Turkey Returns to the Balkans at EU’s Expense

Nikola Mikovic

Image courtesy of John Thys / AFP

Last week, European leaders described their decision to award membership candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova as a “historic moment” for the bloc. Left unsaid was how long it could take for the final “moment” to arrive.

Other EU candidate states have languished years – even decades – in the EU’s “eternal waiting room.” Not only has this raised doubts about the EU’s attractiveness to countries in Eastern Europe, it has opened the door for other regional power brokers to emerge.

Consider Turkey’s role in the Western Balkans.

Although the Western Balkans remains firmly rooted in the geopolitical orbit of Brussels and Washington, Ankara is moving swiftly to strengthen its economic and political presence in countries like Serbia, North Macedonia, Albania, and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Once linked by the Ottoman Empire, Turkey and the Balkans share a common history. But they are also members of an ignominious club, countries that have been granted candidate status by the EU but have waited patiently – in Turkey’s case, since 1999 – in vain.

Today, EU membership for Ankara and its Balkan allies feels like a lost ambition. Three Balkan states – Serbia, North Macedonia, and Albania – have started their own integration process into the Open Balkan initiative, which many regional leaders see as a substitute for EU membership.

Turkey, for its part, is pursuing a multi-vector foreign policy, and the Balkans play an important role in that strategy. Ankara has already signed free trade agreements with every Western Balkan state, and as a result of such deals, is steadily increasing its economic heft.

For instance, bilateral trade between Turkey and Serbia – the largest economy in the Western Balkans – was about $2 billion in 2021; it is expected to more than double, to $5 billion, by the end of this year. Over the last decade, Turkish investments in Serbia also increased by orders of magnitude, from $1 million to $300 million today.

Such cooperation is only expected to grow. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is planning to visit Serbia soon, while his foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, was recently in the region for meetings with leaders in Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia, and Croatia (the newest EU member state, which joined in 2013 after nine years as a candidate).

Cavusoglu also visited Kosovo, Serbia’s breakaway province that declared independence in 2008, and is recognized as an independent country by Turkey, most EU members, and most Balkan states – although not by Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Despite differences regarding the status of Kosovo, however, it’s full steam ahead for the trilateral partnership. Ankara intends to hold a Turkey-Bosnia Herzegovina-Serbia summit soon, while local leaders have lauded Turkey’s diplomacy. Milorad Dodik, the Serb member of the Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina, recently called Erdogan a “great statesman” who understands the situation in the Balkan country.

Although Ankara aims to portray itself as a patron saint of Balkan Muslims, especially in Bosnia, in truth, Turkey is paying more attention to economic cooperation. In Serbia, Ankara has opened factories and invested in business, while in Bosnia, it is focused on the restoration of mosques and on deepening cultural ties with the Bosniaks – one of three native ethnic groups.

These overtures are being reciprocated. In Serbia, Turkish citizens can use their biometric identification card to travel rather than their passport. In 2019, Serbia even granted Turkish police the ability to operate on its soil. While Turkish police officers in Serbia are not armed and do not have the same powers as at home, some human rights organizations fear that Serbia will be pressured to extradite critics of Erdogan, including Kurdish activists, to Ankara.

Such concerns are not without merit. In December 2017, two years before Serbia and Turkey signed a memorandum of understanding on joint police patrols, Belgrade extradited to Turkey Kurdish politician Cevdet Ayaz. Serbian authorities are now being asked to extradite Ecevit Piroglu, another Kurdish activist, to Turkey, where he is wanted for alleged links to terrorism.

Serbia is not the only Balkan country Turkey is courting; other regional states are also receiving Ankara’s attention. Recent media investments are a case in point. This month, Turkish public broadcaster TRT launched a Balkan service designed to deliver “Turkey’s voice” to the region. In addition to Serbia and Bosnia, the news platform will deliver political, social, cultural, and economic content to Croatia, North Macedonia, Albania, Kosovo, and Montenegro.

Such a blatant expansion of influence will likely trouble EU members. In 2018, French President Emmanuel Macron said he opposed a “Balkans that turns toward Turkey or Russia.” While his comments were less aimed at the Balkans’ capabilities than the EU’s internal challenges, the fact remains that Turkey’s expansion will not sit well in many EU capitals, and European powers are unlikely to allow Turkey to jeopardize their interests in the region. Thus, the Balkans will remain Turkey’s gateway to Europe, but Ankara will not become the biggest economic actor in the region anytime soon.

Nevertheless, the slow pace of EU expansion has opened a door for Turkey. Increasingly weary of what appears to be a never-ending path to Europe, regional countries are looking for alternatives to spending eternity in the EU’s waiting room. For small Balkan countries with big ambitions, closer ties with Turkey may be more attractive than political purgatory.

Nikola Mikovic is a political analyst in Serbia. His work focuses mostly on the foreign policies of Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine, with special attention on energy and “pipeline politics.”