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Since the founding of imperial city at the mouth of the Bospherous, whichever power occupied it has also tended to dominate the Balkans. In this respect, the last century or so has been historically anomalous because of Turkey’s lengthy non-attendance on the Balkan stage. But are there circumstances in which Turkey is drawn back to the Balkans? And if so, what would the impact be on a fragile and divided region?

The absence of Turkey from its traditional Balkan hinterland is simply explained: for much of the last century, the country has been weak while others have been strong.

Its retreat began in the 1900s when the Ottoman Empire went into terminal decline, allowing others to fill the space it vacated. From the east, Russia established a sphere of influence in the Balkans after sponsoring the independence of the Serbs and Bulgarians. And from central Europe, Austria directly annexed Bosnia and Herzegovina.

With the collapse of the European imperial system in the early twentieth century, Russia and Austria retreated from the Balkans, leaving a temporary power vacuum. However, the newly-founded state of Turkey was too weak, unstable and introverted to take advantage of this situation and re-assert any influence over the region.  

Then, in the post-war period, the politics of the Cold War meant that Turkey did not get a look in. Instead, the two superpowers imposed themselves on what became a strategic frontline. Romania and Bulgaria were absorbed into the Soviet sphere, Greece fell under the influence of the West, Albania retreated into isolation and the United States and the Soviet Union maintained Yugoslavia as a neutral buffer to separate their respective spheres of influence.

A new opportunity for Turkey to assert its influence arose at the start of the 1990s when the two superpowers lost interest in the Balkans, creating a new power vacuum in the region. However, this opportunity was to be short-lived. As the region descended into internecine warfare, a powerful West – in the form of the US and the Europeans - imposed itself on the Balkans, locking the region into a process of Euro-Atlantic integration. Although Turkey developed a more visible diplomatic and economic presence in the Balkans through the 1990s and 2000s, it could not realistically challenge the West’s leading role.

Instead, Ankara sub-contracted its Balkan policy to the EU, which it planned one day to join and which, in the meantime, was willing to bear the cost of maintaining stability on Turkey’s land route to Europe. Instead, Turkey applied its generic policy of ‘zero problems’ to the Balkans, seeking good relations with all its various states, regardless of their history or culture, and refusing to take sides in local disputes over borders and territory.

All this stood in contrast to the period which had ended just a century before when Istanbul was the major external power in the Balkans.  

However, things are changing because Turkey has at last gained the strength and confidence to be a regional player, and the West is losing its grip on the Balkans, creating the space, once again, for Turkey to take to the Balkan stage.

The basis of Turkey’s strength is its economy. For much of the twentieth century, the country’s economic potential was stymied by political instability, bad government and geographical isolation. But this has now changed. At home, the government adopted a market-based approach to developing the economy while abroad the collapse of the old Eastern bloc allowed Turkey to integrate economically with Western Europe. Together these have unleashed a surge of growth that has doubled the size of the economy this century and lifted it to fourteenth place in the world, compared to twenty-first place in 1980.

This economic power translates into political power. Turkey is steadily establishing itself as a major overseas investor and trading power, creating a network of states in the Balkans and elsewhere, whose fortunes are bound to those of Turkey. Economic growth is also supporting the development of the Turkish military, whose budget has grown 20% this year alone to USD21.2bn, far bigger than any of Turkey’s immediate neighbours. This allows Turkey to buttress its international political objectives with hard power.

Meanwhile, Turkey’s institutions are becoming more stable. After a long, complicated and violent struggle for control of power through the twentieth century, a single party is now imposing itself on the institutions of state, under a powerful leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has gained a massive power base in the country with his appeal to the aspirational working class.

Furthermore, Erdoğan’s power is strengthening. Following the attempted military coup in July, he has weakened the army’s check on executive power, marginalised his opponents in the Gulenist movement and found a pretext for creating a presidential system of government. Meanwhile, European governments have effectively made clear that Turkey will never join the EU, ending Turkey’s former deference to Brussels. All this gives Erdoğan a firmer hand with which to project Turkish power in the international sphere: in the Balkans, Turkey has demanded, and succeeded, in forcing the locals to clamp down on the activities of suspected Gulenists.

In parallel with the rise of Turkey, the influence of the West in the Balkans is steadily declining. The process began last decade with the decision by the United States to downgrade its military and political commitment to the region and switch its priorities to other parts of the world. In its place, the European Union assumed the leading external role, promising the region democracy, prosperity and peace as an integrated part of the EU in return for compliance with its demands.

