European fears about Turkish influence in Western Balkans are based on an exaggerated understanding of Turkey’s power and intentions in the region, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, ECFR, Asli Aydintasbas, says in a report.
“Turkey is neither an alternative or even the biggest economic actor in the region. It does not seek to peel the Western Balkans away from the EU. Nor does it see itself as a counterbalance to Russia,” Aydintasbas wrote in the report “From myth to reality: How to understand Turkey’s role in the Western Balkans,” published on March 13.
While Turkey seeks opportunities in the region, it actually wants the Western Balkans inside the EU, and in NATO as well, the report argues.
Turkish foreign policy activities, social, cultural and media projects, as well as economic investments, have all grown rapidly in the region in the last decade.
Turkish exports to the Balkan states have risen rapidly, according to the Turkish Exporters’ Chamber.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has long sought to strengthen ties with former Ottoman-ruled lands in the Balkans, putting Ankara in competition with Russia and the EU in the region.
European leaders have expressed concerns over what they call Turkey’s expanding influence in the Balkans on several occasions.
French President Emmanuel Macron last year urged the European Union to promote its influence in the Western Balkans, warning that otherwise states in the region would turn to Russia or Turkey.
In his report, however, Aydintasbas underlined the importance of separating the reality of Turkey’s power in the Western Balkans from Turkish leaders’ rhetoric, which is intended mainly for domestic consumption.
“Do not mistake a few language classes and some Ottoman-era buildings here and there for an alternative vision for the region. The predominant outlook for the region and in the region is the EU process and there is no alternative to that,” he said.
The report claims the Western Balkans is not a priority for Turkish foreign policy – which focuses more on relations with Europe and developments in the Syrian conflict.
Instead of competing with each other, Aydintasbas argued, Europe and Turkey should develop a closer relationship when it comes to the Western Balkans.