Erdogan visits Bosnia as part of bigger game

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) with President of the Democratic Action Party (SDA) Bakir Izetbegovic (R) in Sarajevo on 09 July 2019. [EPA-EFE/FEHIM DEMIR]

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan visited Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH) this week. The primary aim was to attend a summit, but analysts said it was also an effort to boost his hunt for members of the Gülen movement and reinforce his influence on Bosnian domestic politics.

Due to its complex post-war setup and continuing ethnic tensions between its Croats,  Muslims and Serbs, BiH has been barely functional and slow in implementing reforms. It is also vulnerable to foreign influences, including Turkey and Russia and is at the bottom of the queue of Western Balkan EU hopefuls.

According to the latest Balkan Barometer published at the beginning of July, only 47 % of Bosnians think that EU membership would be a good thing and 29 % is convinced that BiH will never be an EU member.

Erdoğan attended the South East European Countries Cooperation Process (SEECP) Summit, along with leaders from Western Balkan countries, Bulgaria and Slovenia.

Turkey’s engagement is mostly of a political nature but is backed up by diverse business and cultural activities, often using the Ottoman legacy and Islam as leverage. Erdoğan has close relations with the main Bosnian Muslim party, the SDA and its leader, Bakir Izetbegović.

“He never got the traction that Putin got among Serbs, in my view.  But he has developed a sort of asymmetric, patron-client relationship with Izetbegović and Party of Democratic Action (SDA). Government formation is still ongoing in BiH – his imprimatur will be used by Izetbegović to justify whatever decisions are made in that realm,” Kurt Bassuener, a senior associate of the Democratization Policy Council, told EURACTIV.

According to some experts, Erdoğan’s visit may influence the elections for the SDA leadership that will take place in September.

Along with meeting Bosnia’s tripartite federal presidency, Erdoğan held bilateral talks with Izetbegović, where he assured the Bosnian leader that Turkey will strengthen the relations in investments and economy. Turkey will also support Bosnia on its way to the EU and NATO, Erdoğan said.

“By politically and financially supporting Izetbegović and SDA, Turkey has been indirectly influencing the election process in BiH. In the struggle for a new Bosniak leader, Turkey and Erdoğan could play an important role in the race, which would ultimately further increase Turkish influence among Bosniaks,” said a report by Prague Security Studies Institute (an NGO).

Not all Muslims are Erdoğan’s supporters

The popularity of Erdoğan is reflected in the fact that one year ago, before the Turkish presidential election, he held a rally in Sarajevo before 12,000 people.

Nevertheless, not all Bosnian Muslims approve the pressure Ankara exercises in the region against NGOs and schools which are part of the network of Fethullah Gülen, whom Ankara accuses of organizing a failed coup in 2016. The government defines Gülen’s movement as a “terrorist organisation”.

“Pro-democratic and reform-oriented Balkan people do not have much admiration for a leader who is obviously more authoritative than any other leader in the region. The Turkish diaspora in the Balkans is itself divided in its view of Erdoğan,” Nikolaos Tzifakis, an expert on International Relations and the Balkans, told EURACTIV.

According to Tzifakis, Erdoğan is going to step up his pressure to the SDA and the country’s leadership to extradite Gülenists and close the Gülen-supported institutions.

“So far, Ankara’s pressure has had moderate results. If Turkey’s hunt of Gülen-affiliates fails in Bosnia, it will most probably not succeed elsewhere in the region,” he added.

Bosnians do not see Turkey as a substitute for the European Union, and Erdoğan’s aggressive rhetoric against Europe and Islamic agenda have raised concerns among some European politicians.

At the summit, he commented on the EU’s decision to postpone the opening of accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia, mainly due to opposition from France and the Netherlands.

“I see that EU enlargement policy has been blocked by short-sighted populist circles, the negative dividing lines and disparities that spread across this continent have recently been not only a threat to the inner peace of Europe but also a danger for the future that the region hopes for many,” he said.

Erdoğan also remarked that Turkey contributed a lot to the security measures connected to migration and did not receive support and cooperation from Europe he expected.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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