But now the EU is struggling to impose its authority on the region as it grapples with a set of apparently unresolvable political crises that threaten its very survival.

The evidence for this is manifold. In the eastern Balkans, Brussels’ efforts to promote the democracy, markets and the rule of law are having only minimal impact. Instead, Bulgaria and Romania remain gripped by local oligarchs who subvert the political system to their own ends. Both countries are imposing limits on the operation of the free market in favour of economic protectionism. And Bulgaria is pursuing an entirely independent migration policy.

Meanwhile, in the western Balkans, which languish outside the EU but increasingly lack any hope of joining it, stability is declining. The fading prospect of EU membership, and with it any hope of a normal life, is causing young people to turn on their governments in mass street demonstrations. Worryingly, unhappy minorities in divided states such as Bosnia, Macedonia and Kosovo are also sharpening their demands for some form of separation as the EU’s promise of security wears thin.

The demise of Western influence does not in itself imply a major new role for Turkey. However, one factor is likely to focus Turkey’s mind - the return of strong Russia to the Balkans, especially its Orthodox parts, since the end of the last decade.

Moscow has long seen the Balkans as region of special interest. It is keen to develop the region as transit route for natural gas that bypasses Ukraine. It sees the Balkans as important to Russia’s security, not just as a bulwark against NATO expansion but also as a bargaining chip it can use in its dispute with the West. And the Balkans is a place where Russia can still genuinely affect outcomes, providing assurance of its continued Great Power status. To this end, Russia has successfully created a sphere of influence by sponsoring a local clientele – oligarchs, politicians, political parties, and so on - and championing the locals’ political goals, whether separation for the Bosnian Serbs or Serbian sovereignty over Kosovo.

This constitutes a serious threat to Turkey, whose relationship with Russia has long been conflictual. Today, the two are in dispute over their respective spheres of influence in the Black Sea and the Caucasus, and they stand on opposite sides on the politics of the Middle East. In the Balkans, they are starting to compete for influence in Bulgaria, where Russian influence touches Turkey’s western border, causing one of its political parties to split between its pro-Russian and pro-Turkish factions at the end of last year.

If all this is creating the geopolitical conditions in which Turkey might be drawn back into the Balkans in a more serious way, the question is, will it? Inevitably, the answer takes us into the realm of conjecture in what is a highly fluid political environment involving multiple players, at both the local and international level. However, it is possible to envision a sequence of events that could see Turkey return to the Balkans sometime this decade.

This sequence begins with the destruction of Islamic State, which will probably happen next year or 2018. After two years of division, a crude international coalition is finally forming, involving the US, Russia, Turkey, Iran and various Arab States, which all agree on the need to destroy an organisation that is causing havoc in the Middle East.   

This will have two important consequences. One will be to galvanise Turkey’s re-emergence as a regional power which, by dint of its geography, will bear primary responsibility for stabilising Syria and northern Iraq in the aftermath of Islamic State’s demise. Turkey will inevitably use this opportunity to promote its basic objective in the Middle East - to replace secular dictators like Bashir Al-Assad with moderate Islamists who are open to Turkish influence and investment, while keeping a lid on Kurdish nationalism. In pursuing this goal, Turkey will be backed by the US which, despite recent wobbles, will continue to see Ankara - whose views on Russia, Iran and radical Islam basically accord with Washington’s - as its most reliable ally on the ground.

This will lead to the second consequence, which will be an end to Turkey’s awkward alliance with Russia. At the point when Turkey is trying to engineer regime change in Syria, Russia will insist on maintaining the status quo, as payback for the costs of its intervention and as a bulwark against greater Turkish and American influence in the Middle East. The specific point of contention will be the question of whether the Assad regime gets to survive, building conflict into the fabric of the Russo-Turkish relationship.

Russia will respond to this by trying to put pressure on Turkey wherever it has leverage. The most obvious place is the Kurdish regions: Russia supplied Syrian Kurds with weapons when its relations between with Turkey turned bitter earlier this year, and will do so again, if required. In response, Turkey will apply pressure on Russia wherever it has influence. This will begin with Ukraine, where Turkey has already provided political support to Kiev in its contest with Russia for control of the Donbas and Crimea. In doing so, Turkey will again be backed by the US which is likely to focus its attention back onto Ukraine as the threat from Islamic State declines.

