quote we hear every day in the writings of scholars and journalists and in the news on Turkey.

But usually what is meant by this is that Turkey has adopted a “zero problem with neighbors” policy, which is true, and has taken several initiatives to develop its relations with the Middle East to show its power as an important factor in the region.

Although this is true, we cannot limit Turkish foreign policy activities only to the Middle East. It would be insufficient to consider the new Turkish foreign policy as an initiative only for the Middle East. The protocols signed and the political traffic of Turkish visits abroad show us that it would be incorrect to consider these new initiatives as such.

Just take a quick look at the visits over the past few months by heads of state to Turkey. Although we can list many Middle Eastern leaders, Turkey hosted the Serbian and Bosnian presidents and their delegations. Then the Turkish leaders visited Greece, where they signed 22 important cooperative agreements, and finally, this week, Turkey hosted the prime minister of Kosovo, Mr. Hashim Thaci. Let me say it again: Bosnia, Serbia, Greece and Kosovo, these are the states whose political leaders had contact with Turkish leaders, and in fact the Turks initiated new steps for relations with these countries with Turkey as well as amongst each other. Turkish engagement in the Balkans shows that active Turkish foreign policy is available not only in the Middle East and Central Asia but in the Balkans, a region that Turkey considers equally important. The Serbian and Bosnian leaders came together to initiate a partnership under the initiative of Turkey for further cooperation, despite their bitter past. And what is most important, they decided in their next meeting that Croatia will also take part. The agreements with Greece show that Turkey has the capacity and the power to be a regional actor in the Balkans as well.

Public engagement with the Balkan states

Although Turkey has always been active in the case of Kosovo and Bosnia, it did not show it so publicly, whereas today Turkey is able to publicly engage in relations with the Balkan states. To be a mediator between Serbia and Bosnia and also Croatia, one needs to have power, respect and courage as a state. This is how Turkey is seen today in the Balkans. I believe that if Turkey had initiated this a decade ago, it would not be as successful as it is now. At this time, when Kosovo is struggling with the decision of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on the legitimacy of Kosovo’s independence and when recognition of Kosovo is so important, Turkey has shown that it stands behind Kosovo in all areas, including lobbying other countries to recognize the country.

While Kosovo has been invited to the EU summit without its flag, Turkey has hosted the prime minister of Kosovo with all the respect and all the etiquette given to the head of a government of a sovereign country. This means much for Kosovo, a new state with strong friends. What makes Turkey different from other friends of Kosovo is that today’s Turkish leaders consider the relations with neighboring countries, or countries in neighboring regions, not only in terms of interests but in terms of emotions as well. While many of Kosovo’s friends promise to lobby, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan immediately went into action, calling the leaders of Greece and Syria to arrange meetings with the prime minister of Kosovo to discuss their recognition of Kosovo. Besides that, the Turkish prime minister also mentioned his earlier conversations with the leaders of Azerbaijan, Qatar and Libya concerning recognizing the new state of Kosovo. Now it is in the hands of the leaders of Kosovo and their diplomatic efforts to take advantage of these opportunities.

But what do these new Balkan initiatives of Turkey bring? The Balkans is a hot region, where conflicts are always present, and Turkey’s new initiatives towards the Balkans are a hope for a better and stable situation. Turkish initiatives are present not only in the political arena, but also in economics, society, culture and education. This is an opportunity for Turkey to take the lead in Balkan politics, the opportunity of a lifetime.

If Turkey has the power as mediator to bring together Bosnia and Serbia, it also has the same ability to bring together Serbia and Kosovo for discussions. Turkey’s powers of mediation were thought to exist only in the Middle East, where Turkey was mediating between Israel and Syria, but Turkey’s new role of mediator shows that the new foreign policy is valid not only for the Middle East but for the Balkans as well as other neighboring regions. Nowadays we can see and read in the mass media that there are fresh talks on the way, for Kosovo and Serbia, and I think that Turkey would be the best mediator. This is the time that the Serbian and the Kosovar leaders will ask Turkey to be their mediator, before the European Union or the UN appoints someone that has nothing to do with the region, has very limited knowledge of the region, and what is most important, has no emotional, cultural or historical relations with the region. This has failed many times in mediation attempts in the conflicts of the former Yugoslavia, and it will fail in new talks between Kosovo and Serbia. I hope the Serbian and Kosovar leaders consider Turkey to be their mediator and that in the meeting after the Bosnia-Serbia-Turkey-Croatia summit, Kosovo will join them.

Now is Turkey looking towards the East? Is this what we understand when some writers refer to the new Turkish foreign policy as a move towards Islamization or the East? If so, then can we consider that Turkey is looking towards Balkanization, keeping in mind the new Turkish initiatives in the Balkans? This is all speculation that one can use if one wants to write biased assumptions, but the last meetings with Balkan officials have been the best answers to these assumptions.

* Erdogan A. Shipoli is a research assistant at Fatih University in İstanbul. He is also a senior researcher at Praxis Think Tank in Pristina, Kosovo.

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Source : TdZ, 26 May 2010, Wednesday

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