Old enemies make new friends: Turkey in the Western Balkans

Turkey has mended relations with traditional foes to assume the role of patron and mediator in the Western Balkans. 

Turkey occupies an outsized position in the national imaginaries of many Balkan countries—and vice versa. Skanderbeg, the national hero of Albania, is famous for leading a rebellion against the Ottoman Empire, the predecessor to the modern Turkish state.  

The Ottoman Empire controlled the Balkans for centuries, and both the military victories—like Skanderbeg’s—and the defeats are remembered by the staunchest of nationalists. The Serb martyrs who died fighting the Ottomans in the 1389 Battle of Kosovo—which resulted in a Serb defeat—are memorialised every year in Serbia on the holiday of Vidovdan. Centuries of battles between Serbs and the Ottomans were invoked by Serb nationalists in the 1990s who justified the ethnic cleansing and genocide of Bosniak Muslims as “revenge on the Turks”. 

The centuries of Ottoman control of the Balkans resulted in significant cultural exchange and are an important part of Turkish history as well. Many Ottoman imperial consorts who gave birth to sultans were Albanian, Bosnian, Serbian, Bulgarian, and Romanian, and many Turks today are descended from Muslim emigrants and refugees from the Balkans during the Ottoman Empire’s contraction. Some Turks claim that the Turkish flag—with a white star and crescent on a red banner—emerged during bloody campaigns in Kosovo. 

With so much shared history, it is no surprise that Turkey is today an active player in Balkan geopolitics and cultural diplomacy. But what is perhaps shocking is the extent to which Turkey has mended relations with recent foes to assume the role of a patron and mediator widely respected in the region. 

Good relations with everyone? 

When the Justice and Development party (AKP) of newly-reelected Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan came to power in 2002, the Yugoslav Wars had ended only one year prior and Kosovo was under the administration of the United Nations. Turkey had supported the Muslim populations of Bosnia and Kosovo against ethnic cleaning campaigns by Serb forces, and Erdoğan’s government recognised Kosovar independence in 2008 only a day after it was declared. 

Some sources claim there are more Kosovar Albanians living in Turkey than in Kosovo itself. On a visit to Kosovo in 2013, Erdoğan said, “We all belong to a common history, common culture, common civilization; we are the people who are brethren of that structure. Do not forget, Turkey is Kosovo, Kosovo is Turkey!” 

Prishtina has a warm relationship with Erdoğan’s government. Kosovo banned a Kurdish music event—drawing praise from Turkish state-run media which said the event would have spread propaganda for Kurdish groups Ankara considers terrorist. In early May, Turkey delivered Bayraktar TB2 drones to Kosovo. 

Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama endorsed Erdoğan ahead of Turkey’s presidential elections in May, saying, “To Albania and Albanians, President Erdoğan is a good friend on some of the hardest days, from the day of Kosovo’s independence, with Turkey being the first to recognise it, to the earthquake tragedy in Albania, with Turkey supporting hundreds of affected families by building new homes, or the help in getting vaccines against the deadly virus, when others were too busy with their own problems.” 

But Rama was not the only Balkan leader to endorse Erdoğan’s re-election. Milorad Dodik, the Serb nationalist president of Republika Srpska, also announced his support. The Turkish government has been a staunch supporter of Bosniak Muslims, and Erdoğan was the best man at the wedding of the daughter of Bakir Izetbegovic, leader of the Bosniak Democratic Action Party. 

Erdoğan’s government has also mended relations with Serbia. Turkey sees Serbia as an important country for stability in the region, and despite recognising Kosovan independence, Erdoğan has managed to form close ties with Belgrade.  

On a 2017 visit to the Serbian capital, local crowds cheered Erdoğan and the Serbian foreign minister Ivica Dačić—a Serb nationalist—sang Turkish folk music to Erdoğan. In a phone call with Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić on July 6, Erdoğan said Serbian-Turkish relations were at their highest point in history—a statement he also made in 2019

The Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA) is active throughout the Balkans and provides tens of millions of euros annually to restore Ottoman-era structures. It has worked on over 80 Ottoman-era mosques, madrasas, clock towers, Turkish baths, and bridges in the Balkans including Tirana’s iconic Ethem Bey Mosque, Prizren’s Sinan Pasha Mosque, and Ottoman structures inside the Belgrade Fortress. 

Humanitarian and strategic interests 

While Turkey is a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), it has maintained relatively amicable relations with Russia that have enabled it able to play a mediating role between Ukraine and Russia (such as the UN-sponsored grain deal, which nevertheless collapsed on July 17 after Russia pulled out).  

It is this perception of neutrality that has given it credibility with Bosnian Serb and Serbian leaders who are otherwise wary of NATO’s actions in the region—especially in Kosovo.  

Amid heightened tensions in north Kosovo that peaked in late 2022 and again in June of this year, Erdoğan has sought to again play the role of a mediator. He has frequently spoken with both Kosovan Prime Minister Albin Kurti and Vučić since the crisis began to facilitate dialogue. After clashes between Kosovar Serbs and the NATO-led peacekeeping force in Kosovo (KFOR), Turkey sent a battalion of reinforcements to KFOR in June and is set to assume command of KFOR this autumn. 

While Erdoğan’s government initially objected to letting Finland and Sweden into NATO, it has supported NATO expansion in the Western Balkans. Ankara sees NATO and European Union accession to be stabilising forces for the region, and unlike in the Middle East—where Turkey frequently clashes with the interests of other NATO countries—its interests in the Balkans align with Brussels.  

The EU is still a considerably larger donor than Turkey in the Western Balkans, but Turkish foreign direct investment (FDI) in the region remains a substantial driver of economic development. The Balkan peninsula is the literal gateway to Europe for trade from Anatolia and its stability remains of great importance to Turkey for reasons both humanitarian and strategic. 

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