As is so often the case in history, the Balkan peoples will become pawns in this larger drama. At a minimum, Russia, Turkey and the US will want influence in the Balkans to contain the ambitions of their rivals and to uphold their own strategic interests. This is a recipe for tension and declining stability, but not necessarily worse than that.

However, if Turkey and the US put sufficient pressure on Russia in Ukraine and the Middle East, regions which matter a lot to Russia, then Moscow is well placed to use the Balkans in another way – to create a regional crisis that consumes the energies of the US and Turkey and gives Russia a freer hand to act elsewhere. This point of entry for Russia is Bosnia’s Republika Srpska, where the ruling party has threatened to hold a referendum on independence in 2018. All Russia needs to do to create a serious problem for its regional opponents is to back the Bosnian Serbs in their bid for independence.

A breach in the fragile post-Yugoslav settlement could easily spread. If the Bosnian Serbs made a break, then the Bosnian Croats would also abandon Bosnia, supported by Croatia. Kosovo Serbs could break from the majority-Albanian population. So too might the Albanians in Macedonia, who have already revived calls this year for some kind of separate status.

Inevitably, such moves would create backlash from groups like the Bosnian Muslims and Kosovo Albanians who would stand to lose much of the territory of their state if their unhappy minorities attempted to leave. Under intense political pressure, but lacking the power to stop the slide towards disintegration, the majority groups in all these countries would resort to their long-standing tactic of trying to enlist outside powers, above all the US, to fight their cause on their behalf.

This would pose a serious policy problem for Washington, which is committed in principle to upholding political stability in the Balkans but in practice is reluctant to get too deeply involved. Instead, it would prefer to offer political direction and logistical support from afar while delegating the heavy lifting on the ground to the Europeans.

The question is who would do this. The UK, France, Germany and Italy would all be potential candidates but their commitment to stabilising the region is potentially limited, either practically or politically – especially if the crisis in the EU deepens. In this respect, Washington’s gaze will inevitably turn to Turkey, with which the US will be working closely in the Middle East and the Black Sea; and which would have an interest in promoting stability and countering Russian influence on its Western border.

What form this involvement took would depend on the degree of instability: a stronger diplomatic role may suffice. However, if there was a serious deterioration in stability in the Balkans stirred up by Russia, then Turkey may be forced into a more robust intervention, such as taking the leading role in a NATO-led stabilisation force.

The quid pro quo for any such investment of Turkish resources and energy would inevitably be a powerful voice in the politics of the region. Superficially, Turkey would continue the West’s objective of promoting stability but it would inevitably want to do so on its own terms. This would mean promoting anti-Russian constituencies such as Bosniaks and Kosovo Albanians at the expense of pro-Russian ones such as the Serbs. The fact that both these groups are Muslim would provide an emotional underpinning to a hard-headed strategic objective.

Potentially, this might be where matters rest. Having re-asserted its presence in the region, Turkey would be able to consolidate its position by deepening its economic footprint in the region and winning over the support of groups like the Bosnian Serbs.

However, this seriously overestimates Turkey’s capacity to play any kind of leadership role, especially one which is legitimate in the eyes of the locals. Instead, Turkey would be seen by many as an unwelcome threat, and intensify the resolve of the Bosnian Serbs to pursue independence for fear of being subsumed into a centralised state, dominated by their local opponents and now backed by Ankara. In doing so, they would undoubtedly seek help from Russia which would remain committed to its political goal of creating a sphere of influence while creating problems for Turkey and the West.

There is a limit how far to push a line of speculation. But the risk to the Balkans is, literally, its Balkanisation, with all the major outside powers committed to backing their local clients in a mutually-exclusive contest over territory.

As matters stand, Turkey may have no plans to be drawn back into the Balkans in a serious way, with so much else to think about, both at home and abroad. But international politics may force its hand. For better or worse, the Balkans is linked, via Russia and Ukraine, to Syria and the Middle East, where Turkey is deeply committed politically. Unless Turkey is willing to concede Russia an important role in the Balkans, with the power to cause chaos on its land route to Europe, then Turkey may have no choice but to return to the region.

In the process, Turkey would demonstrate the enduring relationship between the city on the Bospherous and its proximate European hinterland. But while its intervention would be intended to maintain stability in the Balkans, it is more likely to end up complicating matters in ways that have the opposite effect. As Turkey adopts the mantle of a regional power with interests and responsibilities that extend beyond its national borders, it must quickly learn to make the best of this new reality.  


This article first appeared in the autumn edition of the Turkish Area Studies Review